Dear media, ‘Negro’ is not a dirty word

Illustration: Anand Naorem
Illustration: Anand Naorem

When Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar thought he had sinned when he made a reference to “African Negros”, he apologised profusely, admitting that it was “a mistake related to negro word”. He didn’t stand up to the Indian media, which ran with what a channel charged was “a racist slur to describe an African national in an official document”.

It was no such thing: Negro is not a “racist slur”. “Nigger” is, but it isn’t proscribed anywhere in the world — except by the New York City Council, which passed a resolution against it in March 2007. All the resolution did was revive what writer, journalist and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates called, writing in The New York Times, (‘In Defense of a Loaded Word’, 23 November 2013), “a fairly regular ritual debate over who gets to say ‘nigger’ and who does not”. But the “ritual debate” is a historical palimpsest of social roiling — of entitlement on one side and rage on the distaff. We in India have taken the whole ‘Negro vs nigger’ dialectic to mean ‘Negro = nigger’.

‘Negro’ is an anthropological term in academic currency. It is also in large parts of the world an ethnonym, an identifier of ethnicity.

It can’t be helped that the word ‘Negro’ has a non-English origin. More than 70 percent of the English language comprises loanwords (the fitting irony being that ‘loanword’ itself is a 1874 loanword translated from the German Lehnwort). ‘Negro’ originated in the mid- 16th century — via the good, Romance offices of the Spanish la conquista and of Portuguese — from the Latin nigrum (‘black’, ‘dark’, ‘sable’, ‘dusky’).

The word remained undisputed from the 17th-19th centuries. Until the early 20th century, the prominent Pan-Africanist sociologist, author and leader of the equal-rights Niagara Movement, WEB Du Bois, propagator of “the unification and uplift” of African-origin people, wrote about “Negro soul” and “Negro blood” (Strivings of the Negro People, 1897).

Booker T Washington, who dominated the then Negro (now African-American) community for a quarter-century starting 1890, began the National Negro Business League (NBBL), which had affiliates such as the National Negro Bankers Association, the National Negro Press Association, the National Association of Negro Funeral Directors, the National Negro Bar Association, the National Association of Negro Insurance Men, the National Negro Retail Merchants’ Association, the National Association of Negro Real Estate Dealers, and the National Negro Finance Corporation. The NBBL led to the National Negro Health Week in 1916, which became the National Negro Health Movement in 1930; the US Public Health Service absorbed the Movement in 1950, the buzzword then being ‘integration’.

Since this is not a critique of the NBBL’s bipartisan — and often questionable, clandestine — interracial workings, I won’t go into how the organisation changed its name to a non-racial National Business League — except to say that it happened in 1966, at the height of the Black Power Movement and the year that Kwanzaa (which translates as ‘first’ in kiSwahili) was created. Kwanzaa was the first specific holiday (26 December-1 January) for African-Americans, invented with just a diurnal’s degree of parallax with the ‘white’ Christian Christmas and New Year’s holiday bracket.

If the Black Power Movement (1966-75) did one thing, it was tie a ligature round the matter and throttle it. The debate on race in the US has since ricocheted between the points of a tricorne: ‘Negro’ and ‘black’ and ‘African- American’. The BPM rallied round ‘black’; ‘Negro’ became equated with the collaborationist ‘Uncle Tom’; and while ‘African-American’ has been tracked back to 1863, and was formally used for the first time in 1969 in ‘African-American Teachers Association’, it would be the late 1980s before it caught American society by both lapels. Both ‘black’ and ‘African American’ had been playing hide-and-seek with the American liberal nomenclatural foxhunt since the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1894; ‘Africo-American’ was common currency in abolitionist circles since 1817 as a noun and since 1826 as an adjective; ‘Afro-American’ was frequently used in freemen’s language in Canada in 1853; and in 1921, HL Mencken wrote, with no attempt at irony, that “Aframerican is now very commonly used in the Negro press”.

By the time 2010 came round — a year after Barack Obama took office as the first ‘black’ US president — the term ‘African-American’ had embraced ‘black’ communities as diverse as the African Caribbean American (read WEB Du Bois, Frantz Fanon and Colin Powell). The 2010 US Census questionnaire got flak when it offered “Negro” as an option along with “Black” and “African Am.” (sic). The storm was an afterthought: More than 56,000 people had handwritten the word “Negro” in the 2000 Census forms.

The much-abused Gallup provides the marrow — and equally, the unpalatable gristle — for my current contrariety. A random sampling of black Americans it polled (in June 1991, May 1992, April 1994, August 1994, December 2000, June 2003 and June 2007) with the question, “Some people say the term ‘African- American’ should be used instead of the word ‘black’. Which term do you prefer — ‘African-American’ or ‘black’, or does it not matter to you?” responded with an average of 21 percent for ‘African-American’; 16 percent for ‘Black’; 61 percent for ‘Doesn’t matter’; and 2.3 percent for ‘No opinion’. It seems to me that there is a vanishingly thin line between ‘Doesn’t matter’ and ‘No opinion’, but, clearly, for Gallup, which left out ‘Negro’ from the considerations, it mattered a great deal.

In 2007, that last Gallup year for race choice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organised a funeral in desolate Detroit for the word “nigger”. But, in effect, 61 percent in the Gallup poll that year hadn’t voted for either ‘African-American’ or ‘Black’. It’s a conjecture — but a firm one — that some would have gone the way of ‘Negro’, considering that three years after the 2007 poll, there were still people attesting ‘Negro’ in longhand.

A half-decade later, the ranks of the melanin-augmented had become fortified. In May 2013, a teacher in the Bronx filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired for using the word ‘Negro’ in class. By then, also, there had been a general lingual failure surrounding the word. While ‘black’ in Spanish is negro, in black and Spanish America, the term has been worked and wrenched around to Moreno, which is less the political choice that the Black Power Movement had given its lifeblood for and more a reversion to the old ‘colored person’ equivoque: Moreno means ‘brown’, ‘dark’, ‘swarthy’, ‘dusky’, ‘swart’ — but it doesn’t mean ‘black’.

One of the first things that one learns in, and about, English is that context is everything. It’s a lesson that we journalists forget, with an increasing clarity of purposelessness. The word ‘Negro’ with a capital N became a journalistic staple in 1930, when the NYT stylebook validated it. The NYT has since then repaired itself a few times over. But Indians have always received their liberal growth cues from the US , albeit a few decades late: We are still plugging on with an outmoded glossarial certainty, destitute of the debate presently consuming America.

Not only is this wrong because it is upside-down; it is also wrong because it generalises an American vernacular use: ‘Negro’ might be iffy in the US — but it is far from wrong in much of the rest of the world (including in India).

About 3.2 billion people across the world, the speakers of 57 languages, use the word negro (or its single-vowel variations) in quotidian speech. In comparison, American English is spoken by about 225 million people, or 7 percent. This is so large an occlusion of American English speakers by the first number that it reduces astronomical eclipses to beggary.

In the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking purlieus, in fact, the word for ‘black’ to reference those of African origin is considered uncivil. If you wish to insult your Negro friend in Spanish, call him “ébano” or “luto”: to honour him, call him “El negro”. In Portuguese, you wouldn’t call him “preto” or “sujo”: you’d call him “O negro

There are 690 million Spanish- and Portuguese-speakers in the world. Add French — whose nègre gave American English the root for “nigger” — to the mix and we have 910 million, four times the number of those who can’t make up their minds about what to call Americans of African descent.

Parrikar, whatever his other faults, is neither politically incorrect in his public behaviour nor untutored in the language of finesse. While it isn’t the media’s business to be politically correct — quite the opposite, if anything — it is the media’s business to know its own language, and to own it.


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