The term Negro emerged as a social and political marker for Africans south of the Sahara in the fifteenth century. In its earliest usage it generally referred only to color and could be applied to anyone viewed as black, nonwhite, or non-European. Negro derives from the Latin niger, meaning “black,” and became Negro/a in Spanish and Portuguese. (The letter a signifies the grammatical feminine form of the word.) When the Portuguese began to enslave Africans in Portugal in the 1440s, the term became synonymous with “slave” and was used by the Spanish as they carried slaves from West Africa to New World societies at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The meaning of the term was modified by the histories of slavery in the New World, and as it entered other languages its meanings percolated through the social realities of each society. That is to say, while the denotations were similar, the connotations varied over time and space. However, the creation of mixed-race populations through miscegenation required new labels that connoted different statuses, particularly for those who were free.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Negro was synonymous with “slave” in Latin America. By the nineteenth century, however, the number of free blacks and mixed-race groups was so great that a régimen de castas (caste regime) was enacted to govern blacks and mixed-race groups. These laws restricted them to an inferior legal status, reserving social and economic mobility for whites. New terms allowed different groups to distance themselves from the negative implications of Negro/a, which came to signify poverty, crime, and many forms of degeneration. The term prado/a referred to mixed-race or brownness. There was also a long list of other terms such as mulatto, mestizo, or moreno that identified a nonwhite heritage but in a diluted form.
The meanings of these terms cannot be uncoupled from the struggle over citizenship that came to most of these societies in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. However, the leaders and intellectuals in these countries believed fervently in racial determinism and “had no doubts that the historical trajectories of individuals, nations, and peoples were irrevocably determined by their ‘racial’ ancestry” (Andrews 2004, p. 118). In spite of the claims of universal citizenship that took hold after slavery, the Negro/a or black had to either disappear or be transformed into an insignificant entity. Most of these nations therefore embarked on a campaign of whitening through immigration to create “white republics” rather than mixed-raced ones. These campaigns failed, but the effort to dilute blackness through narratives of brownness or mestizaje (“race mixing”) continues. But for the black population, the effort to claim racial identity and push for acceptance into the larger society found expression in labor struggles but also resulted in an ambivalent relationship to the term Negro/a or blackness. For example, in Brazil and Colombia organizations have emerged that celebrate blackness, and efforts are in place to develop political representation based on race. Yet blacks struggle over their desire to be accepted as citizens, and as blacks some embrace mestizaje as a way to avoid dilemmas associated with the term Negro/a. One example of the tensions that remain over blackness is in the use of the diminutive form negrito/a. This is a term of endearment and affection in societies where the term Negro/a is a pejorative label.
In North America the term Negro migrated into English from Spanish and Portuguese and was used to identify African people both slave and free. By the mid-eighteenth century the term was synonymous with “slavery” even though many blacks were free. By the nineteenth century Negro was corrupted to the even more sinister slur nigger. According to the historian Michael Gomez, the term Negro was not accepted by Africans, who generally continued to use the term African or their memory of specific ethnic terms such as Ibo or Yoruba. Though these practices varied in degree from place to place, evidence suggests that blacks effectively resisted a racial classification until around 1830, when a black consciousness emerged in response to the continued degradation of slavery and the attempt to send free blacks back to Africa. At this moment of history blacks embraced the term colored or Negro instead of African as an effort to claim their citizenship and push their demand for an end to slavery.
By the latter half of the century, after slavery’s demise, the term Afro-American competed with Negro for most blacks as a term of both citizenship and a global identity. The debate over naming was shaped by the massive denigration of African people and the poverty and powerlessness of Africa in the colonial age. The term colored was rejected in favor of Negro, which was a term of validation for many. Alexander Crummell, his political pupil W. E. B. Du Bois, and the intellectuals in the American Negro Academy campaigned to have the term capitalized. Black nationalists pushed for the term Anglo-American, while many women’s organization registered a preference for Afro-American.
In the first half of the twentieth century disenfranchisement, lynchings, and segregation became codified in law and in practice. In the context of the apartheid system of the South known as Jim Crow, other nonwhites were also labeled as Negro. These included Chinese, Native Americans, Asian Indians, and Japanese, all of whom were subjected to the same Jim Crow laws as African Americans. These practices were challenged in the courts and in the culture.
By mid-century the political climate shifted with the rise of the civil rights movement, and with this shift the term Negro fell out of favor. For the postwar generations it became a term of conservatism and complacency. The civil rights movement embodied a sense of black pride, and with the rise of decolonization in Africa, the desire to claim both blackness and an African identity shaped the battle over name. In the early twenty-first century Negro is generally used by blacks to reference a person who is politically unacceptable, and most, though not all, insist upon African American, rejecting the more racially charged Negro. But ambivalence over hyphenated terms remains as well as discomfort and confusion over the term African. An increasing minority rejects the African designation and insists on only the term American. Almost no one uses the term Negro.
SEE ALSO Blackness; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Jim Crow; Moreno/a; Mulattos; Racial Slurs; Racism; Slavery; Whiteness
Gomez, Michael A. 1998. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson
Ne·gro / ˈnēgrō/ • n. (pl. -groes) dated, often offens. a member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara. • adj. dated, often offens. of or relating to such people.
So Negress (-ESS1) XVIII — F. négresse. negrillo, negrito XIX. — Sp.