There. I said it.
You were expecting that other N-word? The unspeakable?
Nope. But it’s timely to take note of this one.
Over time, words change meaning & status. Ninety-one years ago, on March 7, 1930, Negro became a thing. Or rather, a proper noun.
Such changes are often mysterious. Supreme Court rulings don’t make them. Congress doesn’t pass them. They don’t come down from Sinai on stone tablets.
Though in the case of Negro, almost.
How do I know Negro arrived today in 1930? Easy:
The New York Times told me so.
There was a lot going on in 1930. The “Great” Depression had thrown millions out of work. Its impact fed labor unrest and political radicalism, some violent. Herbert Hoover was under siege in the White House. In India, the British Empire was too.
In the U. S. that year, there was a sudden increase in lynchings, which had previously been in decline: 21 were recorded, and 20 of the victims were black. Late that year 26 southern white women created the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which they kept segregated because, “only white women could persuade other white women” to join them . . . .”
Withal, the Times nevertheless took a moment to update its style book.
The notice is right there, in the March 7 issue, on page 20. In the fifth column of a six-column layout, halfway down. Not exactly a ticker tape parade with elaborate floats and ranks of blaring trumpets. But official enough.
The notice continues: “certain popular and social traditions have resisted this tendency. Races have their capitalized distinction, as have nationalities, sects and cults, tribes and clans. It therefore seems reasonable that a people who had once a proud designation, such as Ethiopians, reaching back into the dawn of history, having come up out of the slavery to which men of English speech subjected them, should now have such recognition as the lifting of the name from the lower case into the upper can give them. Major
Of course, there’s a back story here.
Pauli Murray, who is just now gaining some long overdue recognition for her amazing career and life, was then a militant advocate of the change. She wrote later:
I was born during the era when “Colored” was the prevalent usage, along with the ignominious lowercase “negro,” which I passionately hated because the absence of capitalization conveyed the status of a thing and not a person.
During my college days in the early 1930s I routinely went through my textbooks, using a fountain pen to change the small n to capital N wherever I encountered the term “negro.”
My generation of activists was part of a long struggle to elevate the designation to its capitalized form, so that “Negro” became a mark of dignity and respect.
The Times didn’t notice or heed Murray, who in 1930, was an unknown, impoverished, but brilliant student at Hunter College. But the paper did notice the man who was regarded (by elite whites) as the official spokesman of “his people”. That was Major:
All this is very high-minded; but I suspect there is more to the back story. Consider:
In those days, black voters were few, especially in the South, but in a national election they were not irrelevant. In 1928, Moton had supported Republican Herbert Hoover for president; most black voters, remembering Lincoln and emancipation, were Republicans.
Hoover had promised to include more blacks in his administration, and in particular to bring aid to black flood refugees trapped in a levee camp after disastrous 1927 floods in Mississippi. But once elected, Hoover double-crossed Moton and the refugees.
Moton got even, though. In 1932 he switched parties and backed Franklin Roosevelt, who beat Hoover decisively. Moton’s biographer asserts his switch marked the beginning of a move by back voters en masse into the Democratic camp, where they remain pillars today.
The Times had long backed Democratic presidential candidates. Was their openness to Moton’s request part of the courtship that drew him away from the old GOP allegiance?
In any event the Times was ready to do what Moton recommended:
Pauli Murray was among those who was gratified:
“That struggle was finally won when textbook writers and newspapers adopted uppercase “Negro” in the late 1930s, and official government publications followed suit in the middle and late 1940s.”
“Negro”with a capital N had a pretty good run, about thirty years. Another “Negro leader” who considered it an advance was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who proudly used it until his death in 1968.
Not only that, even many white southern politicians, including the notorious George Wallace of Alabama, learned (with obvious effort) to pronounce “Knee-grow” clearly enough to make linguistic space between it and the cognate slurs they had been repeating for decades.
But as we said at the beginning, language and usages change, and not by any orderly or fair, process. By the time Dr. King was buried, “Negro” was under pressure, not from segregationists, but from a new generation of militants for whom it was a term for fuddy-duddies and an over-the-hill black establishment.
One of the many targets of this younger impatient militance was a now older militant, who had overcome many obstacles to make it through law school, and then do outstanding work on the historic 1954 Brown school desegregation case, and raised pioneering hell on many other issues (too many to do justice to here), who was now teaching civil rights courses at Brandeis University, Pauli Murray:
Symbolic of the heightened racial consciousness that invaded the class room was an exchange with one of the . . . students which threatened to disrupt my class on my first day of teaching. I was outlining the content of the course when a young man interrupted me with the question, “Why do you keep saying ‘Knee-grows’ when you’re talking about black people?”
The young man’s querulous inquiry caught me off guard. I was having my usual first-day jitters, meeting a strange class in a new setting, and in a combative manner embarrassed me. I explained that “Negro” was a legitimate usage, a proper noun adopted by scholars and official government publications, and was preferred by many people, including me.
The young militant was unmoved. Pauli Murray stuck to her convictions, but she was clearly on the losing side of that usage struggle. She died in 1985, content, it’s reported, but not for that reason. And she was preserved thereby from reading releases like this one, from January 2008:
UNCF Adopts New Brand Identity, Without the Word ‘Negro’
January 17, 2008: In its new logo unveiled Thursday, the United Negro College Fund has dropped its full name, opting to go as UNCF as part of a branding strategy that conveys the organization as a contemporary and progressive advocate of Blacks in higher education while also maintaining its heritage.
During the four-year effort to update its logo, UNCF officials heard suggestions that it change its name, Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF president and CEO, said during a press conference at Spelman College to announce the new brand identity.
“One of the issues in the full name, African-Americans don’t view themselves as Negros,” Lomax said, recounting a conversation in which editors and writers at VIBE magazine told him the name is not “speaking to the hip-hop generation.”
“For most young people, it is a barrier,” Lomax said. “We’ve found the happy medium.”
About the only consolation Pauli Murray and the other champions of “Negro with a Capital N” can take is that history shows that the wheel of language usage keeps on turning, so who knows if or when it might be back.
Oh, and by the way, it’s good thing the Times acknowledged it was late to the “Negro” party, even in 1930.
The issue shows elsewhere that the paper was hardly a pioneer. Indeed, the Times didn’t hire a Negro/Black/African American reporter until 1966. His name was Thomas Johnson.