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. May 2023

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. Let me start by saying that -- and invite any readers with questions or concerns to contact us directly at amsp @ lehigh . edu. 

That said, we also feel an obligation 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... 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. This explainer is designed in part to address those questions. 

"Colored" vs. "Negro": Historically, there have been many terms used to describe people of African descent in North America. In the time period at issue, two words that were commonly used were "colored" and "Negro." "Negro" in particular was widely used by African-American people themselves to describe themselves, and it was considered a term of respect. 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 the title of his first book, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). 

Capitalizing "Negro": Interestingly, 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"). 

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 in the 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 suite, 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." 

Our policy 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.)  

To minimize the chance of offense, we are generally going to represent the N-word in abbreviated form on this site. If any readers have any questions, concerns, or suggestions on this front, I would encourage you to contact us at the email address given above. 

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 respectful term 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

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.