Thursday, January 7, 2010
We be Settin' Trends: The 2010 Census May Include Negro as a Racial Category
It seems that the rest of the world finally caught up with We Are Respectable Negroes. A question: the host of The Griot got his chance to shine, when is Rachel Maddow going to give us our 5 seconds of fame?
Note: I occasionally crosspost over at Open Salon.com. This piece is one of the featured Editor's Choices today, so please chime in on the conversation there as well.
For the uninitiated, this blog is called We are Respectable Negroes. Not surprisingly, our choice of the word "Negro" in the title of this project has been the subject of quite a few emails by visitors to this site. Some readers have responded viscerally: we must be self-hating because only those black folk who despise themselves would ever name themselves such a "foul" word. Other readers found our choice of name refreshing and snarky--an ironic twist and wink at those folks who "get" our politics. Ironically, in reviewing the visitor logs to this site "Negroes" has also gotten us the attention of white nationalists and others of their ilk--apparently "Negro" is one of their catch all phrases for those of us who also identify as black or African-American.
I have never done a proper post on the logic behind my choice of the name We Are Respectable Negroes for this blog. I always felt that We Are Respectable Negroes worked best as a MacGuffan of sorts--one does not really need to know how or why my fellow bloggers and I chose the name to get the intent behind it. Ultimately, the "Negroes" in We Are Respectable Negroes is what you all make of it.
However, in lieu of the census controversy I will break kayfabe for a moment. For me, there is a certain dignity in the word "Negro"--a historical anachronism that signals to a bygone (and in many ways nostalgia-born) era of black respectability. As some have said far better than I, there is something to be said for imaging oneself as a colored gentlemen, with a "Kaiser Bill" mustache, rendering our musings on the politics of the day from the comfort of our sitting rooms. The problem though--as reality is so often inconvenient when counterpoised against fantasy--is that while I may fancy myself a Negro gentlemen, in the white gaze of that epoch I would be anything but free and equal. I must ask: Would I be willing to make that bargain?
It seems that the Census Bureau's decision to float "Negro" as a new/old category for the 2010 survey is not afforded the freedom of ambiguous intentions that we are allowed here.
Expectedly, the Census Department's exploration of whether to broaden the racial categories on our national survey to include a term to describe black folk that many had resigned to the dustbin of history has met with no small amount of upset. Because African Americans were for so long denied the right to name ourselves, our naming practices are laden with political weight. In this journey, we have gone from "Colored" to "Negro" to "Black" and "African American." Black folk reserve the right to our own naming. Individuals also reserve the right to name themselves (which is the logic behind including "Negro" on the census as many older black folk still identify as such).
In total, what is a name? What does it mean? What does it signal to others and to ourselves?
My late grandmother identified as "Negro" or "colored." While a product of The Jim Crow South, she never let white supremacy break her. To my face, I have been called "black" by white people with as much venom, hostility, and vindictive rage as I expect would accompany said persons calling me a "nigger" (for example listen to how Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, O'Reilly, Coulter, et al. utter "black" or "African American" during their screeds against Barack Obama). I have also been called "colored" by a white man--he was Irish-American--who was for all intents and purposes my adopted grandfather. He was a profoundly positive influence on my life and I respected him far more than most people I have ever met. By extension, we cannot forget that there were likely many a white ally who described us as "colored" or "Negro" all the while risking their lives in the service of the Black Freedom Struggle.
If I had to make a bargain, I would trade "Black" or "African American" for "Negro" in a second if it gained us better schools, fewer broken homes, a growth in income and wealth, a greater sense of personal responsibility among our youth for their deeds, and REAL racial uplift and progress that went beyond merely having more brown faces in (real) high places. And not to be forgotten, I would trade "nigga" for "Negro" in a millisecond if it would raise the level of respect held by many in the black community for themselves and towards one another. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that many black Americans would rather be called "Negro" with love, than "Black" with hatred and disdain.
Where do you, our respectable negro friends and family stand on this issue? Are you Black, colored, coloured, negro, "American," or some combination either thereof or heretofore unnamed? Is the Census Bureau out of bounds on this issue? Being provocative: don't Black folks have bigger fish to fry, both proverbially and literally, than engaging in another distracting debate on what we should be labeled? Being really provocative (and playful) shouldn't black folks be careful on this one? If we make Negro a cool word again, are white folks going to just take it back from us?