African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

A Note on Historical Language: 'Negro,' 'Colored,' 'Black,' and 'African American'

An explainer regarding the language policies for this site by the site editor. 

The goal of this project is to honor and celebrate the writings of African American poets from an earlier historical time period -- the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, our goal is to use respectful language and to be cautious about language that might be deemed offensive or demeaning. I invite any readers with questions or concerns to contact me directly.

It seems important to faithfully reflect the language the poets and writers included on this site used to describe themselves. Several anthologies from the period use the word "Negro" in their titles, including most famously, Alain Locke's The New Negro: an Interpretation; the UNIA's official newspaper was also called Negro World; there could be many more examples. Many of our students have found the historical usage of the term "Negro" confusing, and at times have hesitated to say words like "Negro" or "colored" aloud (even in historical context), worrying they might be offensive. While there is no harm in being cautious, having a clear sense of  the history of language usage should assuage fears that these historical terms -- used in historical context -- are offensive to say aloud. 

To be clear, in describing people of African descent in one's own words, it is appropriate to use contemporary standard usage ("Black" or "African American"). The other terms described below may today be obsolete or anachronistic, but when used in historical context they should not be "offensive." 

"Colored" vs. "Negro" vs. "Afro-American": Historically, there have been many terms used to describe people of African descent in North America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (roughly 1850-1960), two words that were commonly used were "colored" and "Negro." "Negro" in particular was widely used by African-American people themselves, and it was considered a term of respect when used by others. Writers like W.E.B. Du Bois made a specific case for it, such as in a 1928 letter where he argued that "Negro" is "etymologically and phonetically . .. much better and more logical than 'African' or 'colored' or any of the various hyphenated circumlocutions." (cited in Smith, 1992: 497). Though Du Bois had a prominent position for many years in a civil rights organization that used the word "colored" (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), he tended to use "Negro" in almost all of his own writings (including in The Crisis, he tended to prefer the term "Negro" over "colored" (see the NAACP's "History of The Crisis"). We see this preference even as early as his first book, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). 

While Du Bois' approach was the most common one used in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, there were other writers who disagreed with him, and preferred other terms. The prominent newspaper editor and writer, T. Thomas Fortune, for instance, indicated that he preferred "Afro-American" over other terms in an essay published in 1906. We have reproduced the full essay here; a key moment might be the following passage, where Fortune marks his frustration with the term "Negro":  

 The term Negro, adopted from the Latin, has been used, from primitive times, to describe the black people of Africa as they are or have been; and, so used, ithas been treated, and quite properly, as a common noun. It is impossible to get the writers in America, Europe or Asia to treat it as a proper noun. They never will do it, because it is not a term definitive of race affinities and unities, but of physical peculiarities of race, of which color is the visible and invariable index. No effort of Afro-American publicists will ever beable to convert the term Negro into a proper noun, because, philosophically, it is a common noun. This being the case, and universal interpretation makes it so with the scholars of all lands, how are we to accept it as a race designation, with the dignity which must attach to every race designation? If we should accept it, would not the race always be subjected to the ridicule and contempt of being the only race, dead or alive, which was looked upon and characterized as a common noun? (T. Thomas Fortune, "Who Are We?". Voice of the Negro, March 1906) 

In effect, Fortune here is arguing that the fact that the term "Negro" describes "physical peculiarities of race" rather than naming a "race" as other communities might (i.e., with pan-ethnic identifiers like "Asian" or "European"). So there is a strange asymmetry that he sees in the usage of this term to describe people of African descent only (if the usage were symmetrical, we would say "African," not "Black" or "Negro"). So while African American writers like Du Bois argued that the term "Negro" should be used as a proper noun (and capitalized), Fortune was skeptical that such an effort would work. Again, to be clear, while Fortune was not alone in dissenting from "Negro," the majority of people of African descent, along with mainstream institutions, followed the Du Bois approach until well into the 1960s.  

Capitalizing "Negro": There was a historical debate about whether the word "Negro" should be capitalized. In his article on the history of ethnonyms for the African American community, Tom W. Smith points out that the New York Times made the editorial decision to capitalize the word "Negro" starting in 1930: "In our 'style book' 'Negro' is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the 'lower case"' (cited in Smith, 1992: 499). The 1930 census was also the first to use the term "Negro" (see Cohn 2010); earlier census terms had used single-letter designations ("W" for "white," "B" for "Black," and "M" for "mulatto"). The turn to capitalizing the word "Negro" suggests that mainstream institutions were in fact treating the term as a proper noun along the lines described above. 

From "Negro" to "Black": Starting in the 1960s, civil rights activitsts such as Stokely Carmichael made a push to shift away from "Negro" and towards "Black" as a more powerful ethnonym, one that intentionally engaged the history of racist devaluation of Black life and intended to reverse it. Carmichael first articulated the case for this in his "Black Power" speech at UC-Berkeley in 1966: 

 If we had said “Negro power” nobody would get scared. Everybody would support it. If we said power for colored people, everybody’d be for that, but it is the word “black” that bothers people in this country, and that’s their problem, not mine. That’s the lie that says anything black is bad. (Stokely Carmichael, 1966)

The movement was largely persuasive; the scholar Zenobia Bell has shown that African American magazines like Ebony and Jet started consistently using the term "Black" by 1969, and the term was soon preferred by the younger generation. (That said, when Gallup polled African Americans about their preferred racial identifier in 1969, "Negro" was still the most commonly preferred term.) The U.S. Census also followed suit, and by 1970, the choices for racial self-identification in the Census were phrased as "Negro or Black." (see Cohn, 2010)

Later, activists such as Jesse Jackson suggested replacing "Black" with "African American," and that too became a broadly-used term starting in the late 1980s (and a term that continues to be widely used today by many news organizations and institutional entities as a neutral, 'objective' term). However, in recent years many writers, theorists, and activists have again made the case that a term like "Black" is more meaningful to them than the more sociological sounding "African American." 

On the use of the 'N-Word': Some Black writers from this time period used the N-word in their writing, sometimes quoting speech. In the Zora Neale Hurston story "Sweat," for instance it is used both with the '-r' and '-ah' endings. There is also a poem by Frank Horne that uses that word as its title. And there was a substantial controvery in 1925-6 over a novel by a white writer, Carl Van Vechten, which used the N-word in its title. The editor of the anthology Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, Wallace Thurman, made it a point to respond to that debate in the preface to that anthology in 1926.

Here, we will not censor the word entirely out of texts -- especially in certain poems where it plays an especially important role in describing systemic racism and is essential to the meaning of the poem. However, we are adding content warnings where we feel it might be appropriate. 

On the use of the term "mulatto": The word "mulatto" was widely used to describe mixed race people (of any gender) throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, the 1890 census even used the terms "quadroon" and "octoroon." This term too would fall out of fashion by the 1960s, and today the term might be considered offensive. More respectful terms might be "mixed race," "biracial," or "multiracial." That said, for reasons grounded in the history of the "one-drop rule," many mixed race people with African ancestry tend to strongly affirm that they are also Black. 

Further Reading: 

Zenobia Bell, "African-American Nomenclature: The Label Identity Shift from "Negro" to "Black" in the 1960s." UCLA MA Thesis, 2013. Accessible here.

Stokely Carmichael, "Black Power" (Speech given at UC-Berkeley). 1969. Accessible here.

D'Vera Cohn, "Race and the Census: the 'Negro Controversy" Pew Research, 2010. Accessible here

T. Thomas Fortune, "Who Are We? Afro-Americans, Colored People, or Negroes?” Voice of the Negro, March 1906. Accessible here.

Lydia Saad, "Black Americans' Preferred Racial Label." Gallup Vault. July 13, 2020. Accessible here.
Tom W. Smith, Changing Racial Labels: From "Colored" to "Negro" to "Black" to "African American" The Public Opinion Quarterly , Winter, 1992, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 496-514. 


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