Negar-Nigger-Niggra-Colored-Negro-Black-African American-Negro?: The 2010 U.S. Census and the Evolution of an Appellation

So the big day finally arrived! For some reason, my children have been anticipating the arrival of the 2010 census form like Christmas. They found out that the census is only taken every ten years, and their schools and television commercials have been hyping it up so much that they saw it as a big cultural and societal event.

So, my wife filled out our part, person one and person two. She put herself first on the form, but it’s all good. Then she passed the form to my son so he could fill in the information for person three. And it went well until he got to the choices for race.

He read off the choices: “African American, Black, Negro. Negro? Wait a minute. Which block do I check?”

I informed him that he should just check that box and move on so his sister could fill out her section, but he refused to move on. Indignantly he said, “I’m African American. I’ll accept Black. But I’m not a Negro. If I check this box, I’m agreeing that I am indeed a Negro.”

Now, I’ve been looking on from the periphery at the whole controversy about “Negro” being included on the census. I haven’t paid very much attention to it, though, because it didn’t seem that much of a big deal. Keep in mind, two weeks or so ago I was called a nigger by a student, so Negro pales in comparison.

But can someone tell me what’s so wrong about the term Negro? And I am aware of the negative connotations surrounding the word; however, that does not mean I understand even after my son explained to me that when he hears the word, his mind automatically conjures up images of a servile, obsequious figure, debasing themselves so that they might receive favor. He says this is not what he seeks to be, and this is not what I’ve taught him up, so he does not understand why I do not understand why he objects so strongly to the word.

But at one time, even within my lifetime, Negro was the acceptable term used for African Americans. Is it generational?

I wonder what those “twenty or something odd Negars” dropped off by the Dutch slaver at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, and who were counted as part of the census the following year, thought of being referred to as Negars?

Perhaps because they were Africans, and as such, still held a memory of a homeland, a village, a place, a history—an identity, they resented being referred to as Negars. But then again, the term Negar simply meant black, so they might have accepted it without thought. Nevertheless, they did not possess the power or influence—the agency–to determine the term by which they would be referred.

And only within the crucible of slavery would the term Negar be bastardized to nigger, and because meaning is not inherent in language, the first blacks to be referred to as nigger probably did not think nothing of it at all, but after hundreds of years of degradation and dehumanization, black folk began to attach their treatment and their condition to the word, and the word began to gather the power and negativity still associated with it even until the current day.

I imagine, though, at some time somebody protested against the use of the word because in those old newsreel films and film footage taken of whites in the 1950’s and 1960’s, those “proper” whites who considered themselves more well-bred and genteel began to use “niggra” in place of “nigger” although I’m not quite sure of the actual difference it made; the semantics remained constant.

But as African Americans gained power and influence, where we could we began to define ourselves and part and parcel of defining ourselves was insisting that neither of those terms, nigger or niggra, be used in referring to us. I’m not certain which came first, colored or negro, or if they were even used simultaneously; I do, however, remember be referred to as both. In fact, until my eighty-five year grandmother died last year, she preferred the term colored.

However, now even colored appears to be deemed derogatory. Take a look at the following clip. The reporter inadvertently uses the term “colored” in discussing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with NAACP chairman Ben Jealous. A few minutes later he feels the need, or maybe he was coerced, to come back and apologize:

I do remember the Black Power Movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s rejecting the term Negro for the same reasons my son mentions in favor of the term Black, and that was what we were referred to most often when I was a child—Blacks. However, in the same instance, I remember reading or hearing a speech by Malcom X which pre-dates the Black Power Movement in which he stated that the proper term was Afro-American which, of course, became African American at some time or another.

But I don’t even recall being referred to as African American with any frequency or consistency or seeing it show up as a choice on paperwork until about the late 1980’s. Maybe I will pull out some of my old army paperwork from that time and check there.

But anyway, over the course of my lifetime, I have watched as we have gained the agency to determine who we are and what we should be called. But of course, African America is not a monolith. Every African American javascript:void(0)does not think the same way or share the same principles and/or convictions, so it is natural that we should differ in the meaning and import of the term Negro showing up on the census.

However, just as I explained to my son, what is most important is who and what you think you are and who and what you know yourself to be and what actions you take toward that ideal; your definition and determination of self is more important than the definition and determination of those outside forces.

So, perhaps in the spirit of self-definition and becoming and the memory of those who came previous, it would be best to simply check the box other and write in “Negar,” and then with our actions and deeds, show the world who we really are.

Max Reddick soulbrother v.2