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What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants?

The Name Game by Shirley Ellis (shhetmusicdirect.com)

WARNING: THIS BLOG USES HISTORICALLY ACCURATE TERMINOLOGY WHICH MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO READERS. IN A CLASSROOM OR AUDIENCE YOU WOULD BE REQUIRED TO SIGN A RELEASE SIGNIFYING YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF THE USE HISTORICALLY ACCURATE BUT POLITICALLY INCORRECT LANGUAGE BEFORE BEING ALLOWED IN 

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?

NEGRO CASE STUDY 1

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!

NEGRO CASE STUDY 2

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.

NEGRO CASE STUDY 3

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.

NEGRO CASE STUDY 4

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

 

John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History

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

“The “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro” was a play performed at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, from June 14 to June 30, 2019. The Barrington Stage Company had sponsored a national new play contest. The winner received a reward of $25,000 and a World Premiere production at its theater. Stacey Rose was the winner for this play. I saw the final performance. Some of the shows had audience discussions afterwards with members of the cast or the playwright but not at the performance I saw. I did speak very briefly with the playwright but nothing of significance that I recall. I thought of this play about the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro with the death of John Lewis.

SYNOPSIS

In a review of the play, Barbara Waldinger, Berkshire On Stage (June 23, 2019) wrote:

This play, a futuristic dystopia, is decidedly not typical summer fare.  In a play-within-a-play, a troupe of four African-American actors perform a revisionist history of the American Negro in four chronological parts, which essentially maintains that the “demise of the American Negro was brought about by his own hand” and “by his own actions,” despite the loving care and “noble efforts of the American government and American culture.”  Resurrecting the minstrel show style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the playwright deploys outrageous caricatures ostensibly to demonstrate, using song and dance, how the Founding Fathers saved the African savages. Minstrelsy, a sad chapter in the history of the American theatre, has been put to ironic use in the recent past. 

In chilling voiceover announcements the presumably white audience is warned against documenting what is seen onstage, and, what is worse, advised when to disengage the safety locks on their firearms.

Speaking of firearms, as I recall the NRA figured prominently in the closing scenes.

That reviewer attended one of the post-performance discussions. She reports the playwright

Deplor(ed) the fact that history is taught in the U.S. through a white supremacist lens, asked the audience to share their memories of the first time they realized there was a split between how whites versus blacks experience America.  Acknowledging that it is uncomfortable to do the right thing, Rose clearly wants to encourage us to not only talk about this issue but hopefully step up and do something about it.  If this play helps to begin that conversation, it will have succeeded.

The play was performed roughly one year prior to George Floyd’s murder. Presumably it would be different if it had been written now.

PERIODIZATION

Although, set in the near future, the play does raise the question about the demise and extinction of the American Negro. The issue need not be raised solely in a physical sense. It can be asked in a cultural sense related to the meaning of “Negro” in American history. For example, as a subscriber to The New York Times, I receive weekly emails about articles and events (in addition to the multiple daily notices). On June 27, 2020, the message from Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, was:

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.

In an online presentation Historical Perspectives on Whiteness: An Intersectional Conversation with Nell Painter (July 8, 2020) by NYU, historian Nell Painter commented on this issue in passing. She said she had been raised with the word “Negro” as a respected term. She made this point after referring to Lift Every Voice and Sing as the “Negro National Anthem.” She then politically-corrected herself to say “Black National Anthem” and explained her “politically incorrect” language. These examples are part of the “sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro.”

Like Lacey’s father and Nell Painter, John Lewis, (1940-2020), was born a Negro. He was a Negro during the formative years of his life. His values derive from this period. Even if he did not use that term to refer to himself anymore, from a historical and cultural perspective, like Lacey’s father, being a Negro defined who he was in his own mind. What did that mean? How did it differ from the other terms used? Lacey doesn’t identify who imposed the racial identifiers on the Middle Passage people or how they were able to do so. They do not appear to have been white. He does not seem have been enamored of all the name changing which has occurred.

To help understand the use of and the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro, I propose that the time from 1865 to 1965 be considered the Negro Century. These are not hard and fast dates, just guidelines.

THE NEGRO CENTURY

Two dates have figured prominently in recent national news. First in 2019, the year 1619 marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Middle Passage Africans to a British colony, Virginia, in what became the United States. Second in 2020, Juneteenth for the end of slavery in Texas and therefore in the country in 1865 became unexpectedly prominent.

By 1865, many states already had ended slavery. Therefore it would be incorrect to ignore that Africans in the United States could be free prior to then. For example, in New York where I live, the legal end to slavery was 1827. I have a copy of the manumission lists culled from the Town of Rye records where I live showing freed people from the 1790s to 1820s. Presumably, these actions were partially a result of the American Revolution. There also was a Negro Point in the 1800s. I do not know the basis of the name. I know approximate area along the Byram River separating New York and Connecticut where it was located. It is not great agricultural land. I wonder if the freed people lived near the docks where they worked. In 1868, the Village of Port Chester would be created within the Town of Rye. But the area had served as a port of Westchester before then. I mention all this to show there is fragmented information available in this one town and village but it is hard to know for sure what the history is. I suspect many other communities have a similar experience.

Several questions come to mind about this period of freed Africans.

Where did they live?
Where did they pray?
What did they do?
Where were they buried?
What if any was their connection to the Underground Railroad?
What if any was their involvement with the Civil War?

To determine if this information is extinct or not, one may also ask:

What history signs are there to mark these sites, people, and actions in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries to document this pre-1865 freed African experience?

Recently, I have come across of three examples of historical research into the Negro Century. These examples are from email lists I belong to and did not require research on my part. They show that interest in this time period still exists.

1. Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

I saw her speak at the Schomburg Center in January for the book launch and then online through a program arranged on July 21, by the National Council of History Education (NCHE). The Green Book was more than an AAA guide. It listed many non-tourist business as well. Taylor travelled the country looking for these sites.

What history signs are there to mark these sites in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries about the Green Book sites in their own communities?

2. Sarah Elizabeth Ray: The Rosa Parks of SS Columbia

The SS Columbia is a steamship being restored in Buffalo, NY. Before that it had operated in Detroit as part of the Boblo Excursion Company which ran an amusement park. People boarded the company’s boats in Detroit to travel on to the park. Sara Elizabeth Ray joined her white classmates for this graduation excursion in June 1945. She was denied passage ten years before the more famous Rosa Parks event. It became a successful lawsuit involving Thurgood Marshall. The people restoring the SS Columbia discovered this unexpected piece of history during their investigation into the history of the ship. They now have a story to tell and are working on how to do so. The video I just saw about her also shown July 21 is not yet ready for public showing.

3. Why Isn’t John Donaldson in the Hall of Fame? (NYT 8/1/20, print)

This op-ed piece describes the efforts to have this pitcher in the Negro Leagues be recognized for his achievements. If successful, Donaldson would join 35 other Negro League players in Cooperstown.

These examples to remember people, places, and events from the Negro Century illustrate efforts to resist the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture.

THE NEGRO DREAM

As to the values of the American Negro, consider this declaration:

We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Atlanta, Georgia, 4 July 1965

Critical to fulfilling that dream is the vote. John Lewis and voting will forever be paired together. His success in the 1960s contributed to the demise of the Green Book. The Negro Leagues already had ceased operations post Jackie Robinson. Lewis’s success also led to the Southern Strategy and voter suppression. The upcoming election may signal the death of those two actions as no longer being politically viable.

I conclude with two examples representing the efforts to recognize the Negro Century in the American experience and the challenge in preventing its sad demise and eventual extinction.

On a positive note there is the movie Hidden Figures (2016) which has been the subject of previous blogs (Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams, March 11, 2018). It represents a fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream noted above. It is a story of family, education, church, and service in helping Americans land on the moon.

On a negative note there is an incident at Columbia University also the subject of a previous blog (History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars, April 10, 2018). An article in the Columbia Daily Spectator recounted a student taking exception to a professor using the word “Negro” in a class about the 1960s. 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.

Contrary to the play, the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture won’t be due to white people.

The last words go John Lewis.

Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. (Final words of John Lewis published posthumously July 30, 2020)

Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams

The story of middle passage blacks in New York now moves to the 20th century. So far various posts have covered

* the diminishment of the story of middle passage blacks during the two centuries time of slavery until 1827 and some of the efforts to recover and tell the story (see Forgetting July 4, 1827 and  Undoing the Whitewashing of Black History in New York)

* the time of free black history in New York after 1827 which also tends to be ignored unless it is related to the Underground Railroad (see Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State related to the Underground Railroad especially in contrast to the recent initiative by former Confederate States to promote civil rights sites from the 20th century (see The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter and The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State through its Amistad Commission intended to be about slavery in the United States (meaning the South) while ignoring or minimizing the New York State story (see The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?)

At this point there are many people, often volunteer researchers and archaeologists, laboring to recover and tell this history.

In the 20th century, the situation changes drastically due to the Great Migration. With this movement of people from the South to various northern states including New York, the local middle passage blacks were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of new arrivals involved. Instead of the small-scale Seneca Village, there was Harlem. Instead of Weeksville there was Bed-Stuy. Instead of the Hills in Harrison, there was Mount Vernon. While the newcomers may have had ancestors dating back to colonial times, they were newcomers in New York, they had no roots to the centuries of middle passage black history in the state prior to the Harlem Renaissance.

These people from the South weren’t the only newcomers in large numbers to New York, especially New York City. Roughly at the same time, newcomers not just to New York but to the United States were arriving via Ellis Island. These Italians, Jews, and ethnics from eastern and southern Europe first saw the United States through the Statue of Liberty and a poem about the tired and the poor. They were here to live the American Dream. So were the people of the Great Migration who now had their first real opportunity to live that dream outside the agricultural southern economy .

These worlds operated somewhat separated and somewhat together. At this time, middle passage blacks were called Negroes. The word was simply the name of one demographic group with no value associated with it. It was a word everyone used including the Negroes themselves (see The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country).  When I was growing up in New Rochelle, the four leading demographic groups were the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Negroes. Intermarriage was between Irish and Italian (Cuomo-Kennedy). The first three of those groups are still called by those names.

With Negroes, a change would occur, the subject of a future post. For the moment, consider this recent announcement about an upcoming lecture:

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many whites believed that African Americans were inherently ill and doomed to extinction. To challenge this stereotype and demonstrate the race’s health, Booker T. Washington launched a public health campaign in 1915: National Negro Health Week. This talk examines the changes in, and challenges to, medical authority and public health in African American communities that the Week caused. The goal is to show how African American definitions of health differed from those of the medical establishment and the implications such differences created for the social control over, and empowerment of, African Americans.

Or this description of Negro published by the Encyclopedia of African-American Education:

The Journal of Negro Education (JNE), a scholarly refereed journal, was founded at Howard University in 1932. It is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals by and about Black people. At the time of its inception, however, there was no publication that systematically or comprehensively addressed the enormous problems that characterized the education of Blacks in the United States and elsewhere. The mainstream educational journals only occasionally published articles or studies pertaining to Black education, but no publication focused specifically on this area.

These name combinations anticipate the change which would occur in the Negro quest to live the American Dream when they stopped calling themselves Negroes.

In many ways, Negroes created an alternate reality from the dominant white world but one still imbued with traditional American values. In 1931, The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem of the United States. In an editorial (11/21/17, NYT) about “Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of the Negro National Anthem,” Brent Staples wrote:

Well before then, however, black communities across the Jim Crow South were instead embracing the soaring, aspirational lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem — which was sung in churches, at civic events and even in schools, where substituting the song for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo….

James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a time when the government seemed to have abandoned altogether the promise of Reconstruction. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, had validated the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

So while white America took a song that had been around since the War of 1812, black America created a song to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. How many monuments to America’s greatest president do you think there are in the former Confederacy today?

During this time, Negroes began to tell there own story. In 1934, journalist and historian Joel Augustus Rogers’ columns were consolidated into the book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. produced his own version under the same title in 2017. The exhibition, The Negro Artist Comes of Age was shown in 1945 at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Just this month, a lecture was presented at the same institution on the exhibit. When the exhibition first opened it was reviewed in The Journal of Negro History but the comments aren’t what you might expect:

The aim is to lift the Negro artist from the patronizing sphere of a group set off by itself and regarded as Negro artists rather than as artists who happened to be Negroes. The very exhibit itself left upon one of the artists invited to participate this very undesirable impression and for that reason he refused to exhibit.

One observes here in the post-WWII era, a desire not to separated but to be included – why should there be separate art exhibits based on race?

Yet separation was the way of the world. In 1936, the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book appeared. Annual editions would be printed until 1967. It drew on the Jewish experience of the need to identify where it was safe to be what you as you traveled throughout the United States.

So during these decades, Negroes had their own history, art, and hotels. If they had their own anthem, they also had their own sports events as well. These decades were the highpoint of the Negro Baseball League. All these differences came to a point in Brooklyn with Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. The Dodgers already were the most integrated team in baseball. Part of their mystique in Brooklyn was that they were everywhere. They were in every school, neighborhood, and ethnicity in the borough of immigrants. In some way adding Negroes to the mix was a logical next step given all the other ethnicities on the team and in the stands. It brought to the forefront the issues of the national anthem, travel, and separate but equal. In some ways, the Dodgers signified that yes, Negroes could live the American Dream and play in America’s pastime with everyone else.

In a previous post (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?), I wrote about the movie Brooklyn. It tells the story of an individual Irish immigrant to Brooklyn in the 1950s during the glory era of the Dodgers. Through education, marriage to an Italian, and the promise of a home in the new Long Island suburbs, she came to live the American Dream. My question in that post was where is the movie about the Negro who lives the American Dream…not a movie about slavery and the white savior or the Underground Railroad, but a movie about individual blacks who live the American Dream just as so many other people did.

Then I saw Hidden Figures with Kevin Costner of Field of Dreams and Whitney Houston fame. He appeared in a movie where he was not the star but delivered one of the most memorable lines of the movie: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” It reminded me of the line in To Sir with Love when Sidney Poitier is cut and bleeding red blood. One of his English students says “Did you expect him to bleed ink?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while). The bathroom scenes in Hidden Figures really do a superb job of illustrating class, race, and sex divides without being heavy-handed about them.

The movie is set in Virginia in the early 1960s when the space race heats up. The time and location are about the same as the movie Loving about an interracial marriage and just before the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school and football team in 1971 depicted in Remember the Titans. Hidden Figures itself is about three colored (not people of color) women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, NASA scientists, and how they live the American Dream. Like the movie Brooklyn and the traditional stories of white Americans living the American Dream, it is a story of family, home, church, education, service to country, and hard work where black and white together shared the fears and pride in the American quest to go to the moon.

The movie seems to herald a better day for Negroes. The proclamation “I have a dream” meant that the arc of history was bending towards a time when blacks and whites both would be able to live the American Dream together. That didn’t happen. Fifty Years an African-American will be the subject of the next post on what happened instead.

The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country

Triangular Trade

New York has experienced demographic change. There is a difference between between being the descendants of people who left Ghana centuries ago against their will to become slaves in New York and elsewhere in what became the middle passage and those who left Ghana recently by jet plane of their own free will to live the American Dream.

The catalyst for my personal odyssey about this topic occurred in January, 2016, when Whitesboro, NY, briefly held national attention. The reason for the notoriety was the municipal seal. It appeared to show an interaction between Hugh White, the founder of the community, and an Oneida chief that was derogatory towards the latter. A cable comedy-news show sent someone to Whitesboro to gather material for the show. In the course of a conversation between that person and a local resident the issue of race came up. The local resident replied using various terms including “Negro” to identify the race of the media person. At that point the person looked taken aback as if another word had been used. Truth be told, all the reactions of the media personality were over-the-top physical exaggerations who clearly was playing to the camera so it was difficult to determine if the response was genuine or not.

Nonetheless, the reaction whether real or faux suggests that there is a story to be told about the use of the word “Negro” for middle-passage blacks that is part of American history. When I was growing up in a naturally occurring [meaning not court-ordered] integrated [I did not know that word then] elementary school there were students who looked different than me called Negroes. To the best of my recollection there was no discrimination [another word I did not know] against them in the classroom or on the playground, the world I knew as an 8 year-old. The visible segregation [another word I didn’t know] was the unofficial one on the playground where the boys played kickball and the girls jumped rope or played hop scotch. If I had been asked my identification I probably would have said Jewish meaning not Italian or Irish and not have responded “white.” So when I was growing up Negro simply was the name of one group of people in the community.

The incident in Whitesboro caused me to pursue the history of this terminology further. Certainly I am aware that the term is not the one used today to refer to black people but in and of itself that change in terminology did not necessarily make the word a pejorative. It wasn’t one when I was growing up.

The term means “black” and refers to the black-skinned people in Africa the Portuguese and/or Spanish encountered during their explorations to Africa in the 16th century. It was descriptive in nature of an obvious physical characteristic that clearly differentiated the two peoples. In that sense it was not a derogatory term in its origin. That stark difference in colors between the white and black-skinned peoples very much was part of the historical context in which slavery began in this country.

These Negroes in America were a factor in the American Revolution on both sides. The British successfully recruited some of them to join their side against the Americans. Consider this excerpt from a recent July 4th article The Secret Black History of the Revolution

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John Murray, Earl of Dunmore by Charles Harris.

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

From 1772 on, Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia had threatened rebellious Patriots. “It is my fixed purpose,” he said, “to arm my own Negroes and accept all others whom I shall declare free… and I shall not hesitate at reducing [Patriots’] houses to ashes and spreading destruction wherever I can reach.” By the time he issued his Proclamation on Nov. 7, 1775, thousands of blacks had flocked to the British side to join his Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Because of Dunmore and the High Court’s 1772 Somersett decision that bondage was outlawed on English soil, the Southern states seceded from Britain to preserve slavery. In his 1775 “Taxation not Tyranny,” Samuel Johnson, the great English essayist, rightly quipped: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” [Bold added]

While the white authors today employ the term “black,” the British then used the term “negroes.” It is reasonable to conclude that the British did not attempt to recruit people to their cause by referring to them in what they thought was a derogatory manner. It was a term both peoples used and the usage is consistent with the way I had been brought up.

By coincidence, just recently a slavery story made the news right where I live. The reason was the discovery of a note in the archives of the Rye Historical Society for the sale of “my Negro girl named Pegg” by prominent Greenwich property owner, Daniel Lyon, on July 7, 1790 to another major Greenwich property owner, Nathaniel Merritt Jr., whose family gave its name to the Merritt Parkway. [On a personal note I live on land that once belonged to Lyon and indeed the community is named after him as is the nearby village park.] She was freed in 1800 and has descendants who live in Westchester County. Indeed the genealogical research by one descendant investigating the family name “Merritt” that led to the discovery.

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Daniel Lyon Jr.’s bill of sale — dated July 7, 1790 — of “my Negro girl named Pegg”

to Nathaniel Merritt Jr. of Greenwich, Conn. (Photo: Rye Historical Society)

The discovery serves as a reminder that black New Yorkers can trace or have ancestors from prior to the Great Migration from the South, prior to Ellis Island immigration, and prior to Castle Clinton (Irish) immigration. Just as New York ignores July 4, 1827, in its history so it ignores or minimizes the history of the blacks once they became free in the antebellum period. There is more to black history in New York than the discovery of burial grounds from colonial times or the underground railroad. The recently refurbished, then vandalized, and then cleaned-up African Cemetery owned by the Town of Rye since 1860 where I have been numerous times is one example of the effort to remember that history of free blacks from that time period.

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(Left) Dennis Richmond Jr., 21, of Yonkers, and his uncle,

John Sherman Merritt, 75, of the Bronx, in the Rye Historical Society’s Knapp House.

The discovery also provides a teaching and civic opportunity to use local history to address state and national issues.

This post on the use of  “Negro” is not intended to be comprehensive but there are additional illustrations which deserve to be revealed before concluding.

Professor Booker T.Washington, being politely interrogated … as to whether negroes ought to be called ‘negroes’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation to employ the capital ‘N’ [“Harper’s Weekly,” June 2, 1906]

Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and again in 1925 urged the creation of a “Negro Industrial Commission” to promote a better policy of mutual understanding.” In 1929 in the waning months of his presidency, he signed legislation for a memorial celebrating “the Negro’s contribution to the achievements of America.”

JamesWeldon Johnson, the first black to head the NAACP, described a meeting he had with Coolidge brokered by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

I was expecting that he would make, at least, an inquiry or two about the state of mind and condition of the twelve million Negro citizens of the United States. I judged that curiosity, if not interest, would make for that much conversation. The pause was painful (for me at least) and I led off with some informational remarks; but it was clear that Mr. Coolidge knew absolutely nothing about colored people. I gathered that the only living Negro he had heard anything about was Major Moton (Booker T. Washington’s successor at Tuskegee). [Bold added]

Negro History Week was celebrated for the first time in 1926 during the second week in February. This month was chosen because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays during this month. Later it would be renamed and become a monthly dedication as it is now.

These examples attest the continued use of the term by both blacks and whites without any negative connotation into the opening decades of the 20th century. They are consistent with the usage from when I was growing up.

This era also was the time of the Negro Baseball League. For several decades it thrived as the major leagues for Negro baseball players. Its teams would barnstorm with players from the white Major League baseball teams. Some of those players have been installed at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There also is a separate Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

photos107The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book

Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Wikipedia

Traveling was a problem so in 1937, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was created to aid people in finding places to eat and sleep. It lasted from 1937 to 1967.  The Smithsonian Magazine recently featured it with an article reporting that it is the subject of a documentary-in-progress by Ric Burns.

During World War II, the United States recruited middle-passage blacks to join the war effort by joining the military. This continued a pattern of their fighting on behalf of the United States in every war the country fought. One such recruiting effort was the Navy film in 1942, The Negro Sailor (available on YouTube).  Again, it seems unlikely as with the British during the American Revolution that recruiting efforts would have been aided through the use of a derogatory term to refer to the people being targeted. It continued to be a term both races uses without a negative meaning into the 1940s.

All the pieces came together after the war when Jackie Robinson, a war and Negro League veteran, became the first Negro to play for the Major Leagues and in 1962 was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson MLK 09-19-62

Original caption: 9/19/1962-New York, NY: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (L) and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson chat together before a press conference in New York, September 19th. Dr. King, who arrived to open a drive for funds and a northern “non-violent army” of clergymen and followers to battle segregation, said the “real showdown” in the segregation fight was the struggle to get negro James Meredith into the University of Mississippi.(Original caption). September 19, 1962 New York, New York, USA [bold added]

Following Robinson and even more famous Negro garnered national attention. Martin Luther King was a frequent user of the term “Negro.” He dreamed of what Negroes in the United States should have the opportunity to achieve. His use of the term may present challenges in teaching and in exhibits particularly with young students who are not familiar with the historical context and then suddenly hear a word it in a speech that they are not used to hearing.

The current issue of Time includes an excerpt from James Baldwin written in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It is from a letter of a father to his son today:

…in every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world… [Bold added]

Here again is an example about the continuing presence of terms from the past. We are confronted here not with changing a name from New Amsterdam to New York reflecting a political change. Rather the values and associations produced by the same word have changed over time. What the word meant to the black man who was alive in 1964 and what the word means to his son today to whom his letter was addressed are not the same. Readers of the magazine separated by time in when they grew up therefore may respond differently to the article depending on how they react to the same word.

In 1968, a biracial person wrote a letter to the biracial (actually bi-species) Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise. She wrote that her mother was Negro and her father was white and appealed to the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock because of the suffering he had endured. The human Leonard Nimoy, son of Jewish immigrants who had settled in Boston, wrote her a long letter in response. Little did this teen girl know that when she grew up, this self-reference itself would be an abomination to be cleansed from the maps and vocabulary of civilized people.

This survey ends in the mid-1960s. At that time Negro began to be unacceptable and was replaced by a new term to refer to the same people. My experience with name change may be different from that of blacks.  As mentioned, I am Jewish. Part of my heritage are the memories of the ghettos, pogroms, and holocausts which have been perpetrated against Jews. If we were to change our name because of these actions, then I would consider that an act of surrender to anti-Semites. I oppose the bad and evil things which were done and to want them not to be repeated. I do not hold my name in contempt as a legacy of those bad and evil things. Being called a Jew is not a pejorative despite the harmful actions targeted against us. I bring my own traditions and experiences to my understanding of the name “Negro” both as a Jew and from when growing up. I remember how hard Kunta Kinte fought to keep his name.

Recently our government became involved in the issue. In May our president signed a bill which removed the word “Negro” from federal law and requires the use of African American instead. The rationale is that the older term causes people to cringe today as the performer in Whitesboro did. The law amending Section 211(f)(1) of the Department of Energy Organization Act (42 U.S.C. 7141(f)(1)) wasn’t in place then in January at the time of the Whitesboro interview. It only applies to laws not speech. Similarly there is an effort underway in Connecticut to change the name of the rock formation Negro Heads in Branford. According to State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr., the name is anachronistic and offensive. In other words, a term used for centuries by both blacks and whites to refer to the same people now was officially designated as being offensive. Ironically the one individual American to have a federal holiday in his honor repeatedly used a word which the federal government now declares to be unacceptable as a matter of law.

As it tuns out, after this virtuous “whitewashing” of the word Negro, the banished term has refused to disappear. Despite the politically-correct effort to remove this stain from the American social fabric, it is not easily deleted. For example, the New York Comedy Festival in November, 2016, includes the show “The New Negroes.” The title derives from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance anthology book The New Negro by Alain Locke. In an interview on the show, rapper Open Mike Eagle said:

[The] provocative nature [of the title] challenges the notions of what is conjured when people think of that name. I felt like I was allowing the politics around the N-word to affect something that was important to us culturally. I want us to protect that [the word Negro] and not let it go just because people have taken it and associated it with these terrible behaviors and attitudes.” (“Illuminating What It Means to be Black in America, via Comedy,” NYT 11/2/16)

Another change accelerating after the 1960s when Negro fell out of favor, was the composition of black people in the United States. Immigration laws changed. Since then especially more recently, the demographics of blacks in New York has changed in the city as well as in refuge cities upstate. Politicians campaigning in the boroughs of New York City know that all the black people don’t have a shared nearly 400-year history of being in the United States or the colonies. These newcomers aren’t simply from the South as the earlier migration last century but from other countries. Their presence in the city generates the question of what they should be called.

In a recent op-ed piece, Yaa Gyasi wrote “I’m Ghanian-American. Am I Black?” The author raises an important issue. Although Ghana served as a depot from which human cargo was transported to America as slaves in what is called the middle passage, Ghanaian-Americans today, like those from Nigeria, Senegal, Angola and elsewhere, are likely to have arrived by jet. The Mayflower, middle passage, Ellis Island, and JFK Airport arrivals present different models for how people came to this country. Again there is a civic and education opportunity to examine the different forms of arrival and to discuss what it means in a country defined as “We the People.” Times have changed, new circumstances have arisen, new contexts have developed, so it is reasonable to wonder if vocabulary changes are needed as well as indicated by the title of the Ghanian-American’s op-ed piece.

For example, typically Irish and Italian Americans are identified by their country of ancestry just as this Ghanaian seeks to be. In general, immigrants do identify themselves by their country of origin or ancestry. Two recent presidential candidates were Cuban-Americans and not Latin Americans. That option obviously is not available with middle-passage blacks. The new science of DNA testing is being used to identify the geographical range of origin for blacks and has been the subject of several TV shows with black celebrities. In a world of global migration sometimes through multiple countries and where people of multiple colors live on the same continent, the old binary black-white classification system in America may be too limiting.

So why was the name which middle-passage blacks brought to America were called by themselves and by others changed in the 1960s after centuries of use? What terminology should be used to differentiate those people who have been in America for centuries and who fought in the American Revolution from those who recently arrived as immigrants of their own free will?

These questions touch on the larger questions of great importance to our future beyond the immediate scope of this post. What do the concepts of “We the People” and e pluribus unum mean when people of the same and different colors have such different experiences as Americans? When Lincoln said “Four-score and seven-years ago, our fathers,” he knew that many people in the audience and in the Union did not have ancestors in America 77 years earlier when we declared our independence. He certainly knew the importance of names. As a result of Lincoln the United States changed from being a plural term (they are a country) to a singular one (it is a country). For Lincoln, those who stood for America in the present were one with those who stood for America at its founding. Now we are twelve-score and zero years from that moment. Who will be our Lincoln today?

The Journey continues