Black Pride, Black Power, Black History, Black Love, Black Consciousness are all positive and uplifting terms that fit me. I'm Black and I'm proud and I can only feel sorry for those that don't!
From Negro, Colored, Black to African American - In Search of An Identity
By. C. Stone Brown
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February 03, 2003
In one of his stage routines, comedian Richard Pryor once said that when a black American would refer to another black American as an "African," fights would break out. The same was true during different periods of American history with the terms Negro, colored and black. At one time or another, all of these terms were held in contempt by the descendants of slaves, who now refer to each other as African-American, the hyphen symbolically bridging them back to Africa. Today, the descendants of slaves embrace "African" American as the designation that best expresses not only their past, but also, their hope for the future. Why the numerous designations over the course of three centuries?
The changing designations are central to the celebration of Black History Month, according to James Newton, chair of African Studies Department at the University of Delaware. "In 1976, you started seeing Negro History week to Black History Week…to Black History Month, and embracing of the black presence in American society, says Newton. "You'll see it...in February, corporations, churches, all kinds of people embracing Carter G. Woodson's Black History Month concept…from Tom Joyner, McDonald's, to major corporations throughout the nation all begin to celebrate the major contributions by blacks in American society."
The journey to "African American" has been a 300-plus-year odyssey that started with Negro, colored, black and finally, African American. "It actually started from the time we were taken as slaves", says Joe Madison, national Black Talk Radio host.
"There were many slaves who maintained their identity as best they could, they fought and struggled to maintain their heritage and cultural identity with Africa," he says.
However, Madison says, the terrorization of Africans took its toll over time. "Hundreds of years of branding, lynching, ignorance and beating our history out of us, both physically and mentally, took that history and culture and identity away."
The word Africa still is repugnant to many people, says Madison. "There are folks who are still unaware of what that word means. For too many people, Africa is a country as oppose to a continent."
What Madison believes changed the opinion of the term "Africa" is when blacks began to define their existence. "For three quarters of our existence as black people in this country we were defined by others. We then developed a sense of consciousness and self-worth primarily due to Black History that allowed us to define ourselves. In essence, it allowed us to do what people have done for themselves since the existence of time," Madison says.
Kenneth W. Goings, department chair of African & African American Studies at Ohio State University, is young enough to remember being identified as "black" to be insulting. " I'm 51, I could remember in junior high school if someone called you 'black' you'd be ready to fight. It was associated with all these kind of evil and nasty things."
Those "evil" and "nasty" things Goings is referring to were embedded into American culture, according to Newton. "Part of the American media expression… Africa began to be connected with savagery, and viewed as the 'Dark Continent'…we were viewed as people who were less civilized.
Goings agrees. "I think the whole notion of Africa as a 'Dark Continent' meant that any people that came from there were clearly outside the realm of civilization. And because people knew so little, academics, historians, anthropologist could basically say whatever they wanted and not be challenged."
African Americans found a way to make terms that were imposed on them, such as "Negro and colored" palatable until "black" and "African" came along, says Goings.
"Colored" was a designation that the black middle class embraced. 'Negro' was a word that was becoming outdated to African Americans, and they wanted to reject that, particularly because of the lower case 'N.' "Instead of totally abandoning "Negro" African Americans chose to capitalize the "n" in Negro, in the 1920 and 1930s, he said.
Newton gives some of the credit to mainstream African American organizations and artists. "The NAACP and others started to capitalize the "n" on Negro and the "C" on colored," he says.
Newton remembers the book "The New Negro" authored by Alaine Locke, a philosopher and the first African-American Rhodes scholar. "The implication was that we were 'new' Negroes because we were looking at the world from an African view. We began to take on the heritage of Africa. We were no longer in the shadow of slavery." Once this shadow was removed, it made it possible for "black" and "African" to be embraced.
The usage of the term "black" came at a seminal point in American history, according to Newton. He believes that "black" came to prominence in the American and African-American cultural mainstream when sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, conducted what now is simply referred to as the "Doll Study."
The Clark "Doll Study", conducted for the NAACP, consisted of elementary-age black school children being shown four identical dolls, two black and two white. They would then be asked to identify them racially and to indicate which doll was best, which was nice, which was bad, and which they would prefer. These tests were administered to children throughout the country and they clearly showed that a majority of the children rejected the black doll and expressed a preference for the white doll. Clark's study was used to win the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
"When Kenneth B. Clark did the doll study, whereby blacks had to determine which doll do you like…they kept consistently picking the white doll. This was a process of segregation; it made black people have a negative self-concept…and this self-concept, needed to be rejected."
Madison remembers studying the Clark Study in college. " What the Clarke experiment showed was the personal aspect of cultural conditioning…the external aspect of that cultural conditioning that the standard of beauty was white…black was considered inferior even as it related to beauty."
"This is one of the classic cases where they brought it before the Supreme Court…segregation was doing a disservice not only to black America but whites as well. This really was a critical time for blacks to begin dealing with their own identity. You started seeing people begin to embrace Africa…beginning to look at 'black'," says Newton.
The transition from Negro to black wasn't a smooth transition, says Goings. "There were strong fights over what to use, Negro or black. Calling yourself black, meant you wanted freedom, now." The term "Negro" he says was more associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and getting freedom through peaceful means.
"It was a generational transition. It really happened with younger people who saw Dr. King as someone not as in touch with African Americans as they thought. Indeed, the term "black" came to prominence coinciding with the rise of Malcolm X and the phrase "Black is Beautiful." This was a period when African Americans asserted their identity. It was OK to where an "Afro" or "Natural" hairstyle. Straightening combs and bleaching creams, the products that provided a false identity were generally discarded.
Many in the African-American community today use "black" and "African" American interchangeably. "For my generation, we are probably in the mixing bowl of that usage," says Monte Evans, 31, Producer for WOL-AM in Washington, D.C. "My generation says I'm 'black American and I'm an 'African American.' We haven't really come through any one struggle…my generation really doesn't have any claim to one particular name."
Beginning in the mid to late 1980s maybe a little bit earlier, people began using the term "African American," Goings says. He believes the Census Bureau came up with the designation African American. "I know that once they did, (the Rev.) Jesse Jackson began to use it."