The classic work, A Pictorial History of Black Americans (5th Edition), by Langston Hughes, Milton Meltzer and C. Eric Lincoln became the most widely used book on the civil rights era. First published in 1956, it is a compact but meticulously researched history of Black Americans. Words are important, and since its beginning, America has used different words, at different times, to describe Black people. However, no matter which term was used, none changed society’s perception and treatment of Blacks as lesser human beings. (Even more important, is what Blacks call themselves, which reflects not only our personal feelings but how we treat one another.)
The analysis of the term “Negro” and other descriptive words for Black Americans in the book’s Introduction is just as illuminating and applicable in the 21st century. Although written in 1956, a careful reading helps clarify “colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” etc. Unfortunately, countless Blacks fail to acknowledge that fundamentally, nothing has changed no matter what we are called. Excerpts from the book’s introduction follow:
“Who or what is a Negro? For America, the issue has never been settled with finality, for at various times, Black people have been known as “colored people,” “people of color,” “Negroes,” “Afro-Americans,” “Aframericans,” “Black Anglo-Saxons,” “Black Americans” and by a number of other appellations.. The United States Bureau of Census declared: A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be called a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Black and mulatto persons are to be called Negroes, without distinction….”
The problem is the reasoning behind the state and federal pronouncements about Negroes seems to imply that somewhere, at some time, there existed a race or a nation of “Negroes,” and that all of the people in the United States who are not 100% white and who are not distinctively Indian belong to the Negro race or nationality……..Many Americans who are called “Negroes” are “whiter” than tens of thousands of other Americans who are classified as “white.” The Black American of pure African descent is rare and recent computer studies show millions of “white” Americans have, to varying degrees, African ancestry.
Who then is a “Negro” and what difference does it make? It is far easier to answer the second question then the first. In 1819, the South Carolina courts held that a Negro was a slave, or subject to becoming a slave, and that a slave was ipso facto a Negro. The Mississippi Supreme Court said that, in the eyes of the law, “a Negro is, prima facie, a slave.” The courts seemed to be trying to provide a simple rule- of- thumb for the complex problem of deciding who should have what rights in a society in which all men are held “created equal,” but some, by common agreement by their (white) brethren were to be treated as though they were not.
Since slavery was officially abolished more than 100 years ago, it would seem that our efforts to get on with making this a free and equal society could be enhanced by avoiding the use of words which, because of past associations, are likely to be weighted with meanings we no longer intend to convey. The problem is that in their subconscious understanding, most Americans still associate “Negroes” with cotton fields and cakewalks and a debased status in society. It is probable that all Americans are descendants of slaves at some point in their history, but “Negroes” and “slaves” still have such a vivid association with our recent past that the use of the word Negro is not now an effective way to express the highest level of appreciation for people who consider themselves the equals of any other.
The Black people of America are African by derivation, American by nationality and Black American in terms of the rich, distinctive subculture they have developed here in the West. As Malcolm X said, “We are all Black, different shades of Black.” Some Black Americans have fair skin and blonde hair. Some are as black as the African night their fathers knew. But being Black in the contemporary world is not so much a matter of skin color as it is a state of mind—an attitude about the value of persons and their rights as human beings without regard to such physical accidents as color. To be “Black” is to adopt a cultural response which denies and negates the traditional implications of being “white” or “non-white” or “Negro,” as the case may be. It is an assertion that we are what we are without reference to what others may name us or name themselves.
Black people consider themselves American, not because national status was conferred upon them gratuitously, but because they were here in the beginning—before there was an America, and because their blood and sweat and tears are forever mingled with those others whose struggles and triumphs made this country great. Blacks cleared the forests, dug the canals and laid the tracks and fought to keep the country free, shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back with other Americans who happened to be white. They are Black Americans, proud of their heritage and confident of their future. And wherever you look, you will find them working, playing, worshiping, dreaming, creating and expressing their cherished freedom in the spirit of the country they would like to help make a model for democratic peoples everywhere.”