The N-Word

Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright © 1997 by Resource Books. All rights reserved.


Sometime during the 1960s, "Negro" became wrong.

Among its shadowy alternatives, "black" suddenly became right. It was an abrupt linguistic event. One moment, you were thought courteous and respectful when you said "Negro" (indeed, polite people regardless of race did not refer to Negroes as "black people," or worse, as "blacks"), next moment -- and until recently -- you are supposed to say "blacks" or "the black community." Use the word "Negro" and you're a certified bigot.

There can be no forgetting, habitual mispronunciation of the N-word by a vulgar few produced a hurtful slur. Whatever its faults, though, "Negro" only had one meaning.

Negro n. A member of the Negroid ethnic division 
of the human species, especially one of various 
peoples of Africa.

"Negro" owned a precise place in the minds of millions, and "positioning theory" would argue for its preservation. Of course, people have the right to call themselves anything they want and to change their collective designation at will. And yet, in the commercial world, an established trademark takes on immense value -- value that over time accrues to the product itself. No pun intended, but replacing a brand name denigrates the product, with perilous marketing consequences for the enterprise. In this case, as viewed from the outside, the benefits of change are hard to rationalize.

  • "Black" means "being of darkest achromatic visual value, producing or reflecting comparatively little light and having no predominant hue." Who would want to be thus described?
  • "Black" also means soiled, as from soot. "Black" means evil or sinister, as in "black deeds." You could look it up.
  • "Black" means cheerless and depressing, gloomy, a state of being angered, sullen, attended with disaster, calamitous.
  • "Black" -- even in humor -- designates a form that deals with the abnormal and grotesque aspects of life and society, evoking -- not always successfully -- a sense of comedy in the face of human despair and failure.
  • "Black" denotes a color - or rather lack of color -- which is fine if color -- or lack of color -- is what you really want to denote.  "Black" is not the true color of black people; hence, presumably, the occasional "people of color."
Most inhabitants of the New World must endure a minor indignity: Whatever our descent, whatever language we speak -- English, French, Spanish, Portuguese -- we nevertheless live on a pair of continents named for an Italian explorer. With origins in Spanish and Portuguese, "Negro" was cut off from its African roots. "American Negro" gets a double dose of indignity. "Negro American" is surely no improvement. But, forgive me for asking, why is "black" better?

Saying "African American" seems to be indulging a cult of ethnicity more than dignifying a race. It gives first priority to differentiation -- the exact act being deliberately resisted in the fair administration of opportunites and the enforcment of laws here in America.  By the way, if the proud roots of all black people are indeed traceable to Africa, are there not national or tribal diversities on that vast continent that also deserve to be recognized?

In a free society, it must be decidedly difficult to produce an overnight taboo. For the case at hand, Negroes would need to mount a massive anti-"Negro" campaign. To clobber any word, its opponents must motivate tens of millions of people to take up verbal weapons. Stealth won't work. Leaders need to promulgate great manifestos, deliver galvanizing speeches.

From outside the Black Power movement, one can only speculate about the process by which the word "black" was appropriated. Maybe the leaders acted on the advice of a commission or a task force. What shall we call ourselves? Afro-something? Hmm: "Afro power"? No, too continent-specific. Well, there's always "black."

Never mind the unattractive associations...

  • blackball,
  • black eye,
  • blackguard,
  • blacklist,
  • black magic,
  • blackmail,
  • black market,
  • black sheep.
Never mind that the black pieces move last in chess and are considered to have a disadvantage.

"Black is beautiful!" was a cry of defiance, it seems, as much as a celebration of diversity. Forty years ago, this alliterative slogan launched "the black community." What's next after "the African American community"? No matter. I have successfully removed "Negro" from my vocabulary.

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