Naming has played an important role in developing a sense of group identity among African Americans. Black leaders have frequently argued that the names borne by African Americans influence their self-esteem and help determine their place in American life. The black journalist T. Thomas Fortune counseled in 1906 that "until we get this racial designation properly fixed in the language and literature of the country we shall be kicked and cuffed and sneered at" (Berry and Blassingame, 1982, p. 389). But what African Americans should collectively be called has often engendered controversy among the race's foremost voices.
Africans brought to the North American continent as slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries belonged to particular nations or ethnic groups (e.g., Ibo, Yoruba, Mandingo, Bakongo). But such diverse allegiances were difficult to maintain in the complex world of plantation slavery, and a new "African" identity emerged. Blacks consistently referred to themselves as Africans throughout the colonial period, and as communities of free blacks emerged in the decades following the American Revolution, they placed the prefix "African" before the names of nearly all of their churches, schools, lodges, and social organizations.
Only in a few cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans did free men and women of mixed African and European (and sometimes Native American) ancestry reject identification with their darker brothers and sisters and encourage the development of a tripartite racial system. They often preferred to be called "brown" or "creole."
After 1816, the rise of a white-led colonization movement bent on carrying African Americans back to the African continent caused a major shift in how free blacks referred to the race. Fearful that continuing to call themselves "African" would merely encourage the colonizationists, growing numbers of blacks avoided the term. Most opted for the safer appellation "colored." A few ultra-integrationists, such as Philadelphian William Whipper, urged that all racial designations be abandoned. He convinced the 1835 black national convention to pass a resolution exhorting African Americans to abandon the word "colored" and to remove "African" from the names of their institutions. Yet by the 1830s, "colored" was widely used throughout the North, a fact symbolized by the title of the leading black journal of the era, the Colored American. Between 1827 and 1899, 34 percent of all black newspapers and magazines containing a racial designation in their title bore the name "colored."
"Negro," a term derived from the Portuguese word for black, vied for primacy with "colored" after the Civil War. Blacks increasingly viewed the latter name as offensive, even though many whites continued to use it as a racial designation. After 1900, "Negro" gained broad acceptance among both races. As more and more blacks adopted the term, black leaders began to attack whites for spelling the word with a diminutive "n." Contending that whites spelled all other proper nouns with capital letters, they charged that their failure to capitalize "Negro" was a deliberate effort to label blacks as inferior. With the support of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and a majority of black leaders, the capital "N" campaign convinced the federal government and most editors, even in the southern press, to adhere to the rule by 1950.
"Negro" was never a term of universal approbation. The Reverend J. C. Embry of Philadelphia argued in 1892 that slaveholders had invented the word to stigmatize blacks. Observing that "Negro" lacked a geographic locus and failed to recognize blacks' African past, Embry and Fortune led a campaign to adopt the name "Afro-American." From the late 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century, "Afro-American" competed with "Negro" as a popular racial designation.
Some ordinary blacks simply opposed the term "Negro" because it was easily corrupted into derisive expressions such as "nigger" and "nigra." There was a steady increase in opposition to the name after 1920. One of the most intense and influential attacks came from the pen of Richard B. Moore, an African-American activist of West Indian descent. His pamphlet "The Name 'Negro': Its Origin and Evil Use" (1960) summarized objections to the term and contended that the term itself—"because of its slave origin, its consequent degradation, and its still prevalent connection in the minds of people generally with prejudice, vileness, inferiority, and hostility"—was a major factor in keeping the race in a subordinate state.
In the midst of the turbulent battles of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, many African Americans abandoned the term "Negro"—what Moore called "the oppressors' vicious smear name." The Nation of Islam (especially Malcolm X), Black Power advocates, and other black cultural nationalists renewed the assault on the term, linking it almost irrevocably in the minds of many young blacks with slavery and Uncle Tomism. "Black" quickly became the most popular racial identifier, in large part because it stood in symbolic opposition to white dominance—the enemy of Black Power. African Americans spoke proudly of being "black" and infused the term into their rhetoric, writing, and organizational names. Convinced anew of the value of recognizing their African heritage, black cultural nationalists also revived use of the term "Afro-American".
In 1988 the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson reopened the debate over racial nomenclature when he announced that blacks should begin to refer to themselves as "African Americans." Criticizing the term "black" for its singular reference to skin color, he maintained that the name offered African Americans no connection to their land of origin or their cultural heritage. During a conference after a gathering of African-American leaders in December 1988, Jackson said, "Just as we were called colored, but were not that, and then Negro, but not that, to be called black is just as baseless…. To be called African Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context." The new terminology achieved rapid acceptance, first among activists and academics, then within the broader black population. By the late 1990s it had become the preferred self-designation for one out of three Americans of African descent.
The names controversy has been a source of continuing conflict among black leaders since the early nineteenth century. Yet in each era, a few have questioned the value of this debate to the advancement of the race. Some have labeled it a distraction and a waste of time, energy, and resources. Others have viewed it as a reflection of African-American powerlessness. Writing in The Content of Our Character (1990), Shelby Steele observed that "this self-conscious reaching for pride through nomenclature suggests nothing so much as a despair over the possibility of gaining the less conspicuous pride that follows real advancement" (p. 47).
Philogene, Gina. From Black to African American: A New Social Representation. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.
Smith, Tom W. "Changing Racial Labels: From 'Colored' to 'Negro' to 'Black' to 'African American'." Public Opinion Quarterly 56 (1992): 496–514.
roy e. finkenbine (1996)
Updated by author 2005