Who, exactly, is the country celebrating as the monthlong celebration of black American history and culture kicks off today?
As South Carolina and the nation hurtle deeper into the 21st century, the question of who is black and what it means to be black never has been more complicated.
Just ask U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a Democrat from Nevada.
Reid found himself in hot water recently when it was revealed that he had lauded candidate Barack Obama's presidential prospects because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
So is the biracial Obama black?
How about multiracial Tiger Woods?
Black Americans themselves - or at least those thought to be black by some in this country - are of different minds when it comes to who is black and who is not, a reality underscored by the choices and allegiances of some of the nation's most well-known people.
There is Woods, lauded by many for shattering barriers as a black professional golfer, dominating a sport that was, prior to his emergence, almost entirely white.
But Woods, whose father was black and whose mother is of Asian ancestry, told talk show host Oprah Winfrey in 1997 that he called himself "Cablinasian" to sum up the various racial groups that are part of his heritage. And it has not escaped the notice of black Americans that Woods' wife, Elin, and the dozen or so women with whom he is rumored to have had extramarital affairs are all white.
Terrence Moore, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist who now writes for AOL Fanhouse, wrote in December that Woods, unlike other troubled black athletes, would not have the support of black Americans as he weathered his sex scandal.
Because he "took a 9-iron to the face of blacks" by telling Winfrey he was not black.
Meanwhile, President Obama enjoys near universal support from black Americans, proud that one of their own has claimed the White House.
Yet Obama is biracial. And some white Americans have argued the hoopla over the first black president is misplaced because Obama's mother was white, making him as much a part of that race as he is of any other race.
Daniel Littlefield, director of the University of South Carolina's Institute for African American Research, said that viewpoint is, in some ways, a mark of progress.
"That's a new attitude, and it's not a consistent attitude," he said. "Part of what that says is, 'I can identify with this person because he is as white as he is black.'"
The president, whose father was black, repeatedly has referred to himself as black or African-American.
Responding to those who argue some of the criticism he faces is rooted in racism, Obama joked with CBS comedian David Letterman: "It's important to realize that I was actually black before the election."
Letterman then asked: "How long have you been a black man?"
The president and Letterman's audience laughed.
'EMPHASIS ON SKIN COLOR IS NOT ... GOOD'
But the question of who is black and what it means to be black is not often a laughing matter.
Sen. Reid's comments, published in a political book, touched on a pair of searing topics: the importance of skin tone and use of the word "Negro."
Littlefield said black Americans with lighter skin long have been thought to be better positioned for success.
Those thoughts, shared by some black Americans, have some basis in the harsh realities of this country's slave-owning past.
White slave owners, Littlefield said, sometimes freed children they fathered with enslaved black women.
Those freed, biracial offspring often had far better prospects in life than darker black Americans. Their expanded opportunities in education, employment and property rights led many, including some blacks, to view having lighter skin as akin to being more intelligent or more attractive.
That viewpoint forcefully was countered during the civil rights movement, as James Brown exhorted audiences to "Say it loud: I'm black, and I'm proud!"
In many circles then, darker skin made one more authentically black.
Black Americans take a more nuanced view today, Littlefield said.
"We haven't gotten over racism or an emphasis on color in the African-American community," he said. "But we have gotten to a point where an emphasis on skin color is not a good thing."
Instead, there is an emphasis on what black Americans call themselves - or, more to the point, on what they don't want to be called.
Reid found out that many black Americans no longer have much use for the term "Negro."
The U.S. Census Bureau, which will use the term in its 2010 form, has heard that message, too.
But the bureau's experience highlights the complications of racial identity.
Terry Plumb, a media specialist for the Census Bureau, said 56,175 people wrote in "Negro" to describe their race as they completed the 2000 form.
That, Plumb said, led to the term's inclusion in this year's form, along with the more widely accepted terms "black" and "African-American."
"For African-Americans of a certain age, the term 'Negro' does not have the same negative connotations that it does for their children or their grandchildren," Plumb said.
The term might not be used in future counts, he said.
"The census form is not set in stone," he said. "And people's terminology changes."
A recent survey in Columbia by Metromark Research found that just under 64 percent of the minorities polled identified themselves as "black" as opposed to "African American."
Emerson Smith, a sociologist and market researcher who is president of Metromark, noted the term "black" is a broader term and has been around longer than "African American."
For Lee Daniels, director of communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, all the terms black Americans have used to describe themselves have merit.
"Blacks know from their own long experience that you must control the names by which you as an individual or your people are called if you are to have any control over your right to exist," Daniels wrote in an opinion piece earlier this year.
Even as the country gets set to celebrate another Black History Month, sociologist Smith said some whites would be surprised to learn that black history is their history, too.
Smith said genetic tests of ancestry have shown that there is no racial purity - for blacks or for whites.
"The not-so-funny thing is everybody's mixed," Smith said. "You have many whites with black heritage and many blacks with white heritage."
That fact has led some to conclude that racial identity is a divisive waste of time.
Others say racial identity remains important.
Smith said that in France, where national counts do not include information about race, problems associated with race remain significant.
Several years ago, the country was rocked by riots, as blacks in France - many immigrants - complained of limited opportunities in housing and employment.
Without specific data on race, Smith said, the country could not quickly sift through what was anecdotal and what might be systemic problems tied to race.
On its Web site, the Census Bureau defends its quest for data on race, noting it is important to monitor compliance with federal laws.
"Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services," the bureau's Web site states.
Plumb said there is something else just as compelling that drives people to state their claim on race.
"People are very proud of their heritage," he said. "They want to say, 'Hey, I am this.'"