Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Pauli Murray

I recently read Pauli Murray's autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat. Murray was a long-time civil rights activist, and later in her career co-founded the National Organization for Women.

One passage that I found particularly interesting was her defense of the term "Negro" as opposed to "black." It occurs in a portion of the book describing her time teaching at Brandeis in the late 1960s:
[When challenged by a student,] 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 most recent change [from "Negro" to "black"], which was accomplished with dizzying speed by clamorous black militants abetted by the electronic media, was symptomatic to me of confused attitudes over questions of identity. As my Howard University friends of the 1940s, Ruth Powell, expressed it, "Pauli, I find it very disconcerting to go to bed one night a Negro and wake up the next morning a 'black.' Nobody gave me any choice in the matter."

* * * In June 1969, Newsweek published the results of a poll (apparently conducted among Negroes) which showed that "Negro" was most liked by 38 percent of those questioned; followed by "Colored People" (25 percent), reflecting an older generation; "Blacks" (19 percent)' and "Afro-American" (11 percent).

* * *

In 1968, "black" had political connotations closely allied with the ideology of separatism. It emphasized a black-white polarization that the term "Negro" did not convey, and its projection into settled usage had a disturbing effect, captured in the comment attributed to the late Ethel Waters: "I'm comfortable with being a Negro, and I'm tired of changing my racial identification every few years."

* * *

The transition among many white Southerners from use of the contemptuous "niggers" to a grudging "nigras" and finally to "Knee-grows" had occurred in my lifetime. I felt that the reversion to lowercase "black" was a self-defeating step and the surrender of a term of dignity that previous generations had fought so hard to achieve. Nothing could dramatize more the symbolic demotion to second-class status, I thought, than the appearance in print of the new designation in a sequences of classifications, as in Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks, Jews, Chicanos, Orientals, etc. It seemed to me that the black militants had put themselves in the place where their white detractors wanted them.


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