“What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants?” That’s the title of a recent article that Peter Feinman wrote in The Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, which I receive regularly.
After an annoying, all-caps defense of his use of “HISTORICALLY ACCURATE TERMINOLOGY WHICH MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO READERS…” he discusses the historic use of the word Negro. This is not the first time he has tackled the subject.
He quotes Marc Lacey, the National Editor of The New York Times. “Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American, or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic, or a minority.”
Feinman’s primary point is clear. “The constantly changing name for Middle Passage people poses a dilemma for historians and museums… Do you use the historically accurate name from the time period of the people you are discussing – meaning the name they used themselves for self-identification – or do you use the name from the present and impose it on the past?”
With a capital N
Booker T. Washington called the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK “the Negro Wall Street of America.”
In “What Thurgood Marshall Taught Me” by Stephen L. Carter, Yale School of Law (NYT 7/2021), he notes the first black SCOTUS justice “would answer that he’d spent his life fighting for the capital N in ‘Negro’ and wasn’t going to let a ‘bunch of kids’… tell him what he should call himself. Today we scarcely recall the titanic struggle over [the] capitalizing [of] ‘Negro.'” I had read about this, and it was indeed a BFD at the time.
Feinman quotes John McWhorter at length. “Yes, the word [Negro] should not be used to refer to Middle Passage descendants today, that would be ‘tacky.’ However, it is a historically-valid name that is not a slur.”
I was watching the PBS/Ken Burns series about Muhammad Ali. The boxer in fact did use the word Negro as an insult towards Floyd Patterson and other black boxing opponents that marketed themselves as the “real Americans”, presumably Christan. They would take down Cassius Clay, using a name the champ, who had joined the Nation of Islam, had by then rejected.
McWhorter wonders “What purpose does it serve to generate this new lexical grievance?… Does Black America … need yet another word to take umbrage at and police the usage of? Do we, in Black America, need fellow travelers — sorry, allies — to join us in this new quest, eager to assist in the surveillance out of some misguided sense that this is ‘doing the work’?”
Yes, we don’t need to change the names of the United Negro College Fund or Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Of course, we ought not to change the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from “Negro” to whatever term is more “current.”
My take on present usage
When I was growing up, one of my siblings used to nag my maternal grandmother every time she’d talk about “colored people.” “What color ARE they, grandma?” “Black.”
I grew up with the term “Negro” which got stretched to silly comments about how my knee grows to more, er, problematic uses. So I was cool with black, even though, FOR YEARS, people would, unsolicited, say that I wasn’t really BLACK, but more a BROWN, and white people were more a shade of PINK… Please stop.
I remember being corrected over a sociology paper in college that I should use Black rather than black, the logic being that it’s replacing Negro. OK, if I’m using White, I’ll use Black. But if I’m writing white, I’m also writing black.
I know that African-American resonates with a lot of people. When I worked the 1990 Census as an enumerator, one choice was “Negro or black.” More than one respondent replied, almost defiantly, “African-American!” That’s fine. But the word, as well as the briefly popular Afro-American, never resonated with me. Over the last half-century, it’s been even more problematic.
1. It is a very narrow term. We’re talking about black people from sub-Saharan Africa who are Americans. So it doesn’t mean Charlize Theron, who is a white South African actress and a naturalized American citizen. Or the black terrorist during the Charlie Hebo incident, described initially by CNN as an African-American, when he was Afro-French. Or a number of black people in the US who aren’t Americans at all.
2. It has too many syllables, 7 (or 5) versus 1. Black History Month flows a lot easier than African-American…
That said, I prefer it to the newish, labored term BIPOC. In addition to sounding ugly, it works so hard to distinguish the Black experience of Middle Passage Descendants from the Indigenous experience of being pushed off their land, from People Of Color, who are Hispanics or East Asians or South Asians et al., as though THEIR experiences are all the same. Meh.