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

T. Thomas Fortune, “Who Are We? Afro-Americans, Colored People, or Negroes?” (essay) (1906)

Published in Voice of the Negro, March 1906

T. Thomas Fortune, “Who Are We? Afro-Americans, Colored People, or Negroes?”

There would be no confusion about the proper race designation of the people of African origin in the United States if the rule governing in the case of others similarly situated had been applied to them. No such confusion exists in the case of any other of the racial elements that constitute our citizenship. Despite the arbitrary classification of all Europeans as racially homogeneous, there is as much dissimilarity in their race traits and tendencies as there is in the people of Africa, who are divided, for the most part, into tribes instead of nationalities, as in the case of the European peoples. Tribal government is, however, the infant stage of national government. Europeans who have become Americanized are known, and proud to be known, how ever remote the relation in time, as in origin, British, French, German, and the like. Ask a Continental where he came from and he will answer, unhesitatingly, Europe; ask him further from what country in Europe and he will name the country of his birth. Ask an African newly arrived in the United States where he came from and he will unhesitatingly answer Africa; ask him further what part of Africa and he will name one of its geographical sub-divisions; if you are still unsatisfied and want to know what race he belongs to he will tell you to one of the tribal sub-divisions, as he has and knows no political sub division—a Vey, a Zulu, a Dahomey race. In short, he will tell you that he is "An African from this or that tribe." It is the same way with the European, the Asiatic and the American as with the African. They all have a geographical and apolitical relation to the country of their origin, and outside of their country they are referred to by their geographical rather than their political relation. This rule is universally applied to the inhabitants of all of the continents except that of Africa. My contention is that it should also apply to them, when they are racially classified, because there is no reason I have seen advanced why they should not be. 

It is by this process of reasoning that I have come to adopt the term Afro-American as the only proper race designation of the people of African origin in the United States. The term has found an abiding place in all of the dictionaries and much of the later literature of the United States. I did not originate the term, if I did force it into popular acceptation. It was first used, as far as I have been able to discover, by Hallam, in speaking of "the Afro-Assyrians." It was first used in this country, I believe, by Mr. E. J. Waring, in a newspaper published by him many years ago at Columbus, Ohio. It is not, therefore, "an hybrid, out of the newspaper gutter." If it is philologically inaccurate, blame Hallam. His shoulders are broad enough — a few feet broader in scholarship and reputation than those of Dr. J.W.E. Bowen, who insists that he is a Negro in a deluge of words most difficult tocomprehend, as he has flung them into sentences. 

Now, it is one of the isolated instances in the history of mankind that a whole race of people, inhabiting one of the geographical divisions of the earth, have been and are classified as a race, not by their geographical or political division, but by their physical qualities --by color, by hirsute texture and by cranial and facial conformation. 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? The conclusion is unavoidable, based as it is in the literature of the world for fifteen hundred years. 

The term Negro has not even a respectable tribe in Africa to dignify it. The tribe so designated is reputed to be one of the most discredited of all of the African tribes. An American recently returned from Abyssinia told me that if a person should call an Abyssinian a Negro he would fell him in his tracks. He would take it as a term of reproach--as an insult. As for the term "colored," it may be dismissed from any consideration whatever. It can be applied as appropriately to red, yellow and white people as to black ones. It has neither geographical nor political significance, as applied to a race. It may mean anything and it may mean nothing. As applied to Afro-Americans, it is a cowardly subterfuge — an attempt of the person appropriating it, or to whom it, is applied, to convey the impression that he has no race that he cares to acknowledge. I always feel a sort of merciful contempt for the goody-goody Afro-American who insists that he is a “colored person." 

There is no reason why the people of African origin in the United States should be termed Negroes or colored people–the one being a misnomer and the other being indefinite, and both being derisive, as the physical characteristics of the people, after two hundred and eighty years of residence in the United States, have undergone a radical change, as to the great mass of them. Outside of the States bordering on the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Valley States, where the bulk of the genuine black people are to be found, it is difficult to come upon a congregation of Afro-Americans in whom the physical qualities ascribed to and de fined by the term Negro have not so far been modified or destroyed as to make the application of the term to them not only a misnomer but a rank absurdity. Time, habitat and blood-mixture have produced a new race, approximating much nearer the American than the African type. And, as the years come and go, this will appear even more pronouncedly, as a logical out come of climate and the blood-mixture forced upon the slave woman by the brute lust of the white master, who was the pioneer and most brutal rapist on a gigantic scale on the American Continent, or on any continent, or in any age. We do not need any additional infusion of white blood, although we are getting plenty of it; we need only to intermarry the mixed and pure bloods of the race, as we are doing, ultimately to mix the blood of all the people of African origin on the Continent. To-day we have Afro-American black and colored people; the time is coming when we shall have only Afro-American colored and white people; and thus, ultimately, will disappear into the American people, whose race type is in process of formation; the American type, composed of some of all the tribes and tongues scattered over the earth at the tower of Babel. This is inevitable, as we have no re-enforcement of pure blood from Africa and are ceaselessly mixing blood with all the white races here with whom we live and a part of whom we are. 

We are Afro-American black and colored people. I use the term black as synonymous with Negro and the term colored as synonymous with yellow and white, for we have enough Afro-American white people among us to recruit an army with banners. It is not a pleasant thing for a lot of people who get blue in the face whenever they come to contemplate the race question; but they should not blame us, but rather their ancestors, who so industriously planted white seed in black soil. As we sow so shall we reap. 

It is of the highest importance that we get ourselves straightened out on this question of "Who are We? “We can never give dignity or force to the term Negro, because it is a common noun, defining physical qualities of race; and we can never make it a proper noun in popular usage, because it never can be stretched so as to mean the accepted geographical or political classification of race. In that case, we shall be wise to adhere to first principles and insist that we are African in origin and American in birth; and as habitat, language and religion make for homogeneous citizenship, so the Continent of origin and the Continent of birth must make for classification of race; we are therefore, by the logic of it, Afro-Americans. Until we get this race designation properly fixed in the language and literature of the country we shall be kicked and cuffed and sneered at as a common noun, sufficiently and contemptuously characterized by the vulgar term "Negro." 

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