Negro? Please.

My grandfather, Martin Luther Ford, referred to as "mulatto" in some census documents.

In the 2010 Census, people will be able to classify themselves as Negro.  The U.S. Census Bureau has added “Negro” to its forms again because some people prefer to be called by the term an official said.

I’d love to meet the people who refer to themselves as Negro.  Seriously.  I’m always interested in people’s personal philosophies when it comes to identity.  Why someone would want to call themselves something that conjures up the Jim Crow south is particularly intriguing.

My grandmother referred to herself and other black people as colored well into the 1980s, but she’s 93. That’s what blacks were called in the early 1900s in Oklahoma where she grew up.  Her father, my great grandfather, Bud Anderson had a penchant for calling everybody the n word, but only if he liked you. He also liked to carry around a shotgun, so I’m sure people just swallowed his generous use of the n word whether they found it offensive or not.  My great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford and my grandfather, Martin Ford were classified as mulattoes in a 1910 census.  I wonder if that’s how my great grandmother saw herself, as a mulatto.  I know that’s not how my grandfather saw himself.  When I asked him if he was white, he made it clear he considered himself a black man.  But I’m grateful that the census made this distinction however distasteful the word mulatto may be.  “Mulatto” helped me find them in census reports and their ancestors in archives.

I like to call myself black even though some might consider African American the politically correct term. I’ve tried to use African American for myself, but it never feels right.  The term didn’t come into popularity until I was in my late teens and I was used to and liked the term black by then.  Besides, Africa is a big continent encompassing a plethora of cultures.  Would an American whose parents were born in Egypt call herself African American, or one with parents born in India consider himself Asian American?  I’d like to know.   How do you identify yourself?

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8 thoughts on “Negro? Please.

  1. Really fascinating, Dionne. There are so many ways to define oneself – from a place, a religion, a culture, a set of genomes. I guess it depends on who’s asking and why. I’ve been Eastern European, blonde, a New Yorker, short, a Miami girl (“but you’re not Latin!” people have commented), Jewish, white, a mother, a writer, a woman. So, who am I? A dear friend has a mother who’s a white, Ashkenazi Jew from NY, her father was a Sephardic Jew from Algeria. She’s always been tempted to check off “African American” on questionnaires. She is, after all. So, fine. We check a box. But what does that say about who we really are?

  2. Very good question Dionne. I’m surprised that the census has the word Negro and at the claim that people identify with the term. I have no idea who I am! As a person of Indian descent belonging to many minorities (petite, dark, jewish, female, born in southeast Asia) but three generations removed from India, am I British Indian? I have no idea but I don’t want to defined by a little box on a form, with a name coined by someone who hasn’t struggled with self identity. I know what I don’t like -Canadian newspapers referring to me, and anyone else with a bit of color – as the Visible Minority. They did this repeatedly as if it were the most normal, non-marginalising thing they could do. Now, here’s a box I’d love to tick: Citizen of The World. And I would love my kids to be Color Blind!
    Keep me posted on that census form!

  3. it’s odd that the old ways and words can be so beneficial now. some people would say that it would be better to let those old ways die and words be erased. without the use of the term mulatto though you would have missed seeing a part of your family and that would have been a shame. my wife is of italian decent on her fathers side and the name was facciuto and her grandfather had married a colanglo.
    when she died she was buried under her maiden name as was the custom of the italians at the time. we found the grave that her uncle had tried to find but couldn’t because of the lack of knowlege of the old ways. you see, the women carried their maiden name along with their married name at that time. it’s something of an old way that i really wish was still alive and well giving people one more window to their past and ancestory. if you have to keep sifting through that old dirt to find a few more gems, you’ll probably find it worth it, we have in finding family my wife didn’t know existed.

  4. One step forward,two steps back!!I can remember that just before my father died we had a discussion about the word ‘NEGRO” as oppossed to “Black”. He was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and hated the term “Negro”. He saw it as a word that brought up all the indignities of minoritys at the time. I have to agree with him all these years later. It is time to move on and not go backward!

  5. I feel very comfortable with African American and Black having at times used both terms in the same conversation or writings. I have two sisters who refer to themselves as Creole and will fill in Creole in the other category on forms and if there is not a line for other, they will cross out one of the categories listed and write in Creole. There is a movement to have Creole recognized as one of the racial categories… wonder if by adding Negro to the Federal Census form will help bring it about.

  6. I recently saw an article that referred to the Jewish “race” of people. I was offended and corrected the term in my head: Jews are a religion, not a race. I am sure fear related to the holocaust influences my reaction. If Jews are seen as a race, they are easier targets of hatred and extremism. If they are seen as a religion, my thinking goes, the dangers of anti-semitism are less. Not rational,I admit.I identify myself as Jewish and if asked further, as not religious.

  7. I am half American caucasian and half Japanese. For some reason, I would never call myself a Japanese American. In my mind, that is reserved for people of full Japanese decent that just happen to be Americans too. To me, I am both Japanese and American, not Japanese American. I like to call myself a “halfie” and feel like other people that are of two or more races are the same as me regardless of what race halves they come from. I always felt like being a “halfie” was a privileged club to be a part of. If there is only an option to check one box on the race card I just check “other”. It makes me more mysterious. ;) I appreciate and am thankful to be of two completely different cultures. I have expanded options and views on the world.

  8. So glad I stumbled across your story. I’ve always thought we need to understand where we came from to help us understand who we are. But it seems that in our increasingly fast-paced society, “history” goes back about 2 generations and that’s all we know. My mom’s answer to “What are we?” was “Heinz 57″ … a little bit of everything …. she was born to French Canadian parents who had English and Indian blood, while my father’s dad was a Swedish immigrant, and his mother, raised in Alabama, was of English descent. I married someonew whose family background is English/German/Dutch. We call ourselves Americans.

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