Thoughts on Race, Culture and "Living in the Light"
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
What's the difference between Colored, Negro, Nigra, Nigger, Picaninny, Nigga, Black, African-American?
Answer: Empowerment andSelf-determination! But white folk - so used to telling us who we are, labeling us like property for hundreds of years - just can't seem to wrap their brain around that concept. Here are a couple of them:
Despite the fact that there's a society-identified Black man in the Burning White House (or maybe because of it?), old habits DO die hard don't they? Especially when dealing with the predominantly white federal government and mainstream media. Just the idea that white folk are no longer "The Deciders" in who we've determined ourselves to be, seems to make some people simply apoplectic!
Beck and his Beckheads continue their "racism on parade" over the air waves. Their obvious disregard for the facts of our existence in this country at the alabaster hands of the ancestors who spawned them - is pitiable. Beck comes out swinging in his usual over-the-top, bust-a-vein annoying voice: "African-American is a bogus, PC, made-up term. I mean, that's not a race!"(emphasis mine)
Who says Glenn? You and your ilk? I bet what's really bothering you fellas is - How DARE"those people" think they could move purposefully forward from chattel to full personhood WITHOUT US SAYING THEY COULD? And, WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE, banding together under the umbrella of that damned Civil Rights movement and, in solidarity, decide to no longer be defined by the labels we white folk have slapped on themsince our ancestors brought them here in the belly of a slave ship?! (Yeah, let's cut out that whole, "immigrated here" lie, m'kay?)
The reasons given for their reintroduction of the word "Negro" - on its face - sounds good, but I'm just not buying it. Sounds more like the Bureau's rather lame "excuse" for:
Not understanding, caring to understand, or having to understand what some statistics are about or,
Getting caught trying to pull some good, old-boy, "foot-on-neck" behavior on the down-low.
What's really interesting to me, is not THAT they brought "Negro" back - but WHY NOW?? Feeling a little insecure? Feeling a little put-upon by the allegedly post-racial, alleged president, in this, our alleged, post-racial nation? Thought a little "throw-the-rock-and-hide-your-hand" would feel good? Tsk, tsk.
Sonny Le, a regional spokesman for the Census Bureau, said the term "Negro" has been on the survey for at least 100 years. He said the form is reviewed and analyzed thoroughly by different offices and advisory groups before being finalized.
Le said the decision to keep the term "Negro" on the form was due principally to the fact some older African-Americans still identify themselves by that term. In fact, in the 2000 census, more than 50,000 people chose to write down explicitly that they identified themselves as "Negro" in a section where the census allows people to provide additional information. That number does not include those who checked the box "Black, African-Am., or Negro."
I don't know to which surveys, showing "Negro" going back at least a 100 years, Le is referring. Based on my genealogical research to date, that's just not true - at least not in South Carolina. And while I don't doubt, for one minute, there are those of us who still identify themselves by that term and chose to write it in on the 2000 Census, I'm sure, as evidenced by this conversation posted on You Tube, Mr. Le and plenty others (including some of our own younguns)haven't an inkling why that is.
Though I no longer identify with, nor have I ever written in, the term "Negro," on anything, I think I can still clear that whole "why thing" up with some definitions - none of which were written by Black folk:
From Merriam-Webster: Colored - 1 : having color 2a : colorful b : marked by exaggeration or bias 3a sometimes offensive : of a race other than the white; especially : black 2b b sometimes offensive : of mixed race 4 sometimes offensive : of or relating to persons of races other than the white or of mixed race
I remember when we were Colored. That's what white folk said we were (Toby! Kunta Kinte! Toby! Kunte Kinte! Lop off foot - Okay, I'm Toby.)! Far as I know, we weren't writing any copies of Merriam-Webster or classifying any races of people back then. We, along with Native Americans (separate census for them back then), WERE THE CLASSIFIED!
From Wikipedia: The term "colored" appeared in North America during the colonial era. A "colored" man halted a runaway carriage that was carrying President John Tyler on March 4, 1844. In 1863, the War Department established the "Bureau of Colored Troops." The first twelve Census counts in the U.S. enumerated "colored" people, who totaled nine million in 1900. The Census counts of 1910–1960 enumerated "negroes."
See, this is why linking to Wikipedia is not always a good thing. Revisionist history sprinkled with a little fact, then becomes fact. Now I definitely agree we were "colored" by white folk (pun intended) during the colonial era (no doubt a carry-over from that dandy European upbringing from which the "New World" settlers came). And there was a Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863. Not sure about the man and the carriage. But the last two are just not true - at least not in South Carolina.
My grandmother's mother - born in 1876 and age 24 at the taking of the 12th Census in 1900 - was enumerated black, not coloredaccording to original Census documents. Back then, "Question 9" was "Question 12" and it read - "Race or Color." The Census-taker recorded "B" for black and "W" for white -No Negro OR Caucasian - just the colors, black and white. By the 14th Census in 1920, when my grandmother was about 10 or 11 (the family says she was born in 1909. The Census says "abt 1910," listing her age as 10 at the taking of it), "Question 12" was still the same and she, too, was enumerated "black, not colored" (maybe the Wiki writer assumed - because the question asked was race or color - and the answer was a color - that the census enumerated "colored people.").
But by the 15th Census in 1930, something had changed. "Question 12" was still the same but - we had magically become arace! For the first time in South Carolina, for the purposes of the census - we were now enumerated, "Negro" by white folk (No ACORN to blame back then. Come to think of it, that's probably the reason for the current, white uproar over ACORN! Once we were given the keys to the census kingdom, the group figured out the kind of shit that had been pulled over all that time and thought they'd get in on it too - instead of doing the right damn thing! Just sayin').
I've no doubt, the founding of the NAACP (by a group of people of "varying colors"), coupled with all that internalized race hatred of the Blue Veins or "Light, Brights," definitely brought some pressure to bear in the changing of labels at the time (We're not like them! We're like you! - sort of.). And my, how times haven't changed (remember "Pookie?)!
The term, "Light, Brights" is short for "light, bright, damned-near white" because their light skin and straighter, long hair were considered "the ideal" by whites (and unfortunately, plenty Blacks) who in turn, used their distinctly different, looking-like-them features to marginalize the darker and more nappy-headed of us - dividing and conquering as they continue to do so well. But, as evidenced by the previously linked You Tube video of "the conversation" above, they're throwing the rock and hiding their hands again, telling the Light, Bright Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP - to his face (with a smile and smarmy congratulations) - that they're still "colored," just like the rest of us. Imagine that!
Being enumerated "black" back in those days had EVERYTHING NEGATIVE to do with the COLOR of our skin, particularly for most of us born during the time when white folk first hung that moniker on us (Hell before I turned 13, if you called me black, that was an invitation for a beat down - for one of us!). And the entire society acted accordingly, falling in line with the negative connotations. White folk, through both word and deed, continuously guaranteed that being "enumerated black" was a vile, nappy-headed, stupid, nasty, lazy thing for a person to be! And that'sthe reason I'm sure, that older Blacks chose to write-in "Negro" on their census forms. But I'm sure nary a census-taker ever thought about that.
From The Free Dictionary: Piccaninny esp US, pickaninny - 1. Offensive a small Black or Aboriginal child. 2. (modifier) tiny a piccaninny fire won't last long
Now picaninny was always a favorite, white Southern piece of labeling. And on my first volunteer trip to New Orleans in 2006, I found it still is! Just revised to - spicaninny - so as to be "inclusive" of my Latino brothers and sisters according to a white, St. Bernard Parish fire chief who spewed it at Latino roadway workers in my presence.
From Merriam-Webster: Negro - Sometimes offensive : a member of a race of humankind native to Africa and classified according to physical features (as dark skin pigmentation).
Don't think they meant the "Light, Brights" when they penned this definition, but anyway. This is my original birth certificate (I altered it in paint to obscure the vital statistics). My mother gave it to me when I went into the Navy and though I've gotten several, certified copies for official purposes, I've kept this to remind me that back then, we didn't even have the option to claim who we were. We couldn't write-in adamned thing. There was one birth certificate for whites, and one for us - pre-printed. I don't personally know any Native-Americans in South Carolina but, I'll bet you a nickel there was a separate pre-printed birth certificate for them through the Bureau of Indian (NDN as my friend, Okasha over at Cinie's Place so graciously shared with me) Affairs.
And, in keeping with the derogatory pattern of labeling by whites - from the term "Negro," sprang the following pejoratives:
From Wikipedia: Nigra - In American English, nigra is a euphemistic pronunciation of negro used in the American South to "politely" speak of black people in non-racist company. In some dialects of English spoken in the American South, it may merely be the regional pronunciation of negro rather than a deliberately and distinctly pronounced separate word.
From Merriam-Webster: Nigger - 1 usually offensive; see usage paragraph below : a black person 2 usually offensive; see usage paragraph below : a member of any dark-skinned race 3 : a member of a socially disadvantaged class of persons (it's time for somebody to lead all of America's niggers…all the people who feel left out of the political process — Ron Dellums) usage Nigger in senses 1 and 2 can be found in the works of such writers of the past as Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, but it now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English. Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive, but, except in sense 3, it is otherwise a word expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.
Now Iknowya'll don't wanna hear me rant and rave about these two little gems! And I won't - not enough room. But I just have to say this - Wikipedia contributors crack me the hell up! If they think being called "Nigra" in the American South was - POLITE! - then I'm just going to let Maxine here, tell them exactly how I feel about that.
"...may merely be..." - Please! Can they just own their racist shit instead of always trying to justify it all? Just once??
Speaking so much of home, I thought I'd go see what's being said "Down South" about this whole Census/Negro thing in one of the original "13s" where Black sensibilities are decidedly different given our proximity to the "plantation experience," and I found this - Use of word 'Negro' in 2010 census draws criticism. It's a very short read and pretty much what I expected, but chock full of information if you're paying attention. For me, the two Black women interviewed made the most salient points of the piece, with the writer bringing up the rear with the - unbeknownst to him, I'm sure - slam dunk:
From 44-year-old Trudy Grant:
Its association with the Jim Crow era makes "Negro" a negative word, she said. It's also redundant. The form already includes the word "black."
From 42-year-old Cathy Heyward:
"It doesn't bother me at all," she said. "It's part of our heritage," though she said she understands why some people don't like the word.
From writer, Adam Parker:
Labels have long been problematic, especially in the black community. Not every black person is African-American (some are from, say, the Caribbean), and not every African-American is black (consider white South Africans). By the middle of the 20th century, the word "Negro" had replaced the offensive term "colored." (emphasis mine)
During the last part of the civil rights movement, in the late 1960s, the word "Negro," deemed derogatory because of its association with segregation and discrimination, was pushed aside in favor of "black" and later "African-American."
As Ms. Grant said above, the form already includes the word "Black." That's why I think the U.S. Census Bureau is full of shit with their "explanation." Let's say I bought their bullshit. Tell me how adding "Negro" makes a tangible difference in the way census figures "benefit" us as a people. Been to the 'hood lately?
Ms. Heyward hit the nail right on the head (for me anyway) when she said the word is a part of our heritage (whether we like it or not). I was born a "Negro," that will be a part of the official record - forever. And though I've never had much for Stanley Crouch because I find his vitriolic attacks on hip-hop counter-productive, I do agree with some of the points made in this NY Daily News piece - Then & now, I'm a Negro: The people who used that word gave it majesty. If you've been reading me at all, I'm sure you can figure out which ones.
And yes, young Adam,you win the "Slam Dunk" Contest. Labels have long been problematic, especially in the black community - but that's because, with the exception of two, WE WEREN'T THE ONES DOING THE DAMN LABELING! Pretty sure that's not what you meant though.
For me, the late 60s was my "dividing time." When James Brown inspired my young generation with, "Say it Loud! I'm Black and I'm Proud!" - it forever changed me. Though I still struggled with self-esteem issues borne out of being called and treated like every one of the negative words in the title of this post, I felt the shackles falling away ever so slightly. We, in the form of James Brown, had come to our own rescue - labeling ourselves for the first time - and it fit ME perfectly! I promise you, you have no idea how good that felt!
We decided that Black was our race. And that is the reason I will always capitalize it - no matter what therules of journalism say (maddening for my former editor because he always had to change every occurrence of it in my columns before the paper went to bed)! I didn't earlier in the post because I was talking about their "black as color label." In my reality today, it's not "just a color" as the white folk had, for so long, decreed (and still do!) - it's who I am. Whites specifically, and anyone else in general, no longer get to marginalize or diminish the importance of that.
I am a Black woman of African descent. I never use the term African-American to describe myself. And although I'm sure white folk searched long and hard to find an antidote to our deciding on African-American (I say this because every jackass I've heard talking about it, keeps using Charlize Theron as an example), they have a point. Back in 2000 when I lived in the Keys, a white South African couple used to attend my dialogues on race relations. We had this "Who's an African-American?" conversation in depth and they made the same point. I concur, they do have a point - as do all of the African immigrants/émigrés who look like me. I was born here. I am a non-hyphenated American. But for those of us who choose to, or need to identify as African-American - have at it! It ain't fuh me (as my grandmother used to say) to impinge on their right to self-determination.
Because he so captures the feeling of empowerment and self-determination that calling myself a Black woman brings - just the way I feel it - let me leave you with a little Smokey Robinson, puttin' it down on Def Poetry Jam - just in case I haven't been clear. Enjoy!