What’s In a Name? From “N-Word” to African-American

February 2-5, 2015

In my lifetime (61 years), I have gone from being “Colored” to “Negro” to “N-Word” to Black to African-American. How did I get here?

When I was growing up, my paternal grandmother and step-grandfather always referred to themselves as “Colored.” In contrast, my maternal grandparents—especially my grandfather—preferred the term “Negro.”

All of them were of the same generation—born between 1908 and 1913. One thing I always found fascinating about their terminology was that my paternal “grands” and their family were “mulatto” (whom I now lovingly refer to as “Ivory”) and my maternal “grands” and their family were visibly and wonderfully of African descent (whom I now lovingly refer to as “Ebony”—although their hue includes every shade from café-au-lait to…well…ebony!).

Paternal grandma was an exotic (almost Mediterranean)-looking woman with beautiful, long, auburn hair (which she often covered with blonde wigs). Her husband, frankly, looked white, not just in complexion, but also in facial features and with straight hair. And yet, they were the ones who, when I got my Patty Playpal doll (a 3-foot-tall white doll with long blonde hair) for Christmas one year, stood over me and Patty and rather angrily asked me, “Why you wanna play with that white doll? You should have a colored doll!”

Even my little 7-year-old self was wondering “What’s wrong with this picture???”

Maternal grandpa was a medium-brown-complected man. It wasn’t until 1968, when I was 15 (in 11th grade), and transitioning from calling myself Negro to being Black—complete with an Afro, that I truly learned grandpa’s identity: “I’m not Black,” he shouted at me on seeing my Afro for the first time; “Is my skin black? I’m a Negro!” We argued frequently in those days, usually culminating in my mother quietly trying to defend my choice to her father, as I ran to another room, crying about being so misunderstood.

seniorpicOver the next year, there were two major developments. First, in the spring of 1969, when my senior class picture was to be taken for my high school yearbook, I had to pull my nappy hair back in an alternate style, because my grandpa would not allow me to be seen with an Afro (my appeasement). Second, in November 1969, my grandpa passed away. As I sat in the church pew at his Wake, I looked at him in the coffin and felt (foolishly) grimly vindicated. My grandpa, who had always worn his hair cropped short, was lying there with his hair having gone gray (due to illness) and longer than he had ever worn it in life. Not a true Afro, but pretty darned close.


Now, about The N-Word. Of course, no one in “polite” society used the full word. But we all would laugh, loud and hearty, or sly and knowingly, while listening to the recordings of Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor and other racy Black comedians. And we knew the nuances of the term as used in the Black community. The street-corner admonishment “N-Word, pleeeze!” just doesn’t have the same zing as the full version.

The N-Word has been a part of our vernacular as much as it has been a terrible racist epithet. How would the hip hop group N.W.A. have fared if they’d had to say “N-Word wit Attitudes”? And how would I ever have learned to stand up for myself in the hallways of my 90%+ white junior high school after hearing them yell at me, “N-Word, go back to Africa!” every day, instead of the real, ugly name?

My baby-aunt (she’s only 5 years older than me—and we grew up like sisters) likes to recount an incident that occurred many years ago, while she was riding a bus in Baltimore. A little white girl sitting next to her mother proclaimed (in her little Bawlamer accent), with finger pointing: There’s a N***** and there’s a N*****, and there’s a N*****!” My baby-aunt laughingly adds, “The poor mother looked like she wanted to slide under her seat!”

But where did that little girl learn such language?

I think we (my people) have done ourselves a disservice by banning The N-Word. We are as guilty of revisionist history as the galling tide of the New White South is in trying to revive the lie that Slavery was good!

On the other hand, I just had two experiences with the 21st Century iteration of The N-Word. The first was hearing, at top volume from a car radio, a Rap song in which every other word was “N**gah, punctuating what, to me, were nearly nonsensical rhymes that left me shaking my head in dismay.

The second was my encounter with a brood of teenage Black boys in a convenience store. The boys were just looking for after-school snacks, and I was just trying to buy some smokes and sodas. The store has a sign on the door announcing “Only Two Students Allowed in the Store at A Time.” But there were about 6 boys in the store. They were actually polite enough to let me go ahead of some of them in line. But they made me nervous—crowding behind me instead of standing in line, and when the Pakistani counter man commented about their numbers, one boy said “Awww, they just don’t like “N**gahs.” To which I angrily replied, “No, they just don’t like unruly young people.”

In both of these incidents, the tone was defiant and rebellious, and while this troubled me at first, I realized that these boys—young men—have every right to talk that way! Just as I did in my ‘60s youth.

Like “The N-Word,” “African-American” just takes too long to say. Try singing James Brown’s iconic “Say it loud…” as “Say it loud! I’m African-American and I’m proud!”

[And, speaking of James Brown, one of the greatest—but underrated—songs JB ever recorded was “Santa Clause Go Straight to the Ghetto”! That song got right to the heart of 1968 America.]

It’s now my turn to claim my name, as my grandparents and all the Elders did, before me: I am a Black woman from Baltimore. But I also have to respect whatever names the generations that follow mine claim for themselves.

3 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? From “N-Word” to African-American

  1. So do you think the N word should be used by blacks? As a white guy, I find it offensive when I hear a white or any non black person use that word. I also find I immediately classify that person as a jerk, which is usually the case. However, if a black person uses the word, usually to address another black person, i still feel like it’s disrespectful. Yet I am aware that I am on the outside looking in, that it’s not my place perhaps to judge. So I’m curious to get your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that trying to “bury” the word makes no sense, even though its connotations outside the black community are inherently offensive. Within the black community, there are nuances of usage that are not offensive in certain contexts; it can be used innocuously in place of “Man” or “Brother” or “Bro;” or even in place of “Fool” or “You fool” (as a mild put-down). Again, it’s a matter of context. Even the word “black” can be taken as a bad thing or a good thing, depending on how and when you say it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s