When 'Negro' was in vogue

The Census Bureau announced last week that it is dropping the use of the term "Negro" to describe black Americans in its population surveys. I suspect few will mourn the word's passing.

Today Americans of African descent, especially younger ones, almost universally prefer to be called African-American, people of color or simply black. The bureau reports that the number of blacks who self-identify as Negroes has dwindled to fewer than 50,000, most of them older people living in the South.

That has left the word Negro, spelled with a capital "N," without much purchase on common parlance. Nowadays it's apt to be heard rarely, if at all, and then mostly in connection with historically important institutions born of an earlier era, such as Negro league baseball or the United Negro College Fund, or with certain stylized art forms and works, such as Negro spirituals or the Negro National Anthem.

Occasionally it still pops up as a humorous epithet in the punch lines of racial in-jokes of the sort film director Tyler Perry writes into his goofy "Madea" movies. There the word is often used to gently mock the pretensions of black people whose outward success seemingly has caused them to forget their roots — for which they invariably are called to account by the other characters in the cast.

But almost no one today uses the term Negro to describe their own racial identity. The word has a tinny, archaic sound to modern ears.

Of course, it wasn't always that way. Throughout the era of legal segregation in the late 19th century and for much of the 20th, to be "Negro" was a badge of pride for a people beaten down by racial discrimination and violent oppression.

Starting in the 1890s, black leaders in the South began agitating to have the word capitalized on official documents in order to distinguish it from earlier usages derived from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro, which in those languages simply means black but which, during slavery and the Reconstruction period that followed, unequivocally denoted a social inferior.

To a people who for generations had been called just about every bad name there was, Negro with a capital "N" was a kind of linguistic deliverance from their despised status as descendants of former slaves. The Census formally adopted the term Negro to refer to people of African descent in 1900.

After World War I, the writers and artists who gave birth to the black cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance celebrated the emergence of the "New Negro," a modern, racially conscious urbanite proud of a rich and ancient African heritage and prepared to demand the full rights of American citizenship. Swollen with recent black migrants from the rural South, Harlem called itself "The Negro Capital of the World," and poet Langston Hughes fondly recalled those days as a halcyon era "when the Negro was in vogue."

The image of the New Negro promoted by the Harlem Renaissance was a direct challenge to the era's ugly racial stereotypes of black inferiority, ignorance and immorality, and for the next 40 years it remained the banner under which the struggle for equal rights was fought, culminating in its inclusion in a key passage of Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

By the late 1960s, however, the civil rights movement had given rise to a sharp new awareness among younger African-Americans impatient with the pace of social change. They were inspired by the emergence of newly independent African nations from European colonial rule and dared to imagine a similar revolution in the land of their birth.

This was the era when blackness became beautiful again, no longer a term of contempt for a downtrodden minority but rather a fervent expression of their hope for a more just social compact. In those heady days, Negro suddenly seemed too tame, too redolent of a recent past in which segregation and discrimination had defined African-American existence and potential. Black was new, urgent and exclamatory. After soul singer James Brown sold millions of records with his 1968 hit "Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!" there was no turning back.

In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson Sr. proposed yet another shift in nomenclature, from "black" to "African-American." For the most part, that change has been adopted, though black remains equally acceptable. But Negro has become an anachronism that has lost its relevance.

That's not to say it won't ever make a comeback; black, too, was once considered unacceptable before it became acceptable again, and even the term "colored," which was more or less immortalized in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has undergone a linguistic reincarnation in the phrase "people of color." So don't count Negro out entirely. A time may yet come when we need it again.

Glenn McNatt

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