Labels: Necessary or a Nuisance?

When it comes to the human race, we have a tendency to create hierarchies amongst ourselves to get further ahead in society, so to speak. The etymology of the word label comes from Old French meaning “narrow band or strip of cloth,” or “lapp” in Germanic.” In our class discussion last week Monday, we talked about the difference between an author and a writer, then we went over Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) which made we question, “what is the significance of labels, other than differentiating one thing from another?” I am well aware that I might not receive a concrete answer to this question, but at least I can put it out there for others to contemplate as well.

Side note: I will be discussing race and ethnicity with examples from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). Even though I won’t be going that much into detail, I would like to forewarn what can be expected in this blog.

First, let me briefly unpack the ‘author versus writer’ discussion we had in class. What we concluded was that an author tells original stories with the hopes of being rewarded with monetary incentives and literary recognition, while writers simply provide information on a topic that most likely already exists. For example, I’d consider myself to be a writer because I am providing my thoughts on a platform with no intention of receiving money for my work. I wouldn’t consider myself to be that involved in the world of literature because I’m not seeking acceptance by a publisher nor am I focusing on the “[capitalist] private property ethos” that’s prominent in our Western culture. However, this explanation is subjective because some people who are authors might not want to be referred to as such and the same goes for writers who might think more or less of their placement within the academia.

After we agreed to disagree on what these terms mean to us, we went on to analyze sections of Jefferson’s book. The parts that jumped out to me was the way our third president categorized humans during the infancy of our nation. Not going too much into detail out of respect for people from different races and ethnicities, Jefferson divided Europeans, Native Americans, and black people into groups based off of most to least favorable physical, artistic, and literary qualities, respectively. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t his blatant racism that jumped out at me; it was the way he labeled people that still resonate in our society today. If it wasn’t for Jefferson describing his views on race, who’s to say that we wouldn’t be doing the same thing on government forms and other forms alike? I do believe that it’s important to have a sense of heritage, yet it can also be detrimental separating ourselves when we’re supposed to co-exist as human beings.

I would like to note that, personally, I choose to say ‘black’ when referring to African Americans, even if it might not be politically correct or comfortable to some. Some people, especially within the black community, might argue over using black to describe our race. They believe that it is a color and not something that we should identify with since it distances us from our African ancestors. I do agree that there are things in society that have weakened our connection to our past culture; however, I view saying black somewhat as a way to reclaim the word. Also for some of us, myself included, we may identify more with saying Carribean American because we can actually trace our roots back stronger in the islands than to Africa. In my opinion, saying black is versatile and includes everyone who identifies with our community and not just direct descendants of Africa because, in all honesty, it wasn’t a direct route when we were given this label either.

As our discussion went on, Professor McCoy explained how she doesn’t use the word ‘slave,’ but says ‘enslaved person(s)’ instead to recognize that the individual is just that, a person and not property. When I heard her explanation of this, I had more respect for how we choose to self-label. I took a step back and considered how one thing to someone could have a different meaning to someone else and how it’s important to acknowledge where the other person is coming from. So even though I say black when referring to myself and others around me, I also need to be respectful of those who choose to say African-American because they have the right of passage to choose how they identify. A label does eventually overlap itself after all.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.