I'm always tickled when my daughter laughs at The Cosby Show. Not that it's odd that a four-year-old is able to get the humor (it's pretty straightforward, and she has a great comedic sense anyway). I'm tickled because if the Cos' knew my J-Jo, he'd love her. Had she been born in the 80's, Raven Symone would still be handing out demo tapes today. To say my child is precocious would not descibe her accurately enough. To say she's a sparkle-butt would.
We were in J-Jo's room picking up some toys when she started in about something she found funny on a Cosby rerun. Something or other about Rudy getting lost at the mall and Cliff saying she should stay lost. I didn't remember the episode, but she had seen it recently and couldn't stop laughing.
"Bill Cosby is a funny daddy," she chirped.
"Just like your daddy." I handed her a stuffed animal to put away.
"Except Bill Cosby's black."
What?! I thought we'd been through this already. "Um, daddy is black, honey. You know your daddy's black."
"I mean skin mommy, black skin. Not like daddy's. Black!"
"Bill Cosby's skin is brown, sweetheart. So is daddy's, just lighter."
To her credit, the difference between my husband's skin tone and that of Dr. Cosby is comparable to the contrast between Adam Clayton Powell and Kweisi Mfume. But that's part of the beauty of who we are as a people. Our one, unchanging, major similarity despite our many differences in appearance, class, etc . I had no idea how to convey this, but I felt I must at least try. "Both daddy and Bill Cosby are black, honey. They're both African American. And black people who live in our country are called African Americans."
"I know that." She looked about as puzzled as she would have if I had just told her that Santa and the Easter Bunny were actually the same person.
We changed the subject and finished cleaning up, but I still had to wonder if the whole skin color thing seemed completely bizarre to a child. "White" looking people who are black. No black people who are actually white, but isn't the first part confusing enough? I thought we explained it to her pretty well when our fraternal twins were born different shades, eye colors and hair textures, but apparently it still perplexes (more on the twins in an upcoming post). But bigger than the skin-color stuff, I was mostly hung up on question of terminology. "Black" vs. "African American" seemed to be the part of the conversation that gave J-Jo the most confusion.
Why and whether or not we should still be called "Black" vs. "African American" is a subject that is bound to enter popular debate in the near future. Especially with the great brown hope Barack Obama rapidly coming to the forefront of American politics. He's an example of an "African American" who genetically is very different from the textbook definition of African American. A man with a white, mid-western mother and a Kenyan father. Genetically, most African Americans are only similar to him by the fact that we all have a little euro blood as well (shhh...don't tell nobody). The majority of our folks hailed from West Africa, not Kenya. But is Obama black? Yes. His wife Michelle is a testament to that. And just recently, African Americans in Queens, New York were identified as outgrossing whites in yearly income for the first time in history. But upon closer inspection, the majority of the big earners off the F line were actually West Indian and some of them were truly adamant about not wanting to be considered African Americans. But are they black? Negro, please.
Maybe I'm just becoming an old head by not wanting to change with the times. But I want my kids to have a world view and identify as b-l-a-c-k people. I want them to be proud to be called black in addition to being called African American because it is a term inclusive of not only those of us in America, but throughout the diaspora as well. To feel a connectedness with Black Americans, Black Brits, Black Cubans, Black South Africans and beyond. Personally, the term evokes a sense of pride, on a global level. A pride reminiscent of a time we weren't afraid to "Say it loud!"
How to explain this on a pre-K level I have yet to figure out. So I'm curious – how do you define yourselves at home? Black or African American? How do you expect and (if applicable) teach your children to identify themselves and define others as people of African descent?