Harold M. Hyman: Fight over 'Negro' has a Sad History





[Harold M. Hyman is the William P. Hobby Professor Emeritus of History at Rice University.]

...From the 1620s through our Civil War, generations of Africans were degraded into lifetime servitude in the American states and territories committed to slavery, a status their offspring inherited. In nonslave states, they were relegated to inferior economic and social existences. During the tragically long Jim Crow decades after Appomattox through World War II, many whites used “negro” and its cruder counterpart interchangeably, with little concern about, or even awareness of, their demeaning offensiveness.

In the early 1950s, my doctoral mentor at Columbia University was Henry Steele Commager, a distinguished historian and outspoken anti-McCarthy civil libertarian. Privately, he was furious about those critics who lambasted him for retaining the word “negro” instead of the increasingly used “Negro” in his vastly popular college textbooks and other publications. That word, uncapitalized, was what contemporaries had used, he retorted stubbornly, and scholars should echo past usages....

From the 1950s to the near-present, John Hope Franklin, Harvard's first Negro Ph.D. in history, took sides on the “n” or “N” issue, greatly favoring the latter, as, obviously, I did....

Franklin died in 2009. Well before then he knew, and regretted the fact, that the unity among blacks he had helped to foster by his long crusade to have Negro accepted was declining. That decline is reflected in a politically and economically sensitive issue now facing 2010 Census officials. They must soon select the race/ethnic categories among which respondents will choose as most appropriate for themselves. Although many blacks remain satisfied with Negro, others condemn it as a shameful word suitable only for Uncle Toms.

Searching for a reasonable mid-ground, columnist Clarence Page noted that “I used to be ‘Negro.' I used to be ‘colored,' too. In the late 1960s I became ‘black.' Two decades later I became ‘African-American.' … Today I hear that I am a ‘person of color.' From ‘colored person' to ‘person of color' in [only] 40 years! Who says we haven't made progress!”...


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