ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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 In a brilliant stroke of genius, Malcolm used the word “Black” to affirm and to validate the physical

 (dark skin, kinky hair, wide nose, full lips) and the cultural (Black speech, the blues, gospel

music, funkiness) characteristics of the race. Like Harriet Wilson in her 1859 novel

Our Nig, Malcolm employed irony and semantic inversion



Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989) 

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A Black By Any Other Name . . .

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis 


A name is an expression of individual or group identity, so the word that an ethnic group uses to identify itself has important historical, political, and even philosophic ramifications. For example, Native Americans reject the term “Indian,” a misnomer which reflects the ignorance of European explorers, in favor of a name that identifies them as the autochthonous inhabitants of this country.

Black Americans have used various names—African, colored, negro, Afro-American, Black, and African American—to identify themselves. Sometimes these terms were used interchangeably, but, more often than not, one term predominated during a particular historical period. Until about 1915 (through slavery, Reconstruction, and the post-reconstruction periods) the word “colored” was commonly used to designate persons of African descent, and even as late as 1909, when the National Association of Colored people was founded, and 1912, when James Weldon Johnson’s important The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was published, the term was still in general usage.

Beginning in 1915 with the advent of World War I and the migration of Blacks from the South to the North and from rural areas to urban centers, Black people in this country espoused new concepts of self and of race. The publication of Alain Locke’s The New Negro in 1924 and Carter G. Woodson’s initiation of Negro History Week in 1926 and his founding of the Journal of Negro History [1916] and of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History inaugurated a new period in Black cultural development.

The shift from “colored” to “Negro” in popular usage reflected a profound change in racial ideology. For the first time, there was a collective affirmation of ethnicity on both the political and the cultural levels, as evident by the Garvey movement and the Harlem Renaissance in the arts. From 1915 to 1965, the word “Negro” symbolized the prevailing ideology, that Black People could realize their greatest potential through integration into the mainstream of American society.

In 1965, however, Malcolm X enunciated his concept of blackness and initiated a movement that hastened a profound effect In very phase of American life—politics, education, business, the arts, etc. Malcolm committed a radical and revolutionary act by rejecting the term “negro” in favor of the word “Black,” and in so doing (1) he placed the protest movement of the 1960 within the historical context of Black nationalism, (2) he established a confrontational dichotomy—Black versus White—which characterized race relations in this country, and (3) he rejected the White, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, middle class norm as a standard for assessing Black culture.

In a brilliant stroke of genius, Malcolm used the word “Black” to affirm and to validate the physical (dark skin, kinky hair, wide nose, full lips) and the cultural (Black speech, the blues, gospel music, funkiness) characteristics of the race. Like Harriet Wilson in her 1859 novel Our Nig, Malcolm employed irony and semantic inversion in using a term of denigration as a means of racial affirmation to move Black people from the “If you’re white, you’re all right; if you brown stick around; if you’re black, get back” mentality to a “Black id beautiful” positive frame of reference.

Historically, then Afro-Americans have called themselves “colored,” “Negro” and “Black,” but even in the earlier periods race leaders, particularly the proponents of militant racial protest, consistently used “Black” as a term of ethnic identification. For example,

David Walker (1829) “ . . . the world may see that we the Blacks or Colored People are treated more cruelly by the white Christians of America.”

Nat Turner (1831) “ . . . it had been said of me in my childhood by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, . . . that I would never be of any use to anyone as a slave.”

Frederick Douglass (1852) “There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which if committed by a black man, subject him to the punishment of Death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment of death.”

W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) “Away with the black man’s ballot, by force or fraud—and behold the suicide of a race.”

Marcus M. Garvey (1923) “Let white and black stop deceiving themselves. Let the white race stop deceiving themselves. Let the white race stop thinking that all black men are dogs and not to be considered as human beings.

Langston Hughes (1926) “The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art in most certainly rocky and the mountain is high.”

Malcolm X (1960) “As a collective mass of Black people we have been deprived not only of civil rights, but even our human rights. The right to human dignity . . . the right to be a human being.”

Thus, the term has political connotations, for it expresses militant opposition to racial oppression through its association with black nationalism, “ . . . a body of social thought, attitudes, and actions ranging from the simplest expressions of ethnocentriam and racial solidarity to the comprehensive and sophisticated ideologies of Pan-Negroism or Pan-Africanism,” according to John H. Bracey et al in Black Nationalism in America. It is not by chance that W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the greatest theoretician of Black nationalism in the twentieth century, entitled his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

A few individuals in the Memphis community have suggested that Blacks should call themselves African American. To do so would be to deny the historical evolution of racial identity and terminology, as well as the political ideology inherent in the concept of Blackness. A few individuals argue that the term “African American” is preferable because it reflects our geographic origins, but it is our ethnicity and not our geography which defines us as a people. The word “African” does not accurately describe our ethnicity because the many-nationed continent of Africa is ethnically diverse, including four major races: Black African, European or Caucasian, Indian, and Asian. Indeed, Black Africans make up only 70% of the continent’s population.

Secondly, the term “African” does not accurately describe the Black American, who has undergone three hundred years of struggle: the trauma of the Middle Passage, the brutality of slavery, the violence of the segregation period, and a cathartic rebirth in the Civil Rights Movement. The existential dimensions of his life in the western hemisphere changed the African into a Black American. As Harold Cruse explained:

“With regards to African motherland, the American Negro is not an African, not even remotely. Not only has three hundred years of time separated him culturally from Africa, bit, also, has several thousand miles of geographical distance cut him off from any kind of real communication with Africa. It must be clearly understood that our racial and cultural experience as a group is distinctly American” (from  [Raymond F] Betts, The Ideology of Blackness).

Some elements of African culture, however, did survive, but they were changed into forms that were distinctly American: slave narratives, jazz, the cake walk, gospel music, Uncle Remus tales, the blues, etc.

We, Black Americans, have selectively retained that which is good in our African heritage, but we have rejected the customs, values, and lifestyles, which are at variance with our American reality. We reject polygamy, note merely because it is illegal in this country and immoral in our church, but, more importantly, because it leads to the sexual exploitation of and the economic exploitation of children.

Let us reaffirm our ethnic identity through the continued use of the term “Black American.”

March 1, 1984—3:00 am

LeMoyne-Owen College

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Back in the days of SNCC, in its last throes under Stokely C. and Rap Brown, there was an advance on the use of the terms "colored," "Negro," and "Black." From SNCC propaganda we learned that these terms were stages of consciousness. SNCC did not emphasize like Malcolm so much the cultural and the physical. I remember having such a political discussion with my girlfriend Cecily then who was rather fair (a cousin of Thurgood Marshall) how the term "black" applied to her.

Steve Biko use the word "Black," as well to refer to political consciousness, as one can discern from this quote: ""Being black is not a matter of pigmentation. Being black is a reflection of a mental attitude" (Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa).

In SNCC propaganda, "colored" had an "upper" class connotation. "Negro" was the people in their state of survival in their use of what Sterling Plump called "black rituals"; that is, they (the Negro) were the collective creators of blues, spirituals; dances; tales, and other folk forms identified as American Negro. It was my feeling that James Brown was more Negro than black, though he popularized "I'm Black and Proud." JB was not about the liberation of black people, which was the goal of SNCC Black Power propaganda. JB was an enterprising entertainer.Rudy

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I use the term Negro both ironically and seriously. Ironically, because currently we former Negroes no longer use that term to identify ourselves, preferring African American or Black, and yet both African American and Black are ambiguous with respect to identifying us as specifically and/or exclusively coming from the USA; in reality all Blacks who are born and reared anywhere in the western hemisphere are African Americans. Moreover, just as African does not identify where in Africa our ancestors came from, American does not identify where in the western hemisphere we come from unless one assumes the great nation chauvinism which claims that when we say American we are ipso facto talking only about the United States and that anywhere else in the western hemisphere is not America.

I use the term “Negro” seriously to specify that we are talking about those of us in the African Diaspora who were culturally shaped by and in turn have shaped and/or significantly influenced the culture of the United States of America. The term “Negroes” differentiates us from Afro-Cubans, Brazilians, Haitians or others “Blacks” born and reared in the Western Hemisphere. Negroes initiated the backbeat and the concept of swing in music. Samba, zouk, calypso, etc. do not have a pronounced backbeat, and those forms which do, such as reggae, do so as a direct result of the influence of “Negro” music.

The upshot of all of this is that when we abandoned “Negro” we actually muddied the water of self-identification, even as we thought we were making things clearer. In one sense we were clearer in identifying with Africa—which “Negro” obviously does not since there were and are no “Negroes” in Africa—but in another sense we confused the issue of the specificity of our Americaness by simply saying America. The irony is that we dropped one label and picked up another in an effort to be clearer, but our new term is actually more ambiguous than the older term even though the older term had its own limitations.Kalamu ya Salaam, Let's Have Some Fun

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The title of a possible discussion of the Negro in Louisiana presents difficulties, for there is no such word as Negro permissible in speaking of this State. The history of the State is filled with attempts to define, sometimes at the point of the sword, oftenest in civil or criminal courts, the meaning of the word Negro. By common consent, it came to mean in Louisiana, prior to 1865, slave, and after the war, those whose complexions were noticeably dark. As Grace King so delightfully puts it, "The pure-blooded African was never called colored, but always Negro." The gens de couleur, colored people, were always a class apart, separated from and superior to the Negroes, ennobled were it only by one drop of white blood in their veins. The caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves. To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur. Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely-guarded distinctions: "griffes, briqués, mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, each term meaning one degree's further transfiguration toward the Caucasian standard of physical perfection.—Alice Dunbar-Nelson: People of Color in Louisiana, Part I. The Journal of Negro History VOL. I., No. 4 October, 1916.

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Pilgrimage  to an  Ancestral Land: Ghana  / Miriam in Ghana

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 17 June 2010



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Related files: Miriam in Ghana  Pilgrimage  to Ghana  Randolph Visits Ghana   Ghana   Forts and Castles of Ghana  Haile Gerima in Ghana