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Long live 'Negro'

The Census Bureau is doing away with the word as a racial designation in favor of 'black' or 'African American.' There goes some important history.

March 11, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • An excerpt of a sample 2010 Census form.
An excerpt of a sample 2010 Census form. (Associated Press )

I let Black History Month slide by this year without writing anything about it. I am so over celebrating firsts or reprising triumphal narratives.

But news from last month did suggest that we may need a black history lesson — one that goes beyond Rosa Parks on the bus or George Washington Carver's magic with peanuts.

The Census Bureau announced last month that the word "Negro" is being dropped from its lexicon. Next year, when the government conducts its Annual American Survey, folks like me will have two options on census forms: black or African American.

That's choice enough for me. I'm black, and have been since I was a teenager.

Before that, I was either Negro or colored — depending on whether I was at home in Cleveland or visiting my grandparents in Alabama.

But census officials said they are eliminating "Negro" after 100 years because some black Americans consider the term outdated and offensive.

"It's a bad vibe word," one black New York City resident told a radio reporter.

This, in an era when rap music and popular movies are bursting with the other n-word, and our vibes don't seem particularly bothered.

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Controversy over what we call ourselves is nothing new for black Americans. It reflects the angst of a group hauled here in slave ships as property, and bought and sold for centuries.

We've spent a lot of time over the years fixating on what to call ourselves.

The label "negro," from the Spanish word for black, was applied by slave traders from Portugal and Spain some 400 years ago. The few free blacks in America called themselves Africans, until the name seemed to bolster a plan to return them to Africa. By the 1800s, the favored label was "colored."

The name "negro" hung around through all of that. And in 1930, the New York Times announced it would capitalize the term "as an act of recognition of racial self-respect" for previously lowercase negroes.

When I came of age in the 1960s, soul singer James Brown was urging us to "Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!" And by the time my children came along, we needed an "ethnic reference" with "cultural integrity," so African American was born.

I opted out of African American. I don't need a motherland reference to validate me. And "black" promised solidarity in an era when skin color had been a divider. It was a declaration that I'm just as black as my dark-skinned father and as my fair-skinned mom.

Now you can probably use a person's age to gauge what they want to be called. Census officials seem to presume that by the time the next census rolls around, most of those who'd call themselves Negro won't be around anymore and the rest of us don't think it's important.

But I think they're wrong. "Negro" may be outmoded, but it's not offensive and it's not dead. More than 36,000 people felt enough allegiance to the label to write it in on their census forms in 2010.

Erasing the word might seem to census officials politically correct in this racially sensitive time. But it feels like they're trying to scrub a chapter from a story that is uniquely American, and undeniably mine.

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I remember being Negro in elementary school, and rather embarrassed about it. Most of my classmates were white, and I had to answer questions about everything from nappy hair to riots.

A few years later, "black" emerged as a term of power and pride, instead of the insulting commentary on dark skin the word had been for so long. I coaxed my hair into an afro, and only used Negro in conversation when I was poking fun at someone.

When I graduated from college I went to work at a black weekly paper in Cleveland, my hometown. The owner was a man who'd grown up at the turn of the century in Selma, Ala.

Every time I wrote "black" in an article, he changed it to "Negro." I protested, and he sat me down for a history lesson.

He remembered, he said, when "white people called you nigra. Right to your face. And you couldn't say anything about it. If they were really trying to be polite, they might call you colored."

"Negro" for him was not, as the intellectuals liked to say, "polluted with stereotypes." The word represented not white oppression but civil rights battles fought and won. People spilled blood for the right to be called "Negro," he reminded me, more than once.

I thought of our conversations when I read about the Census Bureau's decision. Discarding "Negro" as a choice seems like wiping out the contributions of pioneers who brought us this far.

The names we choose to call ourselves are more than labels, after all. They're signposts on our journey. They reflect our mind-set, our history, our longing to shore up our presence in a country that doesn't always seem to want us.

I have the freedom to declare myself unashamedly black because the generation before me navigated overt racism and hostility with Negro strength and vision.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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