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 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?


ProfessHer! said...

Thanks for introducing the term kayfabe to my vocabulary!!!

I, at times, lovingly and privately refer to myself as Negresse. I find the baroque spelling genteel and I, like the author of the post, wax nostalgic about the coherence, substance, dignity, purpose, and clarity of certain ancestors. For example? I recall, when a child, how so many of my older relatives' homes had pianos. Why? One was expected to master SOME art that made one useful for socializing and entertaining. Piano playing was often the art, however, if not that, then children were expected to recite compelling poetry or important speeches for assembled gatherings of family in the home. At such gatherings, home cooking was expected, along with prepared liquid refreshment. Trays served food and drinks, irrespective of social class; parlors were the location of such gatherings (the term "parlor games" speak to this history) in even the most humble home. Society was duty; humility -- though one was accomplished -- was the true mark of nobility, irrespective of bloodlines.

So, as I've gotten older, I've grown more impressed with what was vs. what is.

That said? I know that in many important ways, I am more free in 2010 than many others in ANY year in the USA. My nostalgia doesn't honor their daily struggle. And how I decide to reference myself or history has NOTHING to do with what is expected or required of the government or others. As American history makes clear that any errant, stray, and random white person could kill, maim, rape, or own those who looked like me without fear of reprisal or retribution? I am very clear that today, they don't get to call me outta my name with the same, uninhibited comfort.

chaunceydevega said...

What a thoughtful post! It is appreciated. The thoughts of the past aren't they grand? Is that part of the appeal of nostalgia by its very definition (a soft comfortable funny feeling about once was). It is unfortunate that we have not been able to as a community, in mass at least, keep the best of the old and combine it with our new freedoms. I have often wondered how our ancestors who fought and struggled so hard and so much for so long feel looking at how some of us have used our freedom so poorly. Your thoughts?

PPR_Scribe said...

I completely understand some of my elders' and others' appreciation of the category "Negro": "African American" is neither entirely accurate nor specific, and "black" is a color.

Personally I prefer capital B Black even in circumstances where style manuals say otherwise.

I'm not sure, however, that I entirely understand people who are "offended" by the inclusion of Negro. I remember going through this when I was developing a survey. People did all sorts of things to the forms, including crossing out those terms they disliked and writing in others. One responded even used the back of the survey form to write a full-page discussion of why she chose what she did.

Can't please all of the people all of the time, I suppose. Whatever the case, I hope that none of this takes away from the importance of having African American/Black/Negro communities and all communities of color ensure that we are counted.

Al From Bay Shore said...

Ban the term "African American". Too many syllables, and it sounds awkward and effete. Did I mention that it is about as lyrical sounding as a car accident? Its so much better to say "Black man", "Black folks", and "Black people". It is simultaneously a color and an ethinicity. check it out: "Black women" are beautifully "Black" in all their shades of beige, tan, and brown. It connotes strength in its emotional value - "Black people" hit the streets in angry "Black" protests. It is both a word and an exclamation point: "I am the original Asiatic Black man..."

Now try to substitute "African American" in the above phrases and terms. See what I mean. Abolish this term. We are a powerful people and African American is simply not a powerful sounding term. In fact, the term conjures images of an effete "African American" man being forced to wear a leather shoulder satchel (purse) over his powder blue dashiki while wearing a pair of Birkenstocks as he is being dragged to feminist poetry reading by his repressed lesbian wife.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, the term conjures images of an effete "African American" man being forced to wear a leather shoulder satchel (purse) over his powder blue dashiki while wearing a pair of Birkenstocks as he is being dragged to feminist poetry reading by his repressed lesbian wife."

Hee hee. You just made my day! :)

chaunceydevega said...

@Al--that is classic. Would the brother be wearing some shea butter and a splattering of oils that he purchased from the brother at the flea market?

I will also agree that using black in a swear or profanity laced screed is much much easier than using African American.

Bobby the Lip said...

When I was a child in Baltimore over sixty years ago, "Negro" and "colored" were the polite terms. When "Black" came into widespread currency some twenty-odd years later, it took me a while to get used to it; for some reason it sounded more racially charged to me. I got over it by telling myself that I should honor people's right to be called whatever they--not I--decided. I still prefer "Black" to "African-American" just because I find it less cumbersome. Who cares? I'm just another liberal white guy doing the best I can, hoping to be judged for the content of my character while recognizing that the words I use are pieces of evidence.
An aside: I was raised in a household where the older members were fluent in Yiddish. They called a black person a "Schwartze", which means "black". I hope no disrespect was intended, but I would never use the term today. Of course, I am not a Yiddish-speaker. If I were, I guess I would have little choice.
I would trust the guidance of the people who taught me not to judge people based on skin color before I trusted Liz Cheney or Michael Steele.

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