DR. CUMMINGS: The hyphenated-American

August 11, 2013 

I’m a hyphenated-American. Once I hit my 80s, I became a part of the aging-American scene. Yes, I’m an aging American; that’s older than just a senior citizen. The “A” word. But I guess that’s better than the “N” word. (Nobody). And there are some advantages of course; I get a lot of freebies from the government, and I have a whole organization in Washington that lobbies for me, and someday I may even get an Aging-American President. Now wouldn’t that be something?

But I don’t like the hyphen; I really want to be an American just like everybody else. However, what choice do I have? I can’t hide my “aging-ness.” When I walk down the street, I wobble a bit; when I walk up stairs I have to pause to breathe; when I apply for a job, they see my gray hair. I’m a walking-talking-aging-American. What can I do about it?

I remember my father giving me “the talk.” “Son”, he said, “someday you’ll get old, and you’ll just have to sit down on the curb to rest, and a burly cop will come by and arrest you for vagrancy.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “Aging-Americans all look the same; they look like bums.”

When I was in my 40s, I saw an old man struggling to get out of his car at a restaurant. He was wrinkled and gray and unsteady on his feet. He barely made it beyond the car door, but then fell on his face. I remember thinking: “He could be me.” And now he is. An Aging-American.

What can I do about it? I’ll tell you: Drop the hyphen. Come on, we’re all Americans: Black, white, yellow, brown, young and old. We don’t need hyphens. Hyphens separate us; we need to be united. Hyphens emphasize our differences; we need to focus on our sameness. We need to show how we’re in this together to mold a better city and a better world -- all of us together, and we’ll never do it -- as long as the hyphen stands in the way.

The “Aging-American” nomenclature is ridiculous even though 40 million of us -- or 13 percent of the American population -- fit that category. But most people judge us by the “content of our character” and not the color of our hair, and we don’t need the hyphen.

I maintain the African-American hyphen is no longer needed either, and in fact, it’s divisive, even though over half the members of our community cling to it. I realize what I’m saying is not politically correct, and that I will enrage a large number of people who I will never convince no matter what I say. But that’s my whole point. We’re divided, and the hyphen continues to exasperate the division.

When I grew up on the South side of Chicago in the ’30s, our neighborhoods were divided. We had the Italian-Americans, the Jewish-Americans, the Polish-Americans, the Irish-Americans and the Negroes. (They were not yet African-Americans). We never walked alone in another section, even though it was only three blocks away. My family walked two miles to church on Sunday, but we walked two blocks out of our way to avoid the Italian-Americans. We were Irish-Americans. Hyphenated and proud of it. That was 80 years ago. Surely we can drop the hyphen today.

We live in a community with citizens from every country in the world; we are more diverse -- in backgrounds and nationalities -- than the United Nations. Surely, we have advanced beyond that divided community on the South side of Chicago. Surely we can begin to face our political challenges with a unified face -- not a hyphenated race. Or can we?

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service