What’s My Name?


Since they were first brought to the shores of America, people of African descent have struggled with issues of identity.

Africans who came to America were de-cultured of their language, religion, family practices, and other customs and behaviors of their homelands. Their role as slaves led to them being seen as genetically inferior, Biblically shamed, docile, childlike, dishonorable, and otherwise degraded. Even free blacks were seen as inferiors who were denied citizen rights and subjected to discrimination. For almost all of their time in America, the identity of African descendants was established and controlled by European Americans, in a way that seemed to always work to the disadvantage of African peoples, and eventually, the growing number of people of mixed African and European descent.

One consequence of this history has been an ongoing controversy within the African descent “community” over an appropriate collective name for themselves. Should they “accept” titles that had been chosen for them by whites, or should they choose a name that represents their own views and concept of themselves? And what is their own concept of themselves, anyway?

These questions and issues are reflected in the following comments from African descent persons that go back to the antebellum era, and come forward to today. They end with a salient note from W.E.B. DuBois, a leader of the “New Negro” movement, who tells a high school student “it is not the name — it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!”


Well, not only “colored”…
 

“A Subscriber” has suggested the appropriateness of the term “Afric-American.” The suggestion is as absurd as the sound of the name is inharmonious. It is true that we should have a distinct appellation we being the only people in America who feel all the accumulated injury which pride and prejudice can suggest. But sir, since we have been so long distinguished by the title “men of color,” why make this change, so uncouth and jargon-like? A change we do want and a change we will have. When it comes, we shall be called citizens of the United States and Americans.

- The Liberator, 1 Sept. 1831
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

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The term “colored” is not a good one. Whenever used, it recalls to mind the offensive distinctions of color. The name “African” is more objectionable yet, and is no more correct than “Englishman” would be to a native-born citizen of the United States.

The colored citizen is an American of African descent. Cannot a name be found that will explain these two facts? I suggest one, and I beg your readers to reflect on it before you reject it as unsuitable. It is “Afric-American” or, written in one word, “Africamerican.” It asserts that most important truth, that the colored citizen is as truly a citizen of the United States as the white.

- The Liberator, 24 Sept. 1831
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

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That we are colored is a fact, an undeniable fact. That we are descendants of Africans is true. We affirm there is nothing in it that we need to be ashamed of, yea, rather much that we may be proud of.

For ourselves we are quite well satisfied. And we intend, in all our public efforts, to go to the power-holding body and tell them, “Colored as we are, black though we may be, yet we demand our rights, the same rights other citizens have.”

- The Colored American, 6 or 13 March 1841
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

1862
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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

More concretely, within the context of the racial looking glass, the question is whether one can make the word “Negro” mean so many different things or whether one should abandon it and use the words “black” or “Afro-American.”

This question is at the root of a bitter national controversy over the proper designation for identifiable Americans of African descent. (More than 40 million “white” Americans, according to some scholars, have African ancestors.) A large and vocal group is pressing an aggressive campaign for the use of the word “Afro-American” as the only historically accurate and humanly significant designation of this large and pivotal portion of the American population. This group charges that the word “Negro” is an inaccurate epithet which perpetuates the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans.

An equally large, but not so vocal, group says the word “Negro” is as accurate and as euphonious as the words “black” and “Afro-American.” This group is scornful of the premises of the advocates of change. A Negro by any other name, they say, would be as black and as beautiful–and as segregated. The times, they add, are too crucial for Negroes to dissipate their energy in fratricidal strife over names.

But the pro-black contingent contends, with Humpty Dumpty, that names are of the essence of the game of power and control. And they maintain that a change in name will short-circuit the stereotyped thinking patterns that undergird the system of racism in America. To make things even more complicated, a third group, composed primarily of Black Power advocates, has adopted a new vocabulary in which the word “black” is reserved for “black brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves,” and the word “Negro” is used contemptuously for Negroes “who are still in Whitey’s bag and who still think of themselves and speak of themselves as Negroes.”

This controversy, which rages with religious intensity from the street corners of Harlem to the campuses of Southern colleges, has alienated old friends, split national organizations and disrupted national conventions…

But it was obvious that the controversy touched deep emotions in the black community where many segments, particularly the young, are engaged in an agonizing search for self-identity and self-determination…

- Lerone Bennett, Jr., What’s In a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black, Ebony Magazine, November 1967
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We’ve gone through the names-Negro, African American, African, Black. For me that’s an indication of a people still trying to find their identity. Who determines what is black?

- Director Spike Lee
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Dear Sir:

I am only a high school student in my Sophomore year, and have not the understanding of you college educated men. It seems to me that since THE CRISIS is the Official Organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which stand for equality for all Americans, why would it designate and segregate us as “Negroes,” and not as “Americans.”… The word “Negro,” or “nigger,” is a white man’s word to make us feel inferior. I hope to be a worker for my race, that is why I wrote this letter. I hope that by the time I become a man, that this word, “Negro,” will be abolished.

Roland A. Barton

My dear Roland:

Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name. If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called “colored” or “Afro-Americans.”…

But why seek to change the name? “Negro” is a fine word. Etymologically and phonetically it is much better and more logical than “African” or “colored” or any of the various hyphenated circumlocutions. Of course, it is not “historically” accurate. No name ever was more historically accurate: neither “English,” “French,” “German,” “White,” “Jew,” Nordic” nor “Anglo-Saxon.” They were all at first nicknames, misnomers, accidents, grown eventually to conventional habits and achieving accuracy because, and simply because, wide and continued usage rendered them accurate. In this sense, “Negro” is quite as accurate, quite as old and quite as definite as any name of any great group of people.

Suppose now we could change the name. Suppose we arose tomorrow morning and lo! Instead of being “Negroes,” all the world called us “Cheiropolidi,” — do you really think this would make a vast and momentous difference to you and to me? Would the Negro problem be suddenly and eternally settled? Would you be any less ashamed of being descended from a black man, or would your schoolmates fell any less superior to you? The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in any name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.

Or, on the other hand, suppose that we slip out of the whole thing by calling ourselves “Americans.” But in that case, what word shall we use when we want to talk about those descendants of dark slaves who are largely excluded still from full American citizenship and from complete social privilege with the white folk? Here is Something that we want to talk about; that we do talk about; that we Negroes could not live without talking about. In that case, we need a name for it, do we not? In order to talk logically and easily and be understood. If you do not believe in the necessity of such a name, watch the antics of a colored newspaper which has determined in a fit of New Year’s Resolutions not to use the word “Negro”!

And then too, without the word that mans Us, where are all those whose spiritual ideals, those inner bonds, those group ideals and forward strivings of this might army of 12 millions? Shall we abolish there with the abolition of a name? Do we want to abolish them? Of course we do not. They are our most precious heritage.

Historically, of course, your dislike of the word Negro is easily explained: “Negroes” among your grandfathers meant black folk; “Colored” people were mulattoes. The mulattoes hated and despised the blacks and were insulted if called “Negroes.” But we are not insulted — not you and I. We are quite as proud of our black ancestors as of our white. And perhaps a little prouder. What hurts us is the mere memory that any man of Negro descent was ever so cowardly as to despise any part of his own blood.

Your real work, my dear young man, does not lie with names. It is not a matter of changing them, losing them, or forgetting them. Names are nothing but little guideposts along the Way. The Way would be there and just be as hard and just as long if there were no guideposts, — but not quite as easily followed! Your real work as a Negro lies in two directions: First, to let the world know what there is fine and genuine about the Negro race. And secondly, to see that there is nothing about that race which is worth contempt; your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.

Get this then, Roland, and get it straight even if it pierces your soul: a Negro by any other name would be just as black and just as white; just as ashamed of himself and just as shamed by others, as today. It is not the name — it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!

- W.E.B. DuBois, The Crisis (?), March 1928

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