Friday, March 19, 2010

Negar-Nigger-Niggra-Colored-Negro-Black-African American-Negro?: The 2010 U.S. Census and the Evolution of an Appellation

So the big day finally arrived! For some reason, my children have been anticipating the arrival of the 2010 census form like Christmas. They found out that the census is only taken every ten years, and their schools and television commercials have been hyping it up so much that they saw it as a big cultural and societal event.

So, my wife filled out our part, person one and person two. She put herself first on the form, but it’s all good. Then she passed the form to my son so he could fill in the information for person three. And it went well until he got to the choices for race.

He read off the choices: “African American, Black, Negro. Negro? Wait a minute. Which block do I check?”

I informed him that he should just check that box and move on so his sister could fill out her section, but he refused to move on. Indignantly he said, “I’m African American. I’ll accept Black. But I’m not a Negro. If I check this box, I’m agreeing that I am indeed a Negro.”

Now, I’ve been looking on from the periphery at the whole controversy about “Negro” being included on the census. I haven’t paid very much attention to it, though, because it didn’t seem that much of a big deal. Keep in mind, two weeks or so ago I was called a nigger by a student, so Negro pales in comparison.

But can someone tell me what’s so wrong about the term Negro? And I am aware of the negative connotations surrounding the word; however, that does not mean I understand even after my son explained to me that when he hears the word, his mind automatically conjures up images of a servile, obsequious figure, debasing themselves so that they might receive favor. He says this is not what he seeks to be, and this is not what I’ve taught him up, so he does not understand why I do not understand why he objects so strongly to the word.

But at one time, even within my lifetime, Negro was the acceptable term used for African Americans. Is it generational?

I wonder what those “twenty or something odd Negars” dropped off by the Dutch slaver at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, and who were counted as part of the census the following year, thought of being referred to as Negars?

Perhaps because they were Africans, and as such, still held a memory of a homeland, a village, a place, a history—an identity, they resented being referred to as Negars. But then again, the term Negar simply meant black, so they might have accepted it without thought. Nevertheless, they did not possess the power or influence—the agency--to determine the term by which they would be referred.

And only within the crucible of slavery would the term Negar be bastardized to nigger, and because meaning is not inherent in language, the first blacks to be referred to as nigger probably did not think nothing of it at all, but after hundreds of years of degradation and dehumanization, black folk began to attach their treatment and their condition to the word, and the word began to gather the power and negativity still associated with it even until the current day.

I imagine, though, at some time somebody protested against the use of the word because in those old newsreel films and film footage taken of whites in the 1950’s and 1960’s, those “proper” whites who considered themselves more well-bred and genteel began to use “niggra” in place of “nigger” although I’m not quite sure of the actual difference it made; the semantics remained constant.

But as African Americans gained power and influence, where we could we began to define ourselves and part and parcel of defining ourselves was insisting that neither of those terms, nigger or niggra, be used in referring to us. I’m not certain which came first, colored or negro, or if they were even used simultaneously; I do, however, remember be referred to as both. In fact, until my eighty-five year grandmother died last year, she preferred the term colored.

However, now even colored appears to be deemed derogatory. Take a look at the following clip. The reporter inadvertently uses the term “colored” in discussing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with NAACP chairman Ben Jealous. A few minutes later he feels the need, or maybe he was coerced, to come back and apologize:


I do remember the Black Power Movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s rejecting the term Negro for the same reasons my son mentions in favor of the term Black, and that was what we were referred to most often when I was a child—Blacks. However, in the same instance, I remember reading or hearing a speech by Malcom X which pre-dates the Black Power Movement in which he stated that the proper term was Afro-American which, of course, became African American at some time or another.

But I don’t even recall being referred to as African American with any frequency or consistency or seeing it show up as a choice on paperwork until about the late 1980’s. Maybe I will pull out some of my old army paperwork from that time and check there.

But anyway, over the course of my lifetime, I have watched as we have gained the agency to determine who we are and what we should be called. But of course, African America is not a monolith. Every African American does not think the same way or share the same principles and/or convictions, so it is natural that we should differ in the meaning and import of the term Negro showing up on the census.

However, just as I explained to my son, what is most important is who and what you think you are and who and what you know yourself to be and what actions you take toward that ideal; your definition and determination of self is more important than the definition and determination of those outside forces.

So, perhaps in the spirit of self-definition and becoming and the memory of those who came previous, it would be best to simply check the box other and write in “Negar,” and then with our actions and deeds, show the world who we really are.

12 comments:

SkeptikOne said...

I am colored..it says so on my birth certificate. Born in 1950.

My first drivers license had an "N" for negro on it..My first drivers license was not a picture ID....so descriptions were all they had...

I never liked afro american, so I never personally used it...the term came about while I was in college..

I also have no love for African American....it once served its purpose...now it is anachronistic and no longer descriptive of us as a people..

I am an American who is Black...

As Black Americans...all of us have less African blood then we have white blood in us..due to slavery..and intermarriage...

also...even white people can and are African American...it is a term that has outlived its usefulness.

The Smoking Ace said...

I am black, I have been penciling it in for years and years. I might just put "Other" if it don't say black.

Max Reddick said...

@ SkeptikOne & The Smoking Ace

I alway preferred Black as well. It's just something so very revolutionary about the term Black.

ProfGeo said...

My life has spanned several "socially acceptable" appellations. I seem to self-identify best as black, Black, or African American and respond to others best when they use one of the above.

I got my census form a few days ago and found it not nearly so traumatic as all the online discussion made out. (Caveat: this is re the black item, not the Hispanic/any race item.) Compared with your recent experience of the N-word, as well as recent incidents targeting students on college campuses (including my own this week!) the census question was a minor blip.

FYI, I'm listening on my commute to Jabari Asim's The N Word and it's quite well researched. I thought I knew a lot about the evolution and historic usage of the term... not so. I'm learning a lot. Haven't developed road rage either.

CurvyGurl ♥ said...

As a child of parents who were labeled all of these titles, I didn't take offense, I checked it and moved on. Although, I will say that I did pause to think about what it really meant to me. I concluded the answer was "not a damn thing".

Like you explained, no one can define you. This is yet another reason it's important for all people to be taught the history of various peoples, not the one-sided picture that's portrayed so often.


I will say that I wish "y'all" would stick with one or the other. This new term every 5 years stuff is wearing me down....rofl!

Tafari said...

I give mad props to your son for defending his racial classification stance. You people need to be able to hold their own on such topics.

I am another one of those who do not use the term African American. I hate it! I really hate it!

I am Black! I am Negro! I am an African caught up in America!

Great thoughtful post bro!

Anna Renee said...

When I look in the mirror I see that I have more African blood! And I don't believe that we all have more white blood, because there is a huge color spectrum of blackness, and I see more brown and black skinned than white skinned. Trying to distance ourselves from "Africa" only serves to make us a new people cropping up at about the year 1640.
But to embrace "Africa" is to then have a history that predates our history in America. The reason we are "black" Americans is because we are "African" Americans, and there's no two ways about it. I had to look up the word "anachronistic" in my trusty Merriam mini dictionary. The definition I come with is "the error of putting someone or something in the wrong period.
Or one who is chronologically out of place. Personally I dont believe I change as a black person because I find myself in "America"!
Im not chronologically out of place because my ancestors are African! When I look at a picture of my dead father, I see Africa all over his face! When I look at my mother, I see it! If I'm not an African, then what am I? In Brazil, I might get away with being white, but surely not here in America! The term colored is completely meaningless! It doesnt connect you to anyplace, and the same for the term Negro. But African, that connects me, like Asian American connects, like Mexican American connects, like Japanese American connects! People, the term African American simply connects us to where we originate! There's no shame in that! Now if Africa was being showcased for its positive news and accomplishments, then maybe we'd have more pride in being connected. But that just speaks to the psychological warfare waged against us, that some of us have no idea of!! Rather than try to distance yourselves and disconnect yourselves from Africa, you should do some research on Africa and learn more of the positive that is obscured. It's very hard, yes I know, but it's not impossible!! And its a better thing than saying that the term African American is an anachronism! Is the term Chinese American anachronistic? I think not!! Indians are black people too, so black is only part of our definition! Oh Lawd Gawd!
How on earth can you love the term black, but hate the term African, where you get your blackness from!?
Hep me Jesus!!
Another good one Max! Race keeps cropping up, doesn't it? We better just embrace it and wrestle with it, brother Soul!!

Lafreya said...

Wow this gets to the heart of all the emotions I felt as I went to check that box. It surprised me that swirl of emotions. But I love the last paragraph of your post and I think that this is what we as black people need to do.

Write Of Fusion said...

Hmm, it was always hard for me to actually decide what I should be called. I've accepted "Black", and, for the most part, "African-American". I've been around the "Negro" and "Colored" years, and at the time, they would roll off my shoulder...at the time I figured that was just what we were suppose to be called. The word "nigger", to me, was always spewed with venom and hatred, and it was like if someone talked about my mama...it was going down. Other names seemed made up as they went along...like "negroid" or like you mentioned, "niggra". Those words were somewhat of a joke to me, and when I would hear it, I'd actually laugh. So in conclusion, after initially disputing the choice of "Negro", I would have to say that I would check the box and move on.

md20737 said...

I think of myself as black. Only because I my history resides in the US. I cant trace my ancestry anywhere else. I identify with the struggle of blacks in the US although I know people of color struggle everywhere.

I believe that it is generational. As I look back in time I feel the same way about the word Negro as your son does. It makes me think Jim Crow, Segregation, Intergration, Wool Worths, etc. Great post.

Lyn Marie said...

I believe the term Negro reflects the increase of Latino/Latina brothers and sisters. The terms Negro is used quite often because it means black in both Spanish and Portuguese.

Brazil is going through its own coming to terms with race that reflects our American history. The actually have secret panels deciding who in the favelas is Black enough for their new affirmative action plan. Imagine someone looking at you and deciding how you should classified. Oh wait I think we do that! Interesting video that may make you look at our classification differently. You can find it at PBS Brazil in Black and White.

I have to say that I agree with many, the term Black is historically more accurate from my perspective. I am not African, I am an American that happens to be Black. Speaking from a cultural perspective we have more in common with American culture and history (good and bad) than with African culture, West African or Central African.

I would have to disagree with the other terms placed on people like Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. Those terms imply that all Asian Americans have the same culture or cultural perspective. If you're Chinese you are not the same as someone that is Vietnamese.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

First, your children crack me up getting so excited about the census. Cool. Have you taken them to Ancestry.com so they can see some of their ancestors on the old census records?

Second, I wrote about this "Negro" controversy when it first erupted a few months back and some of my thoughts were similar to yours.

Unlike "nigger" which is a corruption of a word, the word "Negro" is an actual word. My feeling is we have a group of our people who don't want to be called anything that translates to the word "black" because they don't want to be black. Period. So, they seek all these new ways to call themselves "other than." Eventually, we will have people saying you can't use the "B" word, which is black because if somebody doesn't like you, the insult is in the intent to convey hate, not in the word itself.

Also, "black" in English vs. "black" in Spanish. What's that about? English or Spanish, it's still the language of former your slave owners or traders.

As Russell Peters has said, people who don't like you will think of a new name to call you. As a person of color himself, he's not speaking from the sidelines. He tells a provocative joke about language usage and says some white people at a small business started calling black people "Mondays." He asked why did they say that. They responded "Because nobody likes them."

Hate can make any word a curse.

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