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We Are Still Here: Negroes and Indians

Negro and Indian are not slur words … unless you want them to be. Negro and Indian are not derogatory words … unless you want them to be. Negro and Indian are not terms of insult … unless you want them to be. We determine not only what words mean but their subjective value. Terminology matters Perhaps the most famous divergence is between the Civil War and the War of Northern Aggression.

The appearance of “Negro” and “Indian” can prove problematic for history organizations, historians, teachers, students, and talk show hosts and newscasters. They may not be able to say the word even when it appears on screen or in a powerpoint. But erasing these words distorts the historical record and undermines understanding why they were replaced. These words have not disappeared from the historical record and continue to be used today.

In other blogs, I have examined the use of the word Indian today. Now I shift to the word Negro.

In this blog, I am continuing my investigation into the demise of the Negro era in American history due to decisions made by white people in the 1930s-1960s and the birth of the African American era. In my previous blog on this subject (The Destruction of Negro Communities and the Birth of the African American (February 28, 2023), I presented two similar but different migrations: the Great Migration of Negroes from the South and the Ellis Island migrations from southern and eastern Europe. Back then around a century ago, Negroes, Italians, and Jews all were considered to be not white.

At first all three peoples were succeeding in living the American Dream. James Weldon Johnson, head of the NAACP in New York wrote in 1925:

In the make-up of New York, Harlem is not merely a Negro colony or community, it is a city within a city, the greatest Negro city in the world. It is not a slum or a fringe, it is located in the heart of Manhattan and occupies one of the most beautiful and healthful sections of the city. It is not a ‘quarter’ of dilapidated tenements, but is made up of new-law apartments and handsome dwellings, with well-paved and well-lighted streets. It has its own churches, social and civic centers, shops, theaters and other places of amusement. And it contains more Negroes to the square mile than any other spot on earth. A stranger who rides up magnificent Seventh Avenue on a bus or in an automobile must be struck with surprise at the transformation which takes place after he crosses One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street. Beginning there, the population suddenly darkens and he rides through twenty-five solid blocks where the passers- by, the shoppers, those sitting in restaurants, coming out of theaters, standing in doorways and looking out of windows are practically all Negroes; and then he emerges where the population as suddenly becomes white again. There is nothing just like it in any other city in the country, for there is no preparation for it; no change in the character of the houses and streets; no change, indeed, in the appearance of the people, except their color. (“Harlem, the Culture Capital,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation, Alain Locke, ed. 1925; see also “The Seligmans, Philip Payton & Harlem’s Black-Jewish Alliance” by James Kaplan in New York Almanack 4/10/23).

I used the metaphor of baseball to represent that success. Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers and Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were Jews. Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was Negro. Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees and Carl Furillo of the Brooklyn Dodgers were Italian. Roy Campanella, Negro mother and Italian father, was biracial with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The one obvious difference was that Robinson and Campanella had to play the Negro Leagues before reaching the major leagues.

As it turns out, Negroes did not simply disappear from history with the switch to African American in the late 1960s. Since that earlier blog, I have come across numerous examples of the continued presence of Negroes as demonstrated in the examples below. These examples do not derive from any research I did. I conducted no search on the web. They simply are examples of the ongoing presence of the Negro in American history evident from the newspapers, magazines, and journals I receive (hard copy) and the notifications and announcements I received to my email. I was surprised at the frequency of the mentions.

In roughly chronological order:


2026 and Black Americans: A Conversation about Benjamin Quarles author of The Negro in the American Revolution (Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture 6/28/23 online)

Four scholars gathered to discuss the long-term impact of Benjamin Quarles’s scholarship: Adam X. McNeil (Rutgers University), Rebecca Brannon (James Madison University), Derrick Spires (Cornell University), and Michael Dickinson (Virginia Commonwealth University). They shared stories about their first encounters with The Negro in the American Revolution, its role in shaping their own research and teaching, and the ways in which they see Quarles’s influence on the scholarship of the American Revolution overall.

The Philipsburg Proclamation (Philipse Manor Hall, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation 6/30/23 online)

On this day, June 30, 1779, General Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation at Philipse Manor. It would go on to have a huge impact on the American Revolution.

By His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, K. B. General and Commander in Chief of all this Majesty’s Forces, within the Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to West-Florida, inclusive, &c., &c., &c.
Whereas the Enemy have adopted a practice of enrolling Negroes among their Troops; I do hereby give Notice, That all Negroes taken in Arms, or upon any military Duty, shall be purchased for a stated Price; the Money to be paid to the Captors.
But I do most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any Negroe, the Property of a Rebel, who may take Refuge with any Part of this Army; and I do promise to every Negroe Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines; any Occupation which he shall think proper.
Given under my Hand at Head-Quarters, Philipsburgh, the 30th Day of June, 1779. H. Clinton.
By his Excellency’s Command, John Smith, Secretary.

Carleton refused to break the promise of the Philipsburg Proclamation and those that came before it. He oversaw the evacuation of thousands of Black Loyalists, and it is through his efforts that the Book of Negroes was compiled and survives as one of the best primary sources on Black Loyalists in the period.

The Birch Trials (exhibition, Fraunces Tavern Museum, 6/26/23 in person)

I attended the preview of the opening of this exhibit. Obviously the Book of Negroes figures prominently in it.


“How a Grad Student Uncovered the Largest Known Slave Auction in the U.S.” (ProPublica 6/16/23 online)

Lauren Davila made a stunning discovery as a graduate student at the College of Charleston: an ad for a slave auction larger than any historian had yet identified. The find yields a new understanding of the enormous harm of such a transaction.

On page 3, fifth column over, 10th advertisement down, she read:

“This day, the 24th instant, and the day following, at the North Side of the Custom-House, at 11 o’clock, will be sold, a very valuable GANG OF NEGROES, accustomed to the culture of rice; consisting of SIX HUNDRED.”
She stared at the number: 600.
A sale of 600 people would mark a grim new record — by far.

The article goes on to recount the effort to locate the owner of this gang of Negroes. In so doing it shed light on a part of the history of Charlestown previously unknown.

“Improper and Almost Rebellious Conduct”: Enslaved People’s Legal Politics and Abolition in the British Empire” (American Historical Review June 2023)

The current issue of the journal of the American Historical Association contains an article about events in Great Britain and its Caribbean colonies mainly in the 1820s and 1830s on the abolition of slavery. The article does mention Negroes multiple times in reference to texts from that time period.

Frederick Douglass

“I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. The outspread wings of the American Eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come” (NYT 7/2/23 print).

In this op-ed piece Jamelle Bouie quotes Frederick Douglas in Boston from 1867 as the 14th Amendment and birthright citizenship was being debated. It would seem that Douglass’s vision of a “composite nationality” as a beacon for all peoples resonates with the author today.

W. E. B. Du Bois

As part of the American Historical Association amends for racist practices, the history organization is conducting book reviews of books previously ignored. The December 2022 issue has a review of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy, 1860-1880 (1935).

According to the reviewer,

Du Bois battled with editor J. Franklin Jameson over the punctuation of “Negro.” When Du Bois returned the initial proof, he asked that “Negro” be capitalized “as a matter of courtesy.”

In the exchange of letters with the editor, Du Bois wrote:

…”the word Negro is almost universally capitalized” in European countries and had been capitalized in the United States until about 1840, “when ‘Negroes became definitively cattle for all time.”    

According to the reviewer,

… to capitalize “Negro” in the pages of AHR (American Historical Review) and to take seriously his larger interpretation, required an acceptance of the radical idea of Black personhood. [Du Bois wrote] “I am going to tell this story as Negroes were ordinary human beings…”

The reviewer continues to quote passages from the book where Du Bois used the term “Negro.” Can you imagine this debate taking place today?

The reviewer comments that “Perhaps better than any other work before or since, Black Reconstruction captures the tragedy of U.S. history.”

Du Bois appears in a second book review, this book not by him but about him: The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War (NYT 6/4/23 print). The reviewer cites this passage from the book spoken by Du Bois:

“I did not believe in war, but I thought that in a fight with America against militarism and for democracy we would be fighting for the emancipation of the Negro race.”

Such sentiment did not blind Du Bois to the reality “that American white officers fought more valiantly against Negroes within our ranks than they did against the Germans.”


“Return of the Monarchy… i.e., The Kansas City Monarchs: Fort Niagara and Satchel Paige (Fortress Niagara newsletter June 2023 print)

The story of a visit by the Kansas City Monarchs, Negro American League Champion in 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1942, on August 28 and September 15, 1942 to Offerman Stadium in Buffalo to play the Fort Niagara military team stationed at the fort. The Monarchs won the first game and Fort Niagara won the second game with Paige pitching three scoreless innings in the second.

“Negro Leagues Baseball Museum announces plan to build new $25 million museum campus” (KSHB 5/2/23 online)

… the spirit of the Negro Leagues still is strong through the iconic Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Now, the museum is about to get bigger, as the NLBM and president Bob Kendrick announced plans Tuesday to build a new $25-million campus for the museum Tuesday, the 103rd anniversary of the first Negro League game.

“The Double Life of Ernest Withers: A new documentary probes the achievements — and betrayals—of an iconic civil rights photojournalist” (The Pennsylvania Gazette May/June 2023 print). The article references his photographs of the celebrated Memphis Negro League baseball team.

“Reviving a Negro Leagues Monument: Saved from demolition with a $100 million makeover, Hincliffe Stadium reopens as a minor league park and museum” (NYT 5/18/23 print).

This banner headline tells the story of one of the last of the Negro leagues ballparks still standing. Though abandoned, this Patterson, New Jersey Field of Dreams has been brought back to life.

“Remembering when Baseball Was His Calling: The Rev. William H. Greason, 98, aided Willie Mays and was in the last Negro World Series” (NYT 6/5/23/print)

This huge three-page article about the oldest living Negro leagues player obviously abounds in the use of the term “Negro.” It also refers to the Southern Negro League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

“In Homage to Mays and the Negro Leagues, M.L.B. Heads to Birmingham” (NYT 6/21/23 print)

Rickwood Field, believed to be the oldest professional baseball stadium in the United States, will host a Major League game on June 20, 2024. This action is part of the celebration by the M.L.B. of Negro League baseball. One hopes that Willie Mays, age 92 and born five miles away, and William Greason, age 98 (above) will witness this stadium where they once played.

“Schenectady Baseball History: The Mohawk Giants” (6/29/23, New York Almanack, online)

Harry Buckner, member of the 1913 Mohawk Giants
A history of the Mohawk Colored Giants who played in Schenectady. The team was disbanded in 1915 but Independent Negro teams came back to the Schenectady area in 1924 later renamed the Mohawk Giants. The author writes:
When discussing the topic of Negro teams, obviously the topic of racial issues cannot be overlooked.  Race relations were most likely not any better or worse in Schenectady compared to other areas throughout the country.… The Giants were in a unique situation in Schenectady, unlike teams from larger urban areas, the Giants relied on a white fan base to support them.  For the most part they were treated as Schenectady’s own and respected, but there was always an invisible color line in the city.

One highlight was in 1939:

During this season the team was also invited to partake in Baseball’s Centennial Program in Cooperstown where Negro baseball was given recognition.  The Giants would play the New York Cubans of the Negro National League and lose 6-0.

“The Negro Leagues are major leagues — but merging their stats has been anything but seamless” ( 5/11/23 online)

The article recounts the difficulty Major League Baseball is having integrating the statistics from the multiple Negro baseball leagues into the records of the major leagues. Acquiring the data in a standardized format is part of the problem.
Now there is a documentary The League about the Negro Leagues released July 7. The movie has received press coverage as well including interviews with the film director Sam Pollard.


In a major op-ed piece about the machinations in the Democratic presidential convention of 1948, Samuel Freedman quotes (NYT 7/19/23 print) A. Phillip Randolph, a labor and civil rights leader, informing Harry Truman in the White House:
“The Negroes are in the mood not to bear arms for the country unless Jim Crow in the armed forces is abolished.”


In an op-ed piece also following the recent Supreme Court
decision on affirmative action (NYT 6/30/23 print), Jerome Karabel quotes Thurgood Marshall:

“It is more than a little ironic that after several hundred years of class-based discrimination against Negroes, the court is unwilling to hold that a class-based remedy for that discrimination is permissible.”

On the same topic a few weeks later, Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote an op-ed piece “Focus on Class, Not Race: Affirmative action still exists — for the rich (NYT 7/9/23 print) He references first Whitney Young of the Urban League who had called for  “a decade of discrimination in favor of Negro youth.” He then quotes Martin Luther King:

“It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years”

The death of Jim Brown in May led to numerous tributes and length obituaries about the Hall of Fame football player. He is still cited as a person who left on top of his career instead of fading into retirement as a much lesser player. When playing for the Cleveland Brown, he founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. He is quoted as having said in 1968 about his film career:

“I don’t want to play Negro parts. Just cool, tough modern men who are also Negroes. And not good guys all the time” (NYT 5/20/23 print).

The death of C.R. Roberts, 87, Unstoppable Rusher in Breakthrough Against Segregation (NYT 7/19/23 print) reported on a less well-known figure. “…[O]ne local newspaper in 1954 extolled him as the “all-American Negro flash.” Two years later he ran for 251 yards against an all-white Texas team. The obituary includes mention of the famed games of Texas Western against Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship in 1966 and USC against Alabama in 1970. The latter two games were eye-openers for famed white coaches Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant.


In an article “Uruguay Has a Beef, and It’s Not With China” (NYT 7/20/23 print), there is a reference to sturgeon being raised in the “River Negro.” Apparently Uruguay is not Texas where place names with the word “Negro” are being removed. There is no indication about whether or not Uruguay got the memo.


In a review of a new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., the reviewer quotes one contributor saying about Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, where King was born, it was “the richest Negro street in the world” (NYT 5/28/23 print). Notice, he did not change the name as often happens with Negro Wall Street in Tulsa or the Negro Green Book.

[In the review of Requiem for the Massacre: A Black History on the Conflict, Hope and Fallout of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by RJ Young (NYT 1/1/23 print), the reviewer cites Young’s search for the phrase “Black Wall Street” falsely attributed to Booker T. Washington. The reviewer cites Young’s disdain for the ubiquitous use now of the historically inaccurate term even as part of the history center’s official name.]

The review of the King book concludes with:

Here was man building a reform movement on the most American of pillars: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the American dream.  

In a Jan. 16, 1964, letter to TIME co-founder Henry Luce, King explained what that designation of Time’s Man of the Year meant to him—and to the movement:

Dear Mr. Luce:
I am deeply honored that your staff and editorial board saw fit to name me as your 37th Man of the Year.
In light of the unprecedented peaks of drama, history and tragedy that characterized the year 1963, I must say that it is with a deep sense of humility that I thank you for so naming me, realizing that there are so many others who justly and deservedly should be accorded such a tribute. I would like to think that this is indeed an honor not to be coveted by me personally, but rather one to be shared by the millions of courageous people who have been caught up in the gallant spirit of the entire freedom movement, even to offering their bodies as personal sacrifices to achieve the human dignity we all seek. This, then, I consider a high tribute to this disciplined legion of nonviolent participants who are working so untiringly to bring the American dream into reality.
Permit me also to congratulate TIME upon its inclusion in the article of many of the Negro professionals who have achieved success in numerous areas of the main stream of America that ordinarily might go unnoticed by TIME’s large audience of readers. This image of the Negro is certainly one that many of us like to see carried in the pages of our national periodicals, for it does much to help grind away the granite-like notions that have obtained for so long that the Negro is not able to take his place in all fields of endeavor and that he is lazy, shiftless and without ambition.
Again may I say thanks for the honor you have bestowed upon me and my constituents in the civil rights struggle. It will long be remembered in association with a year that has carved for itself a uniqueness in history.
Sincerely yours,
Martin Luther King, Jr. (published 2/28/23 print)

Look at what is missed by erasing the Negro from American history. Negroes wanted to and were living the American dream. In “Growing Injustice, Growing Dissent” (NYT 6/4/23 print), the author writes:

Being Armenian, my family was barred from living on the fancy side town for a half-century. No Negroes, Asians, Armenians or Mexicans, the deeds read.

Asians are still here.
Armenians are still here.
Mexicans are still here.
What happened to the Negroes?

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