It looks like the word “Negro” is back in style these days, for better or for worse. And it appears that white Americans are most eager to blow off the dust and put the term to use.
It all started in 2007 when Rush Limbaugh began playing a song called “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show. More recently, the U.S. Census decided to reintroduce the category of Negro on the new 2010 census forms. A decade earlier, 56,175 people wrote in the response “Negro” on the census form for their racial identity.
In Game Change, a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign, Senate majority leader Harry Reid referred to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” And Rush Limbaugh recently said, “It was Negroes that brought Ted Kennedy his booze.”
Is Negro the new black? If America has decided to resurrect the word and reintroduce it into daily life, it is worth looking at the pros and cons of such a decision.
1) The word Negro hearkens back to a time of black self-sufficiency and pride. Some black elders still refer to themselves as Negroes. The word bears a positive connotation for them. It reminds an older generation of a time when African-Americans, facing racism and limited opportunity, had no choice but to band together and help each other. This was a time when black-owned businesses flourished, a strong sense of community existed, and civil rights organizations fought the good fight.
2) People can use the word Negro instead of the other N-word, guilt free. Black people who like to use the so-called “N-word” among their peers but are reluctant to do so due to the social stigma have an alternative that sounds similar but with less baggage. The same holds for racist whites.
1) Negro reminds people of slavery.
The word Negro can conjure up images of slave ships, whips and chains, human chattel and the miniseries “Roots.” I am reminded of the old slave auction notices that always featured the word “Negroes” in large, boldface type. Surely, that grabbed the attention of the prospective slave owner. One such advertisement from the late eighteenth century in Charleston, South Carolina read: “To be sold…A Cargo of Ninety-Four prime, healthy NEGROES, consisting of Thirty-nine Men, Fifteen Boys, Twenty-four Women, and Sixteen Girls.” An 1860 slave auction poster from Columbia County, Georgia read “Sale of NEGROES, Mills, Mules, Hogs, Farming & Mining Tools, Wagons and Carts.”
Another notice from Charleston read:
“To be sold on board the Ship Bance Island…a choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy NEGROES, just arrived from the Windward and Rice Coast. The utmost care has already been taken, and shall be continued, to keep them free from the least danger of being infected with the SMALL-POX…. Full one Half of the above Negroes have had the SMALL-POX.”
Maybe we just don’t want to go there.
2) The word is associated with Jim Crow segregation and white paternalism. In the continuum of changing racial labels, “Negro” may be more dignified than “Colored” or “boy”, but not as empowering or forward-thinking as “black” or “African-American”. In the minds of some, the term Negro is part of an era when blacks did not enjoy full citizenship. After all, Negroes endured billy clubs, police dogs and water hoses. They drank from separate water fountains. Negroes could not sit at lunch counters, were made to sit in the back of the bus, and faced lynching if they stepped out of line. Consider this 1963 quote from Malcolm X: “The Negro revolution is controlled by foxy white liberals, by the Government itself. But the Black Revolution is controlled only by God.”
3) People should be able to name and define themselves. We’ve already been there. There is no evidence of a groundswell of support in black America for a return to the word “Negro.” A group of people has the right to decide what it will answer to, regardless of what Glenn Beck thinks.
So, when you consider whether we should bring back the word Negro, please consider the pros and cons. Negro please, that is.