It has been more than once that someone asked me whether I prefer to be called Black or African American. What is distressing is being asked which one is “correct”: Negro, African American or Black. “You're asking me?”
I remember being asked by a woman who came to me, like I was the authority on cultural correctness—or because she felt superior enough to me to confront me as if her confusion was the fault of someone who at least looked like me and that I did not have the power to deliver a scorn that she felt from some source that had criticized her for being “incorrect.” I'm not sure why she cared what was “correct.” I can guess and I am sure there are several reasons why, but I'm not sure which.
When Martin Luther King was killed, we were often called Negros. It was something more essential than pride or self esteem that brought us to call ourselves Black and that created the evolution to the term African American. Pride or not, regardless of the label, the reality is that being characterized as any of these things is a function of being “raced,” that some aspect of culture determined that they would be dominant and would give names to others, assigning them names like they were the Adam (and sometimes the Eve) naming the animals of their little world as far as their myopia could see.
It seems that some of us have taken up the challenge of seeing further—seeing farther. Years ago, Bruce shared one of his frustrations in a conversation. “You know what the problem with my son is?” he said. “He thinks he's white.” He's not, I thought? “He can pass as white if he wants to, just like a lot of us,” Bruce continued, “but me—I'm Irish” (and the millennium of history that goes with it).
If we want to know what term to use, we have to realize that Negro, Black and African American all mean something different. And each term has its important history. If you are an arbitrarily supremacist, anthropological categorist, Negro probably works. If you heed someone who says, “Well, they like to be called African American, now, maybe you should listen if you know who “they” is. Black: who's black? The term puzzled me as a preschooler. Whose skin is black? But Black is something that I share with people all over the globe, not just in the Americas or just in the United States, which is what is usually meant by the term African-American.
It is something I share with Desmond Tutu, as surely as I share it with Bob Marley, Barbara Jordan, Barack Obama and everyone else in the Sub-Saharan diaspora. So, what should you call me? Call me Clarence. If you don't know my name and who need to know who I am, meeting me would be a good time to ask. I won't mind. I will try not to criticize, even if you don't want to know my name.