Sunday, October 09, 2005

Life on the Hyphen (part 1)

As you can see from my profile, I describe myself as "on the hyphen between African and American." Let's do a quick survey... Are you an American or a hyphenated-American? Why?


Blogger jazztheo said...

(a note for lightskinned negro--come correct on this one or don't come at all!)

6:10 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:11 PM  
Blogger voixdange said...

Neither, I'm a disciple which btw is not synonimous with being a church member or a patriot...

7:35 PM  
Blogger questioningchick said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:58 PM  
Blogger SWK 254 Understanding Diversity said...

definetely hyphenated,

bicultural, two realities everyday.

8:15 PM  
Blogger gbe said...

This is a challenge for me. I work at a Liberian restaurant where I am constantly belittled for not being African.

"Are you African?"
::I stretch my hands out before me, pretending to inspect them::
"Hmm...I got a little African in me"

I am an American by birth, but African by heritage, no matter how many generations ago.

Working there has caused me to want to inspect my heritage further. Before I started this job, people thought I was from "somewhere" but I laughed and said "Naw, my Mama is from VA and my Daddy is from Baltimore."

But now I want to know...where's my great grandmother from? My great grandfather?

I'm Black. I use African-American in my research. Never American. But I want to know my heritage so I can rock a flag and learn the traditions of my blood...

BTW, I dedicated a post to responding to your comment.

8:26 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


You've told me your a Celt, what role does that play in your identity?

9:47 PM  
Anonymous lightskinned negro said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

I think the hyphen assumes the second word has a consistent meaning, and is somehow modified by the first word. I don't think American has a consistent meaning - at least one that very many people wouldn't modify to express who they are.

To me the real question is how many hyphens will you demand to express yourself? Is African-American definition enough? What does that mean? Does it mean you're a democrat who loves gold chains, basketball, slouching when driving, and violent treatment of self and others? Does it mean you're living a life of statement, either quietly or boldly defining yourself by the oppressor who hasn't checked lately to see if you're still camped out in front of his house making your statement? Does it mean you're Christian (and if so, which flavor), some part of the NoI stew du jour, part of the hip-hop numerology sect, or do you worship before the god of Scarface? Does it mean you're a dog (men), or a "strong black woman" who somewhere along the line decided it was stronger to go it alone than risk life with a man?

From there a person has to address gender, location, vocation, interests and the rest. Each label and each hyphen is a layer of shell, a layer of comfort of course because it offers definition from a source secondary to a dynamic connection to God, but each layer also comes with a set of prescriptive mandates about how you must behave and what you must do and love. In this sense there could be nothing more classical and less jazz than the is not a listening, but a chanting.

I think we all use hyphens because they are useful as a shorthand for humanity (we'd much rather relate to each other as representatives of types than as harder-to-calculate individuals), but they are an inherently weakening device. They are bounds from which to emerge, and they drop away in our moments of convergence...even if we return to them again as we leave the jazz club and find ourselves tossed back into lives of cold segmentation.

5:31 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

So Pete,

What was your answer? How do you describe yourself? American?


5:55 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

I'm American and have always considered myself one without modification. I'm also Caucasian, but I generally don't think about that part of me. Not because it's not part of my identity, but it just isn't an issue.

However, more and more, I find myself identifying with disciple of Jesus more than American, and in fact I'm finding some aspects of American society inconsistent with the call of Christ.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

How do I describe myself?

In large part I make an effort to BE myself, and to answer questions when labels from others fail. I recognize that everything we do and say and buy and wear and listen to and read serves to tell ourselves and others something about who we are, but I don't feel as though I describe myself much - my experience has been that ever description I've tried on has become a betraying idol at some point. So from health or dysfunction, I feel as though I make a point of limping through my world without using labels to help me much.

How do I describe myself?

I use my real name (unless I'm pretending to be LSN's mother). I express where I'm at. I lament the frustration that other people experience trying to get to know me, especially when the pigeonholes don't quite fit me. I nod when I agree. I question when I don't understand. I throw thoughts into the world and ask, "How does this evidence about life compare to what you've experienced?"

To the options you mention...

I would not choose "American" as much of an identifier. It certainly expresses where I was born, and where I've spent my life soaking, but there isn't a whole lot about the ways Americans are different from other nationalities I'd advocate for.

My family is German, and I see places where the German approach to life is active with me. If a person wants to know something about me, that's a bit of information that can give them some toe- and finger-holds. In that sense I'm hyphenated, but I'm hardly consistent.

I think there's a fine line between terms that DEscribe and terms that PREscribe...and the more aggressively we hold to our labels, the greater our sense of duty to live to our labels' prescriptions.

I'm not trying to be coy here, JT. I just don't feel a need to work with the hyphens. Does that prove that I'm American - part of the great whiteness of a conformed generic?

If so, this place is far less warm and meaningful than you may assume. My life's experience has been themed with loneliness and the feeling of unwanted prophet with nothing much to say anyway. Just unwanted and alone because I've not felt right accepting what's been offered me.

Does that leave me American, classical, jazz, indolent, postmodern, emergent, convergent, white, light-skinned, or something else? Would one of those be more helpful for you than another? You've known me for 10 years - what would it help to call me at this point?

7:13 AM  
Blogger voixdange said...

What role does being a Celt play in my identity? Well, I think perhaps the historical fact that Celts are all too familiar with oppression... both the Scots and the Irish, but they rarely if ever gave up without a fight. Heck, they are still fighting! I know that most people are under the impression that the conflict in Northern Ireland is over religion, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a remnant of British colonization. Also I love the story of Boaddica, which if you know me is ironic because I am a pacifist... the Celts also knew oppression under the Romans as well. Also equality for women was a given among the Celts. The Celts fought right along side the men and were known as fierce warriors. They were particularly hated by the Romans who would do hideously barbaric things to them if the were captured.

10:41 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


If you had to choose between "American" or "hyphenated-American,"...which would you choose?

10:52 AM  
Blogger :: jane :: said...

i haven't felt "hyphenated" because i don't have a grasp on my heritage. i know my ancestors were german, irish, french, and native american. but i don't hyphenate any of those in terms of my identity because i feel so far away from all of them. they don't seem to define me. i have envied people who are part of a "culture" because that sense of belonging, that playing a part in a larger whole seems so appealing. i think it would be cool to live in a big city with a cultural "district" where you knew you were one of many of a certain group. but out here in denver, i'm just a white girl. a white american girl.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

if you haven't followed the link to Jane's blog - do. she's a brilliant writer with a beautiful voice. I'd have said so at her blog, but she doesn't take comments.

2:12 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

yeah, that digital jane has a way of making statements and not accepting feedback...She'd make a great preacher!

2:30 PM  
Blogger voixdange said...

Right now the term American doesn't leave a very good taste in my mouth, so I would guess hyphenated... Although you know that the Celts originally came from Egypt... so perhaps that hyphen I would choose wouldn't be the one you had in mind! Ha!

4:11 PM  
Blogger :: jane :: said...

thank you, pete. point taken, jt. i'm now open for comment. :-)

angevoix - are you saying that since africa is the cradle of civilization that if you go back far enough, we all have some heritage there? maybe some of our ancestors just left sooner than others...

4:29 PM  
Blogger voixdange said...

Yup -- we are all African-Americans... Just think what a different view of things we might hold if we all thought of ourselves that way...How would it change our society? Would it change our society at all? Even within the community I live in it seems that so many of my children are wrestling with identity issues. Some of my light skinned children think they are white and are called White by the other students, there are constant battles over hair... it seems endless. So I wonder if it would change things, or just cause the human community to find yet other ways to disparage and divide one another... One of the most surprising things I have ever read was an account of a concentration camp by a holocaust survivor. she stated that even within the camp there were deep divisions among the Hungarian prisoners and the Polish prisoners. i found it remarkable that even under those circumstances such prejudice could still flourish.

But just a disclaimer... even though I stated the above, I would not lay claim to the title African-American because I wouldn't feel right laying claim to the heritage of slavery and suffering that they have endured in this nation.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the middle east is part of asia, not africa.

6:04 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

you lost me anonymous, what are you referring to? Egypt? last time I checked that was on the dark continent...

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tigres and euphrates.

8:58 PM  
Blogger voixdange said...

Very interesting. I meant also, but forgot to state in my last comment that I have heard it said that you can tell a lot about a person's views on race by whether they relegate Egypt to Africa or the Middle East.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I’m Black.
I struggle with being called African – American because while some say its intention is to acknowledge our roots in Africa, it seems so politically correct. It rubs me the wrong way at times, almost as if someone American decided to coin that phrase to say, “Hey, I guess it’s ok to say you are a part of this country.” I wonder if in the hub-bub of deciding what to call one another, if we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture with regard to how we should treat one another, love and respect each other.

10:24 AM  

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