The Negro Returns

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The Negro returns.

When the census forms included the term 'Negro' -- "are you black, African-American or Negro?" -- it set off a surprisingly strong reaction. Some blacks or African-Americans said they were offended and confused. One woman said it made her feel like she was back in the Jim Crow south. A progressive website started a campaign telling people to cross out the word 'Negro' when they fill out the forms.

The Census Bureau explained it was trying to be as inclusive as possible, saying some older people refer to themselves as Negroes. To tell the truth, I didn't even notice it was listed when I filled out my form.

The reaction made me think about the word. When I looked it up, I was surprised that one definition said it is sometimes used as an ethnic slur. Maybe that's why some people were offended, but that's not my impression. I wonder how and when it acquired that connotation.

I remember when Negroes became blacks. It was the late 1960s when younger blacks were challenging the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movements and embracing a more militant demand for equality. We were black and proud. We wore our hair in naturals. Negroes were assimilationists. Uncle Toms who straightened their hair. That's what we thought.


In fact the word 'Negro' had been one of dignity, an improvement from the term 'colored' and worse. It was capitalized, and many major organizations include it, such as Dorothy Height's National Council of Negro Women and the United Negro College Fund.

Maybe it was our numbers, but somehow young blacks held sway and nearly everyone started calling themselves black. I think even my grandmothers did, although they would occasionally refer to someone as a Negro. And then in the 1980s, 'black' gave way to 'African-American,' coined, as I recall, by Jesse Jackson. Why the ever-changing names? I think they reflect the changes in our status.

If someone had called me a Negro in 1969 I would have been insulted, but today I would probably just find it quaint. I've even reassessed our youthful rash judgment of our elders back then. Are you black, African-American or Negro?

In my lifetime, I've been all three.

With a Perspective, I'm Brenda Payton.