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What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants?

The Name Game by Shirley Ellis (


At first glance, the question of what name to use for Middle Passage descendants might seem like a strange one. After all, people have a name and for whatever reason that is, once they have a name, no matter what happens to them or how they are treated, that remains their name. That is the way it is for Armenians, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Jews, and all the 574 recognized Indian nations.

However, that is not the case with Middle Passage people. Their name has changed.

My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American.

Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic or a minority (Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, June 27, 2020 cited in my blog: John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History (8/5/20).

Since Lacey’s message approximately 18 months ago, the name has changed again.

The constantly changing name for Middle Passage people poses a dilemma for historians and museums. What name do you use for such people? Do you use the historically accurate name from the time period of the people you are discussing – meaning the name they used themselves for self-identification – or do you use the name from the present and impose it on the past? Then what do you do if the name changes again in the present? Do you amend your article or book and change the exhibit labels to fit the current usage? Or do you keep the name you had even if it is now obsolete and a sign of backwardness?


Let me begin to answer these questions by turning to Tulsa in 1921 as an example. Previously I wrote about an article by Karlos K. Hill entitled “Community-Engaged History: A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” in The American Historical Review (Should Historians Leave the Ivory Tower and Become Social Advocates?: The Political Consequences). In that article, Hill quotes Booker T. Washington as dubbing the Greenwood District “the Negro Wall Street of America.” Holland Cotter in “A Monument of Past and Present” (NYT 6/5/21, print, 6/3/21 online) also refers to that designation by Washington. But in a multi-authored 5-page article in the same publication, “What Was Lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre” (5/30/21, print, 5/24/21 online), the authors refrain from using the Negro designation.

Turning back to the Hill article, Negro appears three other times. Washington is cited as being part of the National Negro Business League. White Tulsans are quoted as referring to the events there as a “negro rebellion.” Finally in a photograph showing the Greenwood District burning, someone wrote on the photograph itself, “Running the Negro out of Tulsa.” Clearly, the actual residents of the time called themselves “Negro.” But Hill never uses that designation himself to identify the people he is writing about. He uses the terminology of 2021, now 2022. In this case, the historian decided has he no obligation to use the name the people used themselves.

PS It should be noted that Hill, in the Department of African and African American Studies, never refers to the Middle Passage people in Tulsa as African Americans either. That term also is becoming obsolete: change your exhibit labels!


A similar scenario occurs in the article “The Rooms Where It Happened” by Sandra Garcia (NYT 10/17/21 print, 10/15/21 online) about the Harlem Y.M.C.A. in the early 20th century. In the article she refers to a painting titled “Evolution of Negro Dance.” She cites Langston Hughes calling the surrounding area “the Mecca of the New Negro” and quotes him a second time using that term. She even uses “Colored” here four times in reference to the Y.M.C.A. chapter. However, she never refers to the actual people themselves as Negroes.

PS She never calls them African Americans either. Say goodbye to that term. It has reached its expiry date. The demise of “Fifty Years an African American” will be the subject of a future blog.


In “What Thurgood Marshall Taught Me” by Stephen L. Carter, Yale School of Law (NYT 7/18/21 print, 7/14/21 online), he writes the following about Marshall:

When I went to work for him in the summer of 1980, the Judge was still using “Negro” to refer to the race. He hated the term “black” — back then spelled with a lowercase B — which had often been an opprobrious way of talking about the people to whose fight for equality he’d devoted his life. Whenever anyone raised the question (and for the most part nobody dared), he would answer that he’d spent his life fighting for the capital N in “Negro” and wasn’t going to let “a bunch of kids” (sometimes put more strongly) tell him what he should call himself.

Today we scarcely recall the titanic struggle over capitalizing “Negro.” The New York Times, for instance, didn’t make the change until 1930, when Marshall was already in his 20s. A number of newspapers waited until after Brown was decided.

A couple of years before his retirement, the Judge switched to “Afro-American,” but he never seemed comfortable with the term. Across the many hours we spent together during the final year of his life, “Negro” remained his descriptor of choice. He’s the reason I don’t consider the word an insult.

Thurgood Marshall reminds us that the words “Negro” and “slave” were not slurs or terms of insult and were freely used by Negroes and Middle Passage people until they were told otherwise. It should be noted that Afro-American referred to in the article also has been abandoned.


Consider three examples from Columbia University. The first is a repost of something I wrote over 3 years ago revised with examples from the American Historical Association (AHA). The second and third are from John McWhorter in a podcast this past October 14, 2021 and an op-ed column in the NYT on January 7, 2022.

History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars (4/10/18)

The first article [in the Columbia Daily Spectator] to catch my attention was the front page one entitled “When Professors Make Insensitive Comments, Who Speaks up?” The article recounted the experience of one of two nonwhite students in an American studies seminar last year (apparently the junior year of the student who spoke up). In that seminar the professor informed the class that when studying the 1960s, it was acceptable to use the word “Negroes” to refer to African Americans since that was the term even black people used then to refer themselves.

The student took offense to this usage and communicated it to the professor via email with associated links why the usage was offensive. There was no change in speaking by the professor according to the student and the student subsequently ceased paying attention in class. When contacted by the newspaper, the professor responded:

“It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.”

So what? The needs of the present trump the requirement for historical accuracy.

One should note, of course, that since then even the use of “African American has become problematic. While it is still permissible to use it, it is not the term one should use as the examples above show. Similarly the lowercase spelling of “black” is now unacceptable.

Two examples from the current issue of Perspectives on History published by the AHA show how some other history professors avoid doing what the Columbia history professor did. The first example is James H. Sweet, the president of the organization. In his column, he refers to “’20 and odd’ Africans” in Jamestown in 1619. Notice what he did. The historically correct wording from the primary source document refers to “Negroes” and not “Africans.” Sweet knows this. He deliberately avoided using that term. This is an example of self-censorship. When else does he do it?

The very next article raises a similar question. The article by James Grossman, the Executive Director of AHA, and Waldo E. Martin is a tribute to historian Leon Litwack, died 2021 at age 91. They refer to his book North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, published in 1961, as pathbreaking study still assigned undergraduates today. Later they refer to Litwack talking about “Black Americans as agents of history, an agency that battled and ultimately transcended victimization.”  This concept of seeing Middle Passage people as people of agency is an important one. They devote the paragraph to the importance of choosing words carefully as part of the learning process. Yet Litwack was about 41 when he published his pathbreaking book about Negroes and undoubtedly it was the word he used for decades as Judge Marshall did. One wonders if teachers using his book with “Negro” in the title self-censor also. Suppose, for example, a teacher decided to replace the term “Civil War” in texts with “War of Northern Aggression”? What message are historians delivering when they replace the words used in history and/or by scholars with their own preferred terminology?

Woke Words With John McWhorter, a Times Virtual Event (10/14/21)

In this podcast, The New York Times columnist and Columbia University professor examined four words that had been submitted by the public for review. One of them was Negro. The questioner, whom McWhorter knew, asked if Negro had become the new N word which is not to be spoken out loud. The source was her college-student son [Marshall’s “bunch of kids”] who had informed her that it become taboo which surprised her.

McWhorter’s response was an emphatic (in a mild-manner way) decisive “NO.” He stated that the word “Negro” is not going to be reclassified as a slur. Yes, the word should not be used to refer to Middle Passage descendants today, that would be “tacky.” However, it is a historically-valid name that is not a slur. It is the word the Middle Passage descendants used themselves as a name for themselves and their organizations. He notes that if one is studying the history and literature of the Middle Passage people they are going to encounter the word citing Martin Luther King and some writers as examples. He objects to the idea that a professor should treat the word as a slur. He categorically asserts that there is “No way on my watch… shall we decide that the word Negro is a slur.”  He certainly is not going to tell his older relatives who grow up as Negroes that the very word these living people used for decades to refer to themselves is a slur.

I Can’t Brook the Idea of Banning ‘Negro’ by John McWhorter (1/7/22)

McWhorter returned to this topic over concern over recent developments that necessitated a reaffirmation of his position.

I wrote recently that William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” is “smashing,” one of the most stirring pieces of classical music I know. But I hear from an experienced conductor that several orchestras have turned down his requests to perform or record it with them, out of wariness of the word “Negro” in its title.

He objects to this cancelling of a work of art due to its containing the word “Negro” in the title.

McWhorter is well aware that people have now defined “Negro” to be a racial slur. He cites some examples of this behavior in his column and fights back. Even though people freely referred to themselves throughout most of the 20th century as Negroes, he recognizes:

The new idea seems to be that saying or writing “Negro” is not simply archaic, but a contemptuous insult in all contexts.

He goes on to note:

… its usage persists in hallowed names such as the United Negro College Fund and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The precursor organization to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (note the outdated “Colored” even there) was the National Negro Committee….“Negro” was, for example, a default expression in the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Must we place it out of bounds any time a non-Black person recites or refers to King’s words?

McWhorter wonders

What purpose does it serve to generate this new lexical grievance? I’m not saying we should revert to everyday use of “Negro” — it is indeed out of date. But does Black America [ed. He does not use the term “African American” either] need yet another word to take umbrage at and police the usage of? Do we, in Black America, need fellow travelers — sorry, allies — to join us in this new quest, eager to assist in the surveillance out of some misguided sense that this is “doing the work”?

One also wonders how many Black people, beyond a certain anointed cohort, really find the reading aloud of the word “Negro” from an old text offensive. In the Vermont controversy, for instance, the state librarian at the time, Jason Broughton, who is Black, pushed back on the contention that the word “Negro” in itself is racist.

McWhorter is fighting a valiant but losing battle. He reminds me of Joe Biden through most of his presidency so far thinking that it was possible for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Not in this reality. Of course, as adamant as McWhorter is, it is the college snowflakes and not his ancestors who are the wave of the future. McWhorter can bemoan the “certain anointed cohort” all he wants and it won’t do any good. He can bemoan the dismissal of the arts by Negroes all he wants and it won’t do any good.

This weekend, the nation pays homage to one of the greatest users of racial slurs in American history. Think of the all roads that now need to be renamed if we are to be purified. Think of the all the buildings that now need to be renamed if we are to be cleansed. Think of all the statues that now need to be toppled if we are to be corrected. We are required to censor ourselves. There was slavery and then there was the Civil Rights era. The time in between and the people alive then have no name.


Before turning to the next iteration for Middle Passage people, it is necessary to examine how white people destroyed Negro communities in the post-WW II era.

National Award-Winning Play (2019) by Stacey Rose performed at the Barrington Stage Company