The people who used that word gave it majesty
by Stanley Crouch
January 11th 2010
As the Census Bureau begins embedding a test in the 2010 census that
"will measure the effect of removing the term 'Negro' on reports
about a person's racial identity," my preference is not with those
who either feel insulted or think "Negro" outdated and derogatory.
That actually applies to another N-word.
As a writer, I find the term African-American unwieldy. I use terms
like Negro, black, and am sometimes tempted to use colored because
that range of skin tones is so undeniably epic. All of them are no
more than words, but there is something far from backward about the
sound of Negro and the magnificent people who used that word to
describe themselves. They gave it majesty; they made it luminous.
They inspired, organized and led what amounted to our most recent
civil war. They welcomed all comers as they went about removing the
teeth from the Grand Dragons of Southern racism.
Of course, hip hop has demeaned millions for the making of millions
and used it at every chance. But that's another story.
When black nationalism was on the rise, a hostility toward white
people and the Western world came into vogue among young people who
were then usually called Negroes. Few people wanted to be called
"black" and some were almost ready to fight about it.
It was something of an improvement when "black" became a term that
was no longer considered demeaning. It is, in fact, a rather natural
development of what was often said about the Negro race which, we
were told by our parents and others, was like a flower garden because
it "included every color from blue-black to lily white."
Vernon Davis, brother of the trumpeter Miles, once told me he felt
integration actually began during segregation in what were public
schools reserved for those possessing Negro blood but who could be
"actual blonds or redheads, with white skin and blue or green eyes."
In 1959, Mike Wallace and what would today be called "the white
media" discovered the Nation of Islam. The "Nation" was a black
nationalist cult that had woven together science fiction, ethnic
nationalism and a bizarre version of Islam that was always dismissed
as a perversion of the religion by Middle Eastern Muslims.
Many black Americans seemed more gullible, or at least loved to hear
Malcolm X castigate and threaten the white man while he was the
central mouthpiece for the cult. To hear him tell it, the white man
was cruising for a bruising and would get his when "the word was
given." It was never given, of course.
During the 1960s, when calls for "black unity" became more harsh, the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and all of those who were actually
tearing down the cotton curtain of Southern segregation were
dismissed by Malcolm X and his many imitators as cowards because they
used nonviolence instead of violence and were disdained for
supposedly repressing the "black manhood" that was ready to burst out.
America was bettered by the nonviolent multiracial civil rights
movement, not by those who saw anything less than black-approved
self-segregation as a form of selling out. They did not call
themselves African-Americans, which is a pretentious term conceived
by Jesse Jackson and some black academics.
Those so willing to pretend that they are Africans and not Americans,
or who claim their Americanness almost as an unavoidable burden, are
just caught up in yet another meaningless trend that has been
swallowed by the country as a whole. Freedom of choice is finally the
point, above all else. We are, after all, Americans.