Sunday, October 26, 2008

Is This Something I Shouldn't Say?

I didn't know who else to ask, so I thought I would ask you.

I've been rereading a book called The Democracy Reader; classic and modern speeches, essays, poems, declarations and documents on freedom and human rights worldwide. I have owned the book for three or four years and have read it cover to cover before. I know that this must sound like a complete snorefest for most of you and I understand, but that is part of the reason I'm here, so I can read this sort of stuff and you don't have to.

I was reading a letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King jr. addressed to local clergymen who comdemned his actions in Birmingham, Alabama to fight segragation. He penned it in the margins of a newspaper in his jail cell. I quote just this one line only, "They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: 'My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.' "

Okay, this is the part of the article where I demonstrate what a boob I am. Has the word Negro become a horrible racial slur much like another "n" word we can think of? To be honest, I don't know. It has certainly fallen out of fashion, as I can't recall seeing it in print or hearing it spoken that I can think of, but is it an insulting slur?

I know the other "n" word is acceptable only when spoken from one African-American to another, and it isn't a word I would ever use because in my mind it conjures up the crime of slavery and the hatred, blood, and grevious sin that that entails. I cringe when I hear it.

I know of the word's relative, Negroid, as it is used to describe someone's race, like Caucausian, Asiatic, or Negroid, but that seems clinical and scientific like using the word gender for sex.

Shortly after I married Flannery, I was telling her about some event that happened to me and I mentioned that a guy was colored. "Don't say that!" she admonished. "Why not?" I asked, as it seemed harmless enough. In my mind, colored meant anybody who wasn't caucausian. If I saw someone who was "turning green", "blue in the face", or was painted purple, I would have described them as being colored too. "That just isn't the kind of thing you say. It's rude and hurtful" and perhaps she's right. I don't use the term colored anymore and to anyone I have ever described as colored, I send my heart-felt apologizes. I didn't know.

Only one man have I ever described as Negro. His name was Mr. Black and I called him sir. He worked with my father and ran a trucking and trash hauling service that made him successful even when times were tight. My father was a carpenter and often needed materials delivered or construction scraps hauled away and would always steer business Mr. Black's way if he could and he did this for a reason. Mr. Black was honest, reliable, hard working, and always on time. He would clear his schedule and make time for Dad, and would recommend him to his customers in the community. He charged a fair price but would often give Dad a discount when he knew times were thin.

I remember one fall day when I was a kid seeing Mr. Black pull into the driveway with his big, black dumptruck. He hopped out of the cab and shook my hand and asked if my Dad was around. "I'll go get him," I smiled and ran as I thought about how adults didn't normally shake my hand and I thought that was cool. Dad invited him in for coffee as he always did, but Mr. Black made the same excuse he always did about being too dirty from work to come in. The two of them leaned against the grill of the truck as they hashed out how to best take care of the three jobs they had lined up that week as the hot engine ticked as it cooled. I listened as they transacted business until I heard a rustling in the cab. "Rodney," Mr. Black called, "come on out here. This is going to take a minute." Rodney climbed out and smiled as I shook his hand. He was my size, my age, and wore the same cruddy sneakers we had spent all summer ruining. I showed him the tree swing and we laughed a lot, although I don't remember what we said. In a few minutes, he climbed into Mr. Black's big, black dumptruck and they were gone.

I was just wondering if it would be some kind of a slight to refer to Mr. Black as a Negro?

Like I say, I don't know.

In my mind there is no malice intrinsic to the word Negro. The church I attended with my Grandma was an all black Baptist church on 5th and Main downtown. We were the only two white people in a crowd of a hundred and they wecomed us in with open arms and treated us like family. They taught me what good music really was, and that sometimes you have got to sing the blues, a gift I still treasure to this day and could never repay them for. These were good, honest, hard working, and charitable folks who were active in the community and knew how to "get down" with the Lord. Would I be hurtful if I said these Negros were my friends?

I don't know, but perhaps you could tell me.



  1. I think in this situation, just calling them friends would solve the problem.

    I'm not sure how one word or another becomes unacceptable.

  2. I kinda like using the word "Black" with capitals. I also say "White". The whole "African-American" biz, in addition to being 7 syllables long, strikes me as pretentious somehow, like there's Caucasian-Americans and Oceania-Americans and that sort of stuff. The whole biz about BEING an American is blending in (while, I suppose, simultaneously maintaing your individuality and heritage... or something...)

  3. Black America and the N-word:

  4. I don't have a clue what is acceptable or unacceptable. I never used the N word. When we were small in the 60's i can remember on TV people referring to the colored.

    I have no idea what is correct anymore.


  5. Negroid is now apparently split into Congoid and Capoid (from the cape of good hope). Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Australoid are still in use.

    The word "gender" is more about social roles, while the term "sex" is the physiological distinction of mating roles, so any clinicians using "gender" for "sex" have got it wrong.

    Just a few handy anthropological tips to help you in your esoteric crisis.

    Just call everyone "buddy" or "asshole" and you'll be fine.

  6. I did a post awhile back about the word "Canadian" being used in Texas to denote black. A prosecutor was quoted as saying that the accused was found no-guilty because there were too many Canadians in the jury.

  7. Hello, real live Negro male here!

    Don't use that word. Black or African-American works fine in America. Negro has too many loaded meanings to it, probably due to whites choosing to call black people that when things weren't as equal. There's just too much racial baggage for that word to be neutral these days.

    Frankly, I find it interesting that you ask this question on the internet, but don't seem to have any black people you could ask. Whether that's because there are none where you live or you don't feel comfortable asking is another story. I'm not trying to be down on you, I just find it interesting.

    Also, remember that Wikipedia is your friend!


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