The Life of the Man

Lerone Bennett Jr. was the gold standard for Black journalists and historians. As Amiri Baraka once eulogized James Baldwin, Bennett “traveled the world like its historian and its biographer.” People remember “Before the Mayflower,” but they might have forgotten that Bennett once shared a jeep with the SNCC activists in the South, covered the Million Man March, and, perhaps one of his greatest articles, covered extensively the Pan-African Conference in Tanzania in 1974 (See below). That last article was one of the most substantive for a Black publication, and that was when there was actual competition! Bennett made Ebony a legitimate publication, and Johnson knew it. Johnson will forever be known to me as the Black millionaire who funded his own historian. Together, they made money with Bennett’s book. But they also helped to make history by writing history. I grew up with “A Pictorial History of Black America,” Bennett’s “encyclopedia” series on Black history that was published in the 1970s. Also, he wrote my favorite history book, “The Shaping of Black America.” Sadly, it’s one of his lesser-known works. In it, Bennett describes the founding and the building of Black America in the 18th century, describing the development of Black communities. I have spent my life imitating Lerone Bennett Jr., and will continue to do so. SDMNEWS Editor’s PICK What’s In a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black Lerone Bennett, Jr. Senior Editor, Ebony Magazine More concretely, within the context of the racial looking glass, the question is whether one can make the word “Negro’ mean so many different things or whether one should abandon it and use the words “black” or “Afro-American.” This question is at the root of a bitter national controversy over the proper designation for identifiable Americans of African descent. (More than 40 million “white” Americans, according to some scholars, have African ancestors.) A large and vocal group is pressing an aggressive campaign for the use of the word “Afro-American” as the only historically accurate and humanly significant designation of this large and pivotal portion of the American population. This group charges that the word “Negro” is an inaccurate epithet which perpetuates the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans. An equally large, but not so vocal, group says the word “Negro” is as accurate and as euphonious as the words “black” and “Afro-American. This group is scornful of the premises of the advocates of change. A Negro by any other name, they say, would be as black and as beautiful–and as segregated. The times, they add, are too crucial for Negroes to dissipate their energy in fratricidal strife over names.

But the pro-black contingent contends, with Humpty Dumpty, that names are of the essence of the game of power and control. And they maintain that a change in name will short-circuit the stereotyped thinking patterns that undergird the system of racism in America. To make things even more complicated, a third group, composed primarily of Black Power advocates, has adopted a new vocabulary in which the word “black” is reserved for “black brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves,” and the word “Negro” is used contemptuously for Negroes “who are still in Whitey’s bag and who still think of themselves and speak of themselves as Negroes.” This controversy, which rages with religious intensity from the street corners of Harlem to the campuses of Southern colleges, has alienated old friends, split national organizations and disrupted national conventions. It was discussed with gravity at a meeting of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and it is a matter of grave concern to prominent Negro leaders who have been heckled and publicly denounced for using the word “Negro.” Within the last year, several organizations have gone on record in opposition to continued use of the words. At the Racism in Education Conference of the American Federation of Teachers, the delegates unanimously endorsed a resolution which called on all educators, persons, and organizations to abandon the “slavery-imposed name” “Negro” for the terms “African American ” or “Afro-American.” A similar resolution was unanimously adopted at the National Conference on Black Power. But the Black Power conferees compounded the problem by insisting upon the substitution of the word “Black” for the word “Negro.” There was additional ferment during this same this period on the local level where militant groups passed a variety of pro-black and pro-Afro-American resolutions and peppered newspapers and magazines with angry and, in some cases, abusive letters. Some pro-Negro advocates charged indignantly that “the whole black issue was raised by a handful of intellectuals, none of whom are black, except for their beards.”

But it was obvious that the controversy touched deep emotions in the black community where many segments, particularly the young, are engaged in an agonizing search for self-identity and self-determination. Pressures from these groups and from black professionals gave the movement an edge that isolated nationalists, working alone, had never been able to forge. And it was in response to the growing edge of blackness that several organizations, some of them composed of black professionals, changed their letterheads to indicate the new vision they have of themselves and of their relation to Africa and America. The Negro Teachers Association of New York City, for example, became the African-American Teachers Association. More significantly, in terms of mass impact, the New York Amsterdam News, one of the largest black newspapers, announced that it would no longer use the word “Negro.” The newspaper, which now identifies Americans of African descent as Afro-Americans, reports a favorable response to the change. Dick Edwards, the assistant managing editor, says letters are running nine to one in favor of Afro-American. “We like the word,” he says, “because we are descendants of Africans and because we are Americans.” He added: “There is a cringing from the word ‘Negro,’ especially by the young, because of the oppression into which we were born, and because that name was imposed on us. There seems to be violent objection to the term among young people, who link the word ‘Negro’ with Uncle Tom. They seldom use the word ‘Negro.’ They use ‘Black’ and ‘African.’ Some of them even object to the word ‘Afro-American,’ preferring the term ‘Afram.’” Is the name game real? Will it last? Are there substantial grounds for the violent opposition to the word “Negro”? To answer these questions and to relate them to the whole bubbling controversy, one must go back 400 years. For Americans of African descent have been arguing about names ever since they were forcibly transported from Africa by Europeans who arbitrarily branded them “Blackamoors,” “Moors,” “negers,” and “negros.” The English word “Negro” is a derivative of the Spanish and Portuguese word negro, which means black. The Portuguese and Spanish, who were pioneers in the African Slave Trade, used this adjective to designate the African men and women whom they captured and transported to the slave mart of the New World. Within a short time, the Portuguese word negro (no capital) became the English noun-adjective “negro.” This word, which was not capitalized at first, fused not only humanity, nationality and place of origin but also certain white judgments about the inherent and irredeemable inferiority of the persons so designated The word also referred to certain Jim Crow places, i.e., the “negro pew” in Christian churches. The reaction of the first Americans of African descent to the word “Negro” has never been adequately studied. But it appears from an examination of surviving documents that literate black people resisted the word with cunning and tenacity.

The first black immigrants seem to have preferred the word “African.” In surviving documents, they referred to themselves as “blacks,” “blackes,” and “Africans.” And the first institutions organized by Americans of African descent were designated “African,” viz., The Free African Society,” “the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” “The African Baptist Church.” The preamble of the Free African Society, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1787, began: “We, the Free Africans and their descendants of the City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania or elsewhere. . . .” The tentative efforts of Americans of African descent to define themselves in African terms were reversed suddenly and dramatically in the first two decades of the 19th century. When the American Colonization Society organized a movement to send free Africans “back” to Africa, the colored community reacted by abandoning the word African in favor of the words “coloured” and/or “free persons of colour.” In 1835, the fifth annual convention of the colored people of America passed a resolution which recommended “as far as possible, to our people to abandon use of the word ‘colored,’ when either speaking or writing concerning themselves; and especially to remove the title of African from their institutions,, the marbles of churches, and etc. . . .” Philadelphia leaders later recommended use of the term “Oppressed Americans.” This advice was scorned by militant colored leaders. “Oppressed Americans!” snorted Samuel Cornish, “who are they? Nonsense brethren! You are COLORED AMERICANS. The Indians are. RED AMERICANS, and the white people are WHITE AMERICANS and you are as good as they, and they are no better than you.”