The word negro— which ungraciously left the American linguistic stage sometime in the 1970s—has recently rejoined the mainstream discourse. And it looks like it’s not poised for an exit anytime soon.The blogosphere has embraced the word, with the criticallyacclaimed site Pam’s House Blend announcing Negro to be “back in vogue.” In an emailed response, Stew, part of the team who created the Tony-Award winning musical Passing Strange and frontman of the band The Negro Problem, declared his “love” for the way Negro “looks and sounds.” Even the United States Census has gotten in on the act, since it includes the word as part of the racial category black folk can choose to be legally labeled in 2010.
The reentry of the term had its start where you would expect: Rush Limbaugh. In 2007, the biggest man in radio used his ample pulpit to spew his familiar (and ridiculously profitable) mix of bombast and bigotry to popularize a song called “Barack, the Magic Negro.” Set to the tune of the iconic Peter, Paul and Mary folk song of almost the same name, the ditty’s esteem amongst conservatives reached its peak in late 2008.That’s when Chip Saltsman, a candidate for Chairman of the Republican National Committee, mailed out a CD featuring the song. Major news outlets like the Washington Post picked up the story. Peter Yarrow, co-writer of the original “Puff,” penned a piece for the Huffington Post, calling the parody a “slur to our entire country and our common agreement to move beyond racism.” Mr. Saltsman then lost his campaign and the RNC elected Michael Steele, a black man, as its new Chair.
But Negro wouldn’t stop there.
That same year, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quietly urging Obama to run for the presidency, he apparently wasn’t quiet enough. At least that’s what we discovered after Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released Game Change. In it they quoted Sen. Reid as explaining Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate to be in part the perception that he had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Before the book could even hit the shelves, Reid apologized. Obama accepted that apology while being interviewed by TV One, a cable channel geared toward a more mature African-American audience (think BET sans the video hoes).
The NAACP—which apparently didn’t get the memo that Negro was the new colored—yawned something about the comments being “awkward” but not offensive. But none of that would prevent the aforementioned Michael Steele, ever ready to get his swagger on, from saying Reid’s comments met the standard for racism and that he should resign as Majority Leader. After the incident, CQ Politics would describe the Senator as having reached a new “level of vulnerability” in his political career.
Having taken mass media and the government by storm, Negro has now set its sights on becoming as profitable as it is provocative. The first outlet to report the news that the Census had listed Negro as a way for people to self-identify is a site called TheGrio.com. And while TheGrio “broke” this story as if it were a new development—and its managing editor David Wilson would emphasize on The Rachel Maddow Show his belief the word would drive younger black people away from participating in the Census—Negro has been on Census forms since 1950. In fact, during the 2000 Census, over 56,000 people took the extra time to write in Negro as their race. Over half of those people were under the age of 45. So why would TheGrio and The Rachel Maddow Show report on a 60-year old fact?
TheGrio is a relative newcomer to black-oriented media and this interesting fact about the Census helped put it on the map. Another interesting fact: NBC owns TheGrio.com. It also owns The Rachel Maddow Show. Featuring the editor of TheGrio on the popular and influential Maddow has undoubtedly driven web traffic and advertising dollars toward the website. NBC is in turn owned by Comcast after a big deal that went down in December, which just so happens to be part-owner of TV One, the channel that aired Obama’s response to Sen. Reid’s “Negro dialect” remarks.The end result: three media outlets all ultimately owned by the same corporation cotton-ginned up some highprofile business on the back of the trusty Negro. While The Rachel Maddow Show was asked for and did not provide comments on the subject, there has been a troubling lack of disclosure of the financial relationship between the various players.
Call it the Negronomics of the situation.
The use of the word Negro as a driving force in news coverage exists because it flies in the face of an all-comforting narrative about a “common agreement” that Obama’s election was supposed to herald.The past year was, in many ways, a rehash of the same hysterical histrionics around race from decades past. And it is not just the blatant and latent racism behind the “Give Me Back My Country” buffoonery of the Tea Party protests. Those narrow-minded nativists
did not vote for Obama and would not vote for him regardless. Besides,
even without the Tea Party’s particular brand of shuckin-n-jivin, the
wide-eyed optimism experienced by the rest of America on Inauguration
Day would have been hard to maintain set against the social-nausea of
billion-dollar corporate bonuses, 10 percent unemployment and Jay
Leno.The back and forth around who said Negro and about which Negro
they were referring to and what they should do to make it up to Negroes
is little more than what Joe Hicks, veteran civil rights activist and
former head of the City of Los Angeles’ Human Rights Commission, might
call the same old “handy political tool… used against an opponent” to
obscure “legitimate policy differences.”
no matter our reaction to the word Negro, we really shouldn’t call it a
comeback—it’s been here for years. It first passed into our lexicon way
back in the day via the Spanish and Portuguese, who in the 16th century
used their word for black to describe the myriad and diverse people of
sub-Saharan Africa—who they just so happened to be loading onto slave
ships bound for the Americas. Erased were African ethnic identities
like Mbundu, Yoruba or Mandinka and in their place was Negro.
Eventually, the term became the official word used throughout the
United States on receipts documenting the purchase and sale of slaves.
portion of our history is a particularly harsh and revealing mirror,
contradicting how we best like to see ourselves. Slavery is often cast
as a peculiar institution in the Southern states, even though it was
Rhode Island that profited the most from the cross-Atlantic trade of
now take great pride in having elected Barack Obama to the White House,
but he is not the first black person to call 1600 Pennsylvania home.
The White House used to have its very own slaves’ quarters for its
Negroes. And even though I earned a degree from Georgetown, the first
Catholic university in the nation, I did so knowing that the priests
who founded the school financed their effort by selling Church-owned
Negroes. No matter how distant in place or far away in time, slavery’s
symbolic reminders—like the white frat boy who comes to the Halloween
party in black face or the Confederate flag sticker on the back of a
minivan—can still cause pain.
Negro’s complete story is much more than just painful.We could not have
had Jackie Robinson or Satchel Paige without the Negro baseball
leagues.We would not have marched on Washington without an old Negro
spiritual exhorting us to yearn for a time when we would at last be
free. Growing up, I personally heard my grandfather (may God rest his
soul-cooking soul) refer to other black folks—without derision or
malice—as Negroes. As Passing Strange’s Stew explained to me,
Negro “comes with a wonderfully rich set of historically complex and
contradictory associations that I am simultaneously proud to be a part
of, freaked out by and extremely excited by.”
get me wrong—I am not advocating that Negro become the “new black,” but
reporting that some twobit politician lampooned Obama as a magical one
is not news. Documenting the instances when GOP operatives, with
support and consent from the RNC, organize robo-calls to majority black
neighborhoods with false information on when and where to vote is.
Books such as Halperin and Heilemann’s Game Change may
claim to provide inside reporting on Harry Reid’s thoughts but when
that reporting becomes fodder for false accusations of racism—despite
the fact that Reid was one of Obama’s earliest supporters in the
Senate—you have to wonder if the book is journalism or mere gossip.
in all my 29 years of blackness, I have never once wanted to be called
Negro. But I know the story of my people has been defined largely by
the struggle for the right to self-determination. David Wilson and
TheGrio.com would do well to remember that before admonishing others
for recognizing that history.
We could all do well to remember that.
Young is a former political operative with the Democratic National
Committee and has served as a policy consultant to a number of
organizations on civil rights, education, and community service.