Naming Ourselves: a debate through time by Prof. William Seraile

This is an adaptation of an essay by retired professor of African-American history at Lehman College William Seraile written many years ago (published in the early 1970s) however still relevant and useful!  The original title was “Random Historical Notes on a Proper Identity for Black Americans: The Unsettled Debate.”Carver bust at the Hall of Fame  I found this essay more and more rewarding the further I read; the language becomes more familiar as the history become more modern.  Those who read to the end will be richly rewarded.   This essay is re-published here to amplify the point of Bronx River Sankofa that so much of the Bronx African-American experience in work, recreation, leisure and conservation is known in small pocket and invisible to most.  As you read, consider that this great mind taught in the Bronx for over thirty-five years.  Did you know his scholarship?  I didn’t!

The younger generation of Black Americans may think that it was their “militancy” that led to the popular and general usage of “black” as opposed to “Negro.”  Yet, for over 150 years, we have debated, quite vigorously at times, among ourselves a proper name for us in the United States.  Although African, Afro-American, Colored, or Negro have been used at different times in our history, usually one would be popular with the majority until it was replaced by a name more representative of a proud race.  Up until about the late 1830’s (about the time most black Americans rejected the colonization schemes) many organizations, religious or secular, favored the term African.  Among them were the following: African Baptist Church; African Company; African Education Society; African Episcopal Church; African Free School; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Missionary Society; African Observer and the African Sentinel and Journal of Liberty.

The term “colored” was used widely by individuals, welfare organizations, churches and magazines.  This term was in vogue from about 1840 until the 1930’s, although it was loosely used after World War One.  Prominent groups or publications that used the word colored included Colored Americans; Colored American League; Colored American Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts and Science; Colored Man’s Journal; Colored Methodist Church; Colored National Labor Union; Colored Knights of Phythias; Colored Farmers Alliance; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Association of Colored Women.  Even national or regional conventions were called in the name of colored people: Colored Men’s Border States Convention (1868); State Convention of Colored Citizens of Tennessee (1871); Southern State Convention of Colored Men (1871); the National Conference of Colored Men of the United States (1879); National Convention of Colored People (1883); and the National Colored Press Convention (1889).

The term Afro-American or African-American was mainly used in the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century.  In the 1960’s this term has become popular, again, in usage.  Before the Civil War, there was the Afro-American Magazine and the Afro-American Spokesmen.  The Afro-American League (1887) and the Afro-American Council (1906) were founded to aid in the uplifting of black Americans.  The Afro-American Sentinel (Omaha) was widely read.  The term was used in print and in speeches.  “Let Afro-Americans Prove their Loyalty,” appeared in the Cleveland Gazette shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.  In 1891, T. McCants Stewart, a prominant black New York Democrat, delivered a speech titled, “The Afro-American in Politics.”

Negro as a term has been in use for may years, especially since 1900.  The following is a token list of organizations bearing that term: National Negro Convention (1864); National Negro Business League (1900); Negro National Medical Association (1895); Negro Fellowship League (1908); National Negro Retail Merchants Associates (1913); National Negro Bankers Association (1924); and National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club (1935).

Historically, we have argued against the use of names that have failed to adequately describe us for what we primarily are–people of African descent.  In the main body of this paper I will cite historical examples of such rejection.

In 1828, an enquirer wrote to the editor of Freedom’s Journal and raised this timely point: “Mr. Editor-with the derivation of the word (Negro)…I am well acquainted, but how it can, with any degree of propriety be applied to us…I would like to ascertain whether we are Negroes, or as those who are truly ignorant, or actuated by the principles of prejudice , call us Negroes.”[1]

A decade later, Samuel Cornish, editor of the Colored American, denounced the use of insulting insulting names with this editorial: “How then, shall we be known and our interests presented in community but by some distinct, specific name and what appellation is so inoffensive, so acceptable as COLORED PEOPLE–COLORED AMERICANS.  We are written about, preached to, and prayed for, as Negroes, Africans, and blacks, all of which have been stereotyped, as names of reproach, and o that account, if no other, are unacceptable.”  Cornish added, “let us and our friends unite, in baptizing the term “colored Americans” and henceforth be written of, preached of, and prayed for as such.  It is the true term, and one which is above reproach.”[2]

Above reproach it wasn’t as Cornish quickly learned.  In another editorial, he ridiculed those who wanted to substitute the term “oppressed Americans” for “colored people.”  “Oppressed Americans!  who are they?” demanded Cornish, “nonsense brethren!!  You are COLORED AMERICANS.  The Indians are RED AMERICANS, and the white people are WHITE AMERICANS and you are as good as they and they are no better than you.”[3]  Later Cornish lashed out against Negroes in Pennsylvania who felt the term “colored Americans” was offensive.  “(W)hile these sages are frightened half to death, at the idea of being called colored, their FRIENDS and their FOES…call them nothing else bu NEGROES, NEGROES, the NEGROES OF PENNSYLVANIA.”[4]

Cornish was not alone in considering the term Negro offensive.  James Walker Hook took the floor at the North Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868 to deny “that there was a Negro on the floor of the convention.  (He) insisted that the word Negro had no significance as to color, but could only be used in a reproachful or degrading sense, and he further declared that no man on that floor knew where the term originated, since it was not found in ancient history, inspired or profane.”[5]

A similar attitude was expressed by T.J. Coghlan at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention when he offered a resolution to “expunge forever from the vocabulary of South Carolina, the epithets, “nigger,” negro,” and “yankee.”[6]

Although the year was the same (1868), William Grey, a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention felt different about the term “Negro.”  After a white liberal insisted it was disrespectful to call the gentlemen of the Convention Negroes, Grey said that he had no objections to the term.  “How could he?”  For his race was closely allied to the race which built the great pyramids of Egypt…to whom the present ages are indebted for the hints of art and knowledge.”[7]

The name controversy continued, for three years later, Dr. R. J. Cromwell of New Orleans wrote a letter to be read at the Southern State Convention of Colored Men in Columbia, South Carolina.  (we must) “declare a name for our race, that will apply to the whole people of African origin and negro (sic) descent,” wrote Cromwell.  He added, “we are negroes-not colored people, we are not Indians, Chinese, Malays, or Mexicans; we should be called “negroes.”  We are in this country, American Citizens of negro descent and should be proud of the name, and hurl the polite American phrase, “colored person,” from us and say to the one that uses it, ‘I am a negro.’  Let us respect our ancient name as much as the whites do the name of Saxon, Celt, (and) Latin.”[8]

Yet, a year later in 1872, a vicious attack on the word Negro appeared i print.  A man who signed his name G.G.P. wrote to the New National Era “…the Negro.  How long is this word to be tolerated by the people of African descent?  To me it is distasteful even in early childhood, now it has become extremely obnoxious to me…  If all the intelligent people of African descent in this land disdained the name as I do they would rise up and with pen and tongue protest against it, until it was clearly proven to them that they belonged to that race, if such a race exists.  I my opinion, it is nothing but a word of reproach and insult.”[9]

Although the term “Afro-American” was used with more frequency, the name controversy still raged.  In 1906 Reverend J.W.E. Bowen, editor of the Voice of the Negro, sought to answer the question, “Who Are We–Africans, Afro-Americans, Colored People, Negroes, or American Negroes?”  Bowen believed that “…the ancient Negro type in Africa is a curiosity in America (and that) by no twist of logic, or by rhetorical flourish can it be shown that the term “African” is synonymous with “Negroes.”[10]  Bowen quickly dismissed the term “Afro-American” by commenting that it “…means descendants of Americans born in Africa…” would could be white merchants or missionaries.[11]

Contrary to Cornish’s belief that colored was above reproach, Bowen cast the term away with a curt observation: “…there is no such race as the ‘colored race’…further discussions of this hollow term would dignify it with thought whereas it as innocent of thought and dignity as an infant’s mind is of the power to comprehend Kant’s ‘Categorized Imperative.'”[12]

After careful study, Bowen concluded that of all the terms, only that of “Negro” was suitable.  “…our most fitting race designation is “NEGRO.”  Let the Negroes…rise up and wipe away the stain from this word by glorious and resplendent achievements.  Good names are not given, they are made.”[13]

Two months later, in the same magazine, Timothy Thomas Fortune, militant editor of the New York Age took issue with Reverend Bowen.  “…I have come to adopt the term Afro-American as the only proper race designation of the people of African origin in the United States…it is impossible to get the writers…to treat (Negro) as a proper noun…  This being the case…how are we to accept it as a race designation?  If we should accept it, would not the race always be subjected to the ridicule and contempt of being the only race, dead or alive, which was looked upon and characterized as a common noun?”[14]

Fortune continued in a vein of thought that is popular today: “the term Negro has not even a respectable tribe in America to dignify it.  …if a person should call an Abyssinian a Negro he would…take it as a term of…insult.”[15]

“Colored” was a term that Fortune found completely unacceptable.  “As applied to Afro-Americans, it is a cowardly subterfuge–an attempt of the person appropriating it, or to whom it is applied, to convey the impression that he has no race that he cares to acknowledge.  I always feel…merciful contempt contempt for the goody-goody Afro-American who insists that he is a “colored man.”[16]

Fortune concluded, “until we get this race designation properly fixed in the language and literature of the country we shall be kicked and cuffed and sneered as a common noun, sufficiently and contemptuously characterized by the vulgar term “Negro.”[17]

Despite Fortune’s bitter denunciation of the word “colored,” other militants” including W.E.B. DuBois named a new civil rights organization in 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

While some black Americans were trying hard to get the media to capitalize the word Negro, others were trying to remove the word Negro from popular use.  In 1928, the West Indian Times and Review condemned the term.  “The term Negro was tagged on the Africans by the white man for the sole purpose, it seems, to rob them of their historical and and cultural background.”  The editorial continued “…which if they had been made conscious and proud of, would have inspired them to noble thoughts and high ideals, and therefore, to higher positions than porters, wash-women and equally low, service occupations.”[18]

Colored as a man was still popular, at least, to William H. Maxwell, editor of the Newark Herald.  In a letter to the editor of the New York Age, Maxwell wrote “…I think we should get away from the term “Negro” all together…since the geographical designation is the style, I vote for colored American.”[19]

A defense was offered for the use of the word Negro by Frank Crosswaith who wrote to the Negro World in 1930.  “The Lynchers will not cease their barbaric folly because our intellectuals have decided to change the name by which we shall be known.  Race prejudice, disfranchisement and jim crowism, will not depart from our door-steps because we are called “colored” instead of “Negroes” or “Afro-Americans.”  “…the race would be far better off if we bend our effort to dignifying the term “Negro” by making it stand for something.”[20]

A year later, the name game continued as Oscar De Priest, Congressman from Illinois, supported a resolution in favor of the term “colored.”  The Baltimore Afro-American wrote “Congressman Oscar De Priest gave his approval to a resolution against the use of the word “Negro to designate members of the colored race and urge the adoption of a resolution (calling for) the adoption the constitutional title of “Colored Americans” as authorized by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, instead of the word “Negro.”[21]

The resolution asked black folks to “refrain from the use of the word “Negro” and its numerous kindred references, in all literature periodicals, newspapers, histories, radios, and publications whatsoever, and the “Constitutional Nation Title of Americans” be adopted.”[22]

To partly settle the name controversy, the Afro-American asked its readers to write in their preferences for either colored or Negro.  About 55% preferred the word “Negro.”

The subject reached the realm of the ridiculous in 1934 when F.M. Hedgeman suggested a new term “veriegated.”  “It would take in persons of all complexions No other word that I can think of now will do it.  We should speak of a…Negro church as a variegated race church or a church of the variegated race.  …Let this be done(for lawyers, doctors, etc.) and the race will be done with obnoxious epithets and with inconsistent and contradictory phrases in describing themselves and in being described by others.”[23]

Far from settling the argument, Hedgeman’s view just offered a humorous break.   Also, in 1934, Reverend E.A. Abbott of Mobile, Alabama wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Age.  In yet another voice opposed to the term “colored,” Reverend Abbott wrote “…to apply the term “colored” strictly to our race is nothing but a misnomer.  …when we call ourselves colored we are laughed at by the other colored peoples of the world…  You are right, Mr. Editor.  ‘Eight’ out of ten race leaders in the United States look with favor on ‘Negro’ as a racial term!'”  With a good bit of common sense, Abbot added, we should be together on (a proper name) if nothing else as the question is a very embarrassing one for us and for our friends.”[24]

Another analysis of the name controversy and concern over “image” was offered by Frank Marshall Davis in a letter to the Philadelphia Tribune (1936).  “Thus far, no person has as yet found a name for this race of mine which meets the approval of everybody…the following were rejected for various reasons: Negro, Aframerican, Afroamerican, Dusky American, Colored, Race man, Race woman, Blackmoor, Ethiopian, and Senegambian.  …while it seems to me this energy could be put to better use in so advancing this race no term could be objectionable, whereas now, because of our docile acquiescence to white domination any term spoken by the white domination will be spoken contemptuously.”[25]

Although the argument over a name continued, the choice of names became different.  The term African came into limited popularity as illustrated by this letter to the editor of The Daily Argosy.  I 1938, Dr. F.C. Archer of Georgetown, British Guiana had this to say: “…Africans are Africans…for nearly five hundred years (they) were sarcastically called by the nickname “Negro.”  This name Negro has no uplifting sound and gives no dignified impression.  …the name…has caused much disrespect and has had is still having a damaging psychological and philosophical effect.  …Africans…cast the nickname Negro into oblivion…”[26]

Shortly before the creation of the state of Israel, Otis Gaus Fletcher wrote in a pamphlet, Ephram, Israel and the Resurrection, “…I…renounce the term NEGRO as defined…by the lexicographers and the publishers of dictionaries and encyclopedias published in the United States of America…”  Fletcher recommended that American citizens not use the term Negro  because “the greater part of the colored or mingled people of the United States are not Negroes, but they are the (descendants of the children of Israel.”[27]

At the beginning of the Korean War in 1951, David Abner Talbot, editor of the Ethiopian Herald wrote to the editor of the New York Times “…the editor of a newspaper in the Sudan told me that it seems as if the perpetuation of the name “Negro” to characterize the Africans who were forcefully taken to the west works as a division between him and the people who remained behind in…Africa…  Talbot emphasized that “in Bantu Africa the people resent the name, and question why…people of African descent living in the (United States)…should accept a name which is a derogatory tag attached to them by others.”[28]

The strong argument for adopting the word “African-American” came again in 1953 with an open letter of Ebony [magazine] from the African-American Cultural Foundation of New York City.  “…the term “Negro” is a misnomer–a no-name.  …what is the moral value of a name, the very acceptance of which defeats aborning our aspirations for complete self determination, a name that carries within itself its own negation, a name that says these people came from nowhere that we know of, are nobody that we know of, and have no right to advance with other human beings?  What is a name that connotes character?  …would a Chinese man born in the USA ask (himself)…what shall we call ourselves?  …how on earth can an African ask such a question?  …OUR CORRECT NAME IS–AFRICAN-AMERICAN.”[29]

Not ready to cast the word Negro into oblivion was George S. Schuyler who wrote “A Scholarly Defense of the Word Negro,” in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1954.  His main point was that both the Anglo and the Slav made a derogatory name one of pride.  To Schuyler “it is what a group has in power, ability, and resourcefulness and courage that counts, not what it is called.”  He added that “there is more knowledge of Negro history and culture, more racial pride and more of a sense of unity with other black people in the United States where the “Negro” designation is most widely used and accepted than anywhere else I know.”[30]

Shifting from individual concerns over a proper name to that of organizational insistence, the Harlem Round Table unanimously adopted [see below] the name Afro-American in 1955.

Whereas: The hateful and contemptuous term “Negro” was imposed upon the people of Africa who were forcibly enslaved and transported from their ancestral land…and

Whereas: This slave term “Negro” has been and continues to be identified…with the foul odor of the slave pen…and is easily corrupted into still more vicious terms such as “Negress” and “nigger,” and

Whereas: The continued use of…”Negro”…(develops)…a destructive inferiority complex…while at the same time it cuts off people of African origin and descent from their vital and continuous connection with land, culture, and history, therefore be it

Resolved: that…1. a publicity campaign on a widespread scale to enlighten the public and to call for ending the use of this objectionable name “Negro” (be started)

2. Immediate consideration of the reasons for changing the name “Negro” by all organized bodies: the press and educational institutions and groups, churches and religious organizations, fraternal orders, political and social agencies and clubs.

3. The preparation and distribution of literature toward this end.

4. The calling of CONVENTIONS ON A STATE AND NATIONAL BASIS TO CONSIDER THIS VITAL MATTER OF ADOPTING A NAME…WITH A VIEW OF FURTHERING THE PROGRESS OF PEOPLES OF AFRICAN ORIGIN AND DESCENT…and be it further

Resolved: That the Harlem Roundtable Forum recommends the adoption of a name which will adequately set forth the African origin as well as the present national affiliation of our people, and this respect suggests the name–Afro-American.  (signed Richard Moore, Chairman; Eloise Moore, R.L. Johnson; Alice Wilkins)

Five years later, the New York Times was unwilling to refer to black as Afro-Americans, a term they still do not use presently, although sometimes they use the word “black” which is currently popular.  On May 26, 1960 Robert E. Garst, Assistant Managing Editor wrote to Richard B. Moore, chairman of the Committee to Present the Truth about the Name “Negro.”

Dear Mr. Moore:

…it has been the practice of the News Department for a long time to refer to African natives as “Africans”…because “Negro” is a term offensive to them and because, ethnologically speaking, the Bantus are not Negroes.

As to our southern Negroes, I am afraid we cannot go along with you because it would appear that this is carrying racial sensitivity too far…”[32]

Others began to speak out against the term “Negro.”  On February 12, 1961, the Association for the Advancement of Caribbean Education, Inc., scheduled a debate on Resolved, That the Name Negro be Abolished.

Also in 1961, Richard B. Moore did his part to keep the issue in print.  In a letter to James W. Ivy, editor of the Crisis, Moore took the editor to task.  “…you desire to dismiss the question whether ‘Negro is not the right name.’ by badly declaring it to be a ‘nonsense question, because it has no answer.’  …”Negro” is not the right name, because of its slave origin, its consequent degradation, and its still prevalent association…with prejudice, vileness, inferiority, and hostility, and, further, because this name woefully fails to set forth the true, vital, and honorable connection of our people with either their ancestral or present land, history and culture.”  Moore continued, “…it must… be clearly recognized that this name “Negro” is a vicious tool and lethal weapon in the hands of the white supremacists and their slavish supporters.  Hence, this vile misnomer “Negro” must now be banned once and for all and decisively rooted out of the language.  A proper, fitting, and honorable name–Afroamerican–should be adopted and insisted upon firmly and resolutely.”[33]

Later in the year, Moore wrote to the editor of Ebony “…the (name) Afroamerican places us clearly and at once in closer proximity with all our American brothers in mind, feeling, spirit, and in the past historical background and common cultural heritage…at the same time, this deplorable, declassed name “Negro”helps to maintain the feeling of separateness and apartness from our African brothers today.”[34]

By 1966, younger blacks were calling themselves either “black” or Afro-American.  Closely Akin to Richard Moore’s rationale was this one offered by Keith Baird, a teacher at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn.  “Negro (was used) solely to describe the enslaved and enslaveable (while Afro-American would help foster) “ethnic identity.”[35]  The word Negro was still in use, but it was left mainly to the older generation.  Young people were no longer using the word in a large way.  Many subscribed to the Platform of the Black Creed that approved in 1967[:]

People have and are protesting, daily the constant immoral, unethical and unconstitutional, practices of the white structures, that refer to black Americans as Negroes…in all forms of literature and public media to the degree, where it has become…a false label.  It is time (for us)…to be referred to as Afro-Americans or Black Americans…[36]

A few years ago, Richard Edwards, then assistant Managing Editor of the New York Amsterdam News summed up the objection to the word “Negro.”  In his words, “there seems to be violent objection to the term ‘Negro’ among young people, who link the word with Uncle Tom.”

Despite all the protest over the use of the word, many of the older generation who remember the hard fight over the capitalization of the word Negro, resent the Uncle Tom label and dismiss the furor as a simple semantic dispute.  As John Morsell of the NAACP said in 1968: “I don’t think it’s worth such a storm to replace a well established word.  ‘Negro’ is a precise and useful word.  And, after all ‘black’ is just as much a reminder of the slave period as Negro.”[38]

In conclusion, one must disagree with Mr. Morsell’s assessment.  People who wake up with pride in the morning and who take it to bed with them in the evening must decide for themselves on a name of their own choosing.  It is one thing to attempt to make a name given to us by the oppressor one of pride and another to create a name that is indicative of self-respect.  It is vitally important for us to select a name that is both uplifting and free of feelings of inherent inferiority.  For unless we can, first, liberate our minds we will never effectively liberate our bodies from racism and oppression.

FOOTNOTES

[1]Freedom’s Journal, August 8, 1828, as quoted in Martin E. Dann, ed., The Black Press, p. 299

[2]The Colored American, March 4, 1837

[3]The Colored American, March 15, 1838

[4]Leon F. Litwack, The Emancipation of the Negro Abolitionist,” Blacks in the Abolitionist Movement, pp. 70-71

[5]Lerone Bennett, Jr., Black Power U.S.A. p. 119

[6]Ibid., p. 120

[7]Ibid., pp. 119-120

[8]Proceedings of the Southern States Convention of Colored Men Held in Columbia, South Carolina October 18-25, 1871, p.12

[9]The New National Era, February 1, 1872

[10]J.W.E. Bowen, Who Are We–Africans, Afro-Americans, Colored people, Negroes, or American Negroes?, Voices of the Negro, 3:1, January, 1906, p.32

[11]Ibid., pp. 32-33

[12]Ibid., p.34

[13]Ibid., pp. 35-36

[14]Ibid., Timothy Thomas Fortune, “Who Are We–Afro-Americans, Colored People or Negroes? Voice of the Negro, 3:3, March, 1906, p. 196

[15]Ibid., pp. 196-197

[16]Ibid., p.197

[17]Ibid., p. 198

[18]West Indian Times and Review, March 26, 1928

[19]New York Age, July 27, 1929

[20]The Negro World, May 17, 1930

[21]Baltimore Afro-American, August 1, 1931

[22]Loc. cit.

[23]Philadephia Tribune, May, 1936

[24]The New York Age, September 22, 1934

[25]Philadelphia Tribune, May, 1936

[26]The Daily Argosy, April 6, 1938

[27]Otis Gaus Fletcher, Ephram, Israel and The Resurrection, preface, (1946)

[28]The New York Times, March 3, 1951

[29]An open letter to the Editor of Ebony from the African-American Cultural Foundation, March 20, 1953

[30]Pittsburgh Courier, February 6, 1954

[31]Resolution on necessity and measures including a National Convention for adopting a proper name and furthering the progress of peoples of African origin and descent, February 14, 1955.

[32]The New Day, June 18, 1960

[33]Letter to James W. Ivy, Editor of the Crisis, January 10, 1961

[34]Letter of Richard B. Moore to the Editor of Ebony, November 13, 1961

[35]New York Times, December 11, 1966

[36]Platform of the Black Creed, April, 1967

[37]New York Times, February 26, 1968

[38]Loc. cit.

Professor William Seraile added in Feb. 2014, “If I wrote this piece today, I would offer the views of Edward Wilmot Blyden and his disciples who considered Negro a proper race name.”  Prof. Sereaile  can be reached directly at wseraile@yahoo.com

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