Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Archived Topic » Sun Oct 31, 2004 10:37 am

Me, again, the playwright working on piece set in the 1960's. Thanks to everyone for previous help. Now I'm looking to figure out what African Americans were called in the 1960's. Was "colored" an acceptable term back then? I'm assuming Negro pre-dates colored. And when did it become standard to use "black" and "African-American"? thanks!
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Post by Archived Reply » Sun Oct 31, 2004 10:51 am

"Colored" is definitely the oldest (Lenny Bruce did a routine about Lyndon Johnson trying to learn to say "Negro"). By the early 60's at the latest, "Negro" was the preferred term, and "black" would be standard by the end of the decade. If you look at the speaches of MLK, you'll see that early on ("I Have a Dream" in 1963, and the Nobel address, in 64) you'll see that he uses "Negro", but "black" by the later years.
"African American" is definitely an anachronism. What you're thinking of is "Afro-American", which enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 60's - early 70 's (I'm not exactly sure of the exact years).
If you don't mind a piece of unsolicited advice: There are plenty of anthologies of magazine and newspaper articles from the period. Look at some of the articles from publications your characters would have been reading.
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Post by Archived Reply » Sun Oct 31, 2004 11:05 am

Early 1960's black students at the University of Kansas who were integrating places on the Kansas City, Missouri side of the state line preferred to be called, and referred to each other, as "black".
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Post by Archived Reply » Sun Oct 31, 2004 11:20 am

Spoke to the spouse about the KU experiences mentioned above and I am told by one with a better mind than mine that the year was 1959.
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Post by Archived Reply » Sun Oct 31, 2004 11:34 am

maybe OT: so what is correct nowadays?

A hint is more than enough.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Mar 17, 2005 11:04 pm

Joshua’s above statement is incorrect. NEGRO (originally lower-case but now mostly upper – see explanation below) is the oldest of the three, first appearing in print in 1555. COLORED, as a designation for having a skin other than ‘white,’ especially, wholly or partly of Black or ‘colored’ descent, first made its appearance in print in 1611, and BLACK didn’t come on the scene in any significant way until the mid 1960s. AFRICAN AMERICAN dates back to 1855, but didn’t gain popularity until the second half of the 20th century. And PERSON OF COLOR, of which ‘Blacks’ are a subset, also dates back to 19th century, but didn’t come into its own until the 1990s.

The terms NEGRO (capitalized and not) and COLORED/COLOREDS (capitalized and not, but mostly not), with ‘colored’ predominating, remained the standard designation throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. The disagreement over what blacks wanted to call themselves dates back to about the end of the Civil War and continued through the beginning of the 20th century. Prominent black American leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington (see 1906 quote below) preferred ‘negro.’ It is interesting that the NAACP, founded in 1909, actually first called itself the National Negro Conference, but after a year of debate settled first on "The National Committee for the Advancement of the Negro" and then finally on the National Association for the advancement of Colored People. ‘Black’ was not considered because it was often viewed as a harsh word to distinguish ‘pure’ blacks from mulattoes (children of mixed black and white ancestry). And though long a preferred term among Black Americans, ‘colored’ lost favor as the 20th century progressed, and its use today is generally taken to be offensive.

With the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, the designation BLACK (either capitalized or not), after its earlier dismissal, was reclaimed as an expression of racial pride – “black is beautiful” was a slogan asserting pride in Blackness and Black self-awareness – and, since then, the term ‘Negro’ (together with related terms such as ‘Negress’) has fallen from favor and is now typically regarded as out of date, inappropriate, and/or derogatory and offensive in both British and American English. ‘Negro’ is still, however, used in positive contexts as part of the names of certain organizations, such as the United Negro College Fund, and in historical contexts, for example with reference to baseball's Negro Leagues.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a mostly successful effort to abandon the word ‘Negro’ in favor of ‘black.’ An interesting and almost forgotten sidelight to this effort is that earlier ‘Negro’ educators and leaders fought a long, hard and ultimately successful battle to get themselves referred to as "Negroes with a capital ‘N’" (Negro had actually been spelled with a capital ‘N’ until the second half of the 18th century when it switched to lower case). As recently as the 1930s, many dictionaries and newspapers style books listed ‘negro’ with a lower-case ‘n’ as acceptable. Steady pressure on editors of newspapers and magazines resulted in a gradual change to the upper-case ‘N.’ But then the time came when as one black spokesman of the day proclaimed, “Negro is just the white man’s word for ‘nigger’ and must be eliminated in favor of ‘black’"– and it largely has been.

Although both AFRICAN and AFRICAN AMERICAN (also hyphenated) were widely used in the United States in the 19th century, the adoption of African-American (or ‘Afro-American’, and earlier, ‘Aframerican’) as a preferred term among black Americans, dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s (particularly after an April 1972 conference at which Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed its use). The term gained widespread acceptance at the end of the 1980s following its endorsement by the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his presidential nomination campaign in 1988. The appeal of this term is obvious, since it does not allude to skin color but to an ethnicity based on geography, history, and culture, and it won rapid acceptance in the media alongside similar forms such as ‘Asian American,’ ‘Hispanic American,’ and ‘Italian American.’ But unlike what happened a generation earlier when ‘black' replaced ‘negro,’ ‘African American’ has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting ‘Black,’ which remains both popular and positive. And then, of course, since not all Africans are black, there is the problem of the white African American (e.g. originally from South Africa) who might be confused with a Black American using this designation, but because of their small numbers this doesn’t seen to have been a major issue.

Note: The capitalization of Black does raise problems for the treatment of the term ‘white.’ Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase ‘White,’ but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, which is certainly debatable. Uppercase ‘White’ is also sometimes associated with the writings of white supremacist groups, which is a good enough reason for many to dismiss it. On the other hand, the use of lowercase ‘white’ in the same context as uppercase ‘Black’ would obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups. There is no entirely satisfactory solution to this problem and the uncertainty as whether to capitalize or not capitalize ‘white’ has discouraged many publications from adopting the capitalized form ‘Black.’

PERSON OF COLOR (POC) has recently (1990s) become popular (its use actually dates back to the 18th century – see 1796 quote below) as a result of dissatisfaction with the implications of NONWHITE as a racial label. Many people object to the term ‘nonwhite’ because it refers to people by what they are ‘not’ rather than what they ‘are,’ whereas ‘person of color’ substitutes a positive (POC) for a negative (nonwhite). It is interesting, though, that the almost exclusive association in American English of ‘colored’ with Black does not carry over to terms formed with ‘of color’ (‘person of color,’ ‘woman of color,’ etc.), which are used inclusively to mean, not just Blacks, but all people who are ‘other than white.’

Note: And then there is the question of who is Black. Does it require a half, a quarter, an eighth of one’s ancestry, or even less? The answer that is generally accepted by both blacks and whites is that Black means any person with any known African black ancestry. In the South it had been known as the ‘one-drop rule,’ meaning that a single drop of ‘black blood’ makes a person black. But some Americans of dual ancestry have preferred to identify themselves as ‘mixed’ rather than African-Americans.
<1555 “They are not accustomed to eate such meates as doo the Ethiopians or NEGROS [[capitalized]].”—‘ Peter Martyr of Angleria ‘The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India’ by Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1530) translated by R. Eden, page 239>

<1742 “A Laplander or NEGRO [[capitalized]] has no notion of the relish of wine.”—‘Original Ideas in Essential Human Understanding’ (1817) by David Hume, II. page 18>

<1837 “No mean testimony to the intellectual and moral capabilities of NEGROES [[lower case]].”—‘Society in America’ by H. Martineau, II. page 120>

<1906 “ “Professor Booker T. Washington, being politely interrogated . . . as to whether NEGROES [[lower case]] ought to be called ‘NEGROES’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation, to employ the capital ‘N’.”—“Harper’s Weekly,” 2 June, page 763/2>
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<1611 Their . . . COLOURED [[lower case]] countenances, and curled haire.”—‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ (1614) by Speed, xxv. page 49/1>

<1760-72 “The . . . Negro women, or the COLOURED [[lower case]] women as they are called here.”— Juan & Ulloa's Voyage,’ translation, I. III. iii, page 121>

<1846 “You knew I spoke truly of the strength of American prejudice against the COLORED [[lower case]] people.”—in ‘The Liberator’ by Frederick Douglas, 27 November>

<1865 “One-eighth of the whole population were COLORED [[lower case]]slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.”—“Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address,’ 4 March>

<1909 “The COLORED [[lower case]] men must base their hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success, as well as upon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors of the South.”—‘ Inaugural Address of President William H. Taft,’ 4 March>

<1938 “The bulk of the menial labour is done by COLOUREDS [[lower case]] who are not highly paid for their services.”–‘Spell of Africa’ ny N. Devitt, xxiv. page 207>

<1954 "Segregation of white and COLORED [[lower case]] children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the COLORED children.”—‘Brown versus Board of Education’ (Supreme Court decision)>

<1958 “The new House will contain 163 members, four of them representing the newly separate COLOURED [[capitalized]] electorate in the Cape.”—‘New Statesman,’ 12 April, page 454/3>

<1965 “In his own country [he] will put on his ‘to let’ signs ‘no COLOUREDS [[lower case]].’”—‘The Listener,’ 23 September, page 453/2>
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<1862 “The jealousy between the BLACKS [[lower case]]and browns, which has done so much mischief in the West Indies, is not fostered by American people of color.”—‘Independent,’ 10 April>

<1963 “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little BLACK [[lower case]] boys and BLACK girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”— Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, 28 August>

<1965 “Radical BLACKS [[lower case]] turn inward to united fronts and to ‘black is beautiful’ stated as an ideological principle.”—‘Liberation’ (N.Y.), September, page 25/1>

<1967 “The hangup is that they have tried to sweep ‘BLACK’ [[capitalized]] under the rug for all these years and can't stand us digging ‘Black is Beautiful.’””The Black Panther (magazine), 20 July, page 24/3>

<1983 “I remember how BLACK [[lower case]] was beautiful 10 years ago and have since been struck with how abruptly the Afro was cut short.”—Washington Post, 22 September, DC1/1>

<2000 “Black or African American refers to people having origins in any of the BLACK [[capitalized]] racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicated their race or races as "Black, African Am., or Negro", or wrote in entries such as African American, Afro American, Nigerian, or Haitian”—‘United States Census Bureau’ – definition>

<2004 “In 1871, Dominica became part of the Leeward Island Federation. The power of the BLACK [[capitalized]] population progressively eroded.”—‘Dominica,’ in ‘Global Edge,’ Michigan State University>
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<1853 “In our opinion, the true policy of the AFRO-AMERICAN . . . is to emigrate to Canada, the West Indies.”—‘Voice of Fugitive’ (Windsor, Ontario), 21 June, page 2/4>

<1855 “I have shown you the aim and purposes of the Slave Power—to make this vast Continent . . . a House of Bondage for AFRICAN AMERICANS.”—‘ The Trial of Theodore Parker’ by Theodore Parker, page 217>

<1910 “In music the AFRAMERICAN . . . may achieve triumphs.”—‘Negro in the New World’ by H. h. Johnston, page 390>

<1962 “AFRICAN-AMERICANS in the making of America . . . [included] Crispus Attucks of Boston Massacre fame.”—‘Journal of Negro Education,’ 31, page 474>

<1997 “Like thousands of middle-class and middle-class-aspiring AFRICAN-AMERICANS, I was taught throughout childhood to loathe black English.”—‘Sun’ (Baltimore), 5 January, page F1/2>
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<1796 “Three great classes: 1st pure whites, 2nd PEOPLE OF COLOUR . . . 3rd negroes and mulattoes . . . The class which..is called PEOPLE OF COLOUR originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.”—‘St. Domingo' (1801), by B. Edwards, i. page 25>

<1801 “The Americans . . . call the blacks, as well as their tawny offspring, PEOPLE OF COLOUR.”—'Port Folio,' 23 May, page 163/3>

<1816 “Article I:—A society shall be formed, and called the American Colonization Society, for colonizing the free PEOPLE OF COLOR of the United States”–‘Constitution of the American Colonization Society’–in ‘Liberia’ (1853) by Hale, page 130>

<1823 “I should have no hesitation in expressing the opinion that it was not the intention of Congress to incorporate negroes and PEOPLE OF COLOR with the army any more than with the militia of the United States.”—‘Opinions of the Attorney General,’ 27 March, in “Pension Laws and Bounty Land Laws of the United States Including Sundry Resolutions of Congress from 1776 to 1852” (1852) by Mayo & Moulton>

<1839 “The inhabitants are between two and three hundred in number: they nearly all consist of PEOPLE OF COLOUR, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator (Quito is the capital of this state) to which these islands belong.”—‘The Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle’ (1839 edition, September, 1835, entry) by Charles Darwin, page 456>

<1862 “The jealousy between the blacks and browns, which has done so much mischief in the West Indies, is not fostered by American PEOPLE OF COLOR.”—‘Independent,’ 10 April>

<1977 “Before the Civil War, Georgia law was typical of Southern statutes in specifying that a white man raping a black woman could draw a fine or imprisonment ‘at the discretion of the court,’ while a slave or "free PERSON OF COLOR " even attempting to rape a white woman could be put to death.”—‘Time,’ 11 April>

<1997 “PERSON OF COLOR Needed On Federal Reserve Board”—‘Tennessee TRIBUNE,’ 23 April>

<1999 “This dehumanizing and partializing conception of PEOPLE OF COLOR is operative, Williams suggests, when women of color are sterilized without their consent and without their knowledge.”—‘Hypatia’ (Nexus), 31 July, page 126>
(Oxford English Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, Dictionary of Contemporary Usage by William & Mary Morris)
____________________

Ken G – March 15, 2005
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Mar 18, 2005 4:00 am

Ken, thanks for a clear and succinct summary.

A discouraging but ultimately unavoidable conclusion that is suggested by the succession of preferred nomenclatures outlined above is that no change of terminology has been able by itself to raise the perceived status of black people in wider American society. This remains true even though each new label may have been adopted with enthusiasm and/or pride by most, or many, black people themselves. It appears that with the passage of time, the appeal of each new term has faded in proportion to the degree that the negative connotations of earlier terms have begun to be attached to the latest term, so that a new, untainted label is eventually felt to be required. However, it is interesting to note that as you stated, 'people of color' is not exclusively being used to refer to black people, which seems to be a change from the previous pattern.

Clearly, while denigratory language is frequently used to belittle racial minorities, the absence of it, or the promotion of positive-speak, is not enough to rescue these minorities from their generally-perceived low status and the concrete disadvantages which they frequently experience.

There is also the phenomenon that in the prevailing atmosphere of political correctness and public lip service to egalitarian values (especially in the USA), racist attitudes are nowadays frequently camouflaged behind a veil of PC terminology. This is perhaps especially the case in the worlds of business and politics, because these are both already such prolific generators of condescending claptrap masquerading as meaningfulness that it is very easy for people with disingenuous motives to inject yet another strand of vaporous platitudes into the mix.
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Mar 22, 2005 12:01 pm

I have a problem with pc terminology.

I have very little hair on my head. I am bald; I am not folically-challenged. The term sounds daft and is daft. I drink my coffee black, not “without milk”, as some would have me say. The access to the sewer is through a manhole, I use the term “ladies and gentlemen”, even though my spellchecker tells me to consider alternatives.

Possibly, by using the obvious words the danger of them acquiring denigratory status would be removed. I don’t know, I am a white Welshman living in Wales; I am not on the receiving end of prejudice.
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by John Dark » Mon Mar 28, 2005 6:47 pm

in the same vein, if you will, of how much black blood it takes to qualify one as black, i always find it interesting that if a person is of mixed race, particularly black and white, that he is, by default, classified as black. isn't he equally eligible to be classified as white? although the actress halle berry is of mixed origin, no one seems to have a problem categorizing her as black, for example.

i think this indicates more than an aversion to complicated explanations ("and this is edwin, who is african american, irish, and welsh on his father's side, and hungarian on his mother's side."). i think it indicates white dominance. all of these terms do because they still take white as the standard, the point of reference and the norm. colored = not white. black = definitely not white. person of color = colored person, see above. even african american, because when we use this term, it is seldom in reference to one's ethnic background ("i'm italian american.") and almost exclusively in reference to one's race.

i think this point of reference and norm happen with regard to racial terms, gender terms, who ever is dominant terms. in a story, for instance, no one has to say "a white man entered the room;" the presumption is that people ARE white (unless the setting establishes otherwise). we only need to point out the unusual, the atypical, the abnormal.

what is correct these days? i think you call people what they want to be called. i try to respect people's choice of self-reference. figuring out what a particular group prefers is a different kettle of fish! but note that there is no parallel difficulty with white. "please, i prefer to be called non-black."

i think your point about trying to elevate social status by the terms by which we refer to people is well taken. although PC-mania sometimes defies reason, the impetus for using respectful, non-derogatory language seems a moral one. the same with capitalizing the b in black but not the w in white. (of course, on that one i just cut the gordian knot entirely, eh?)

and, bob, i have a friend who calls me vertically challenged, although i prefer economy sized.
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Post by Phil White » Mon Mar 28, 2005 7:16 pm

Ken, a minor correction to the OED, or whichever source it was. Purely by chance I came across an older printed occurrence of "person of colour" last night.
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1845 Edition, Entry for 23rd September 1835:
"The inhabitants are between 200 and 300 in number: they are nearly all people of colour, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator, of which Quito is the capital."
The 1845 edition differs from the first edition of 1839 only in a few places, so the date of the citation is probably 1839. Anyone have an 1839 Edition out there to check?
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Mar 28, 2005 10:25 pm

Phil, My ‘people of color’ quote came from the OED, but upon further checking I found that they had several even old quotes, the oldest dating back to 1796, which I have appended to my above posting so as to have the complete set at one location.
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Phil White » Tue Mar 29, 2005 8:02 am

Ken,
It does indicate something that's been raised here before, namely that citations in the dictionaries can only ever give some indication of the possible first appearance in print, and that the earliest citation in a dictionary only ever points to the latest possible date on which a term or phrase entered the language. Spoken usage will almost invariably predate any printed appearance, perhaps very significantly. This applies increasingly the further back into history we go.

What's interesting is your second citation - "negroes and people of color", suggesting that a distinction was being made at that time.
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Post by AP Gifts » Mon Jul 11, 2005 12:54 am

Betsy McGuire's question:

"Now I'm looking to figure out what
African Americans were called in the 1960's.
Was "colored" an acceptable term back then?"

Answer:

YES!

The term "Colored" was not only a VERY
'acceptable term back then' .. it was and
is also 'the most "racially" ACCURATE' way
of describing this very unique tri-racially
"mixed"-raced 'ethnic' grouping of people
created via an unique 'historical experience'.

In fact, up until the "black"-power
(i.e. pan-Africanism) movement of the
late 1960's (circa 1968), the majority
of the people who today are referred to
by the mis-nomered term 'African-American'
actually openly nad proudly referred themselves
and to each other by the term "Colored" (in open
acknowledgment of their tri-racial lineage)---
and much controversy and debate began to occur
within this group when it came to be considered
as 'more politically-correct' for society to refer
to them by mis-nomered terms such as 'black' and
by the newest 'political' label placed on them
(and, again, without their permission or request)
of 'African-American'(which is, again, yet another
non-requested term which is, again, considered to
be very controversial and debateable within this
very tri-racial 'ethnic' -- not 'racial' -- group).

**********************************************

Perhaps the information contained in the links
found below might be of some interest to you.

**********************************************

**On Historical Terminology
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/230
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/229

SUMMARY LIST
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/283

**On the use of "Proper Descriptors"
for an "Ethnic" (not 'Racial') Group
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/2
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/169
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/14
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/175
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/183
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/187

**Most (+70%) of the people of the African-Americans
(AA) `Ethnicity' are not `Black', but rather, they are
MGM Tri-racially AdMIXED (and a person does not
have to be a Bi-racial/FGM in order to be `mixed")
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/58
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/73
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/78
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/85
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/106

**Most of the AAs are not "black" –nor-- are they
"bi-racial", but rather, they are MGM-"Mixed"-Raced
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/121
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/125
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/147
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/152
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/130
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/146
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/message/193

**SUMMARY LIST
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/283

**Additional Disucssions:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/183
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/175
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/169
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed/message/2

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generatio ... essage/195
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generatio ... essage/196
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generatio ... essage/197
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generatio ... essage/198
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generatio ... essage/199

**DISCUSSION GROUP(S)
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mgm-mixed/
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/generation-mixed
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/theAfrica ... aDiaspora/
Archived Topic wrote:
Me, again, the playwright working on piece set in the 1960's.
Thanks to everyone for previous help.
Now I'm looking to figure out what
African Americans were called in the 1960's.
Was "colored" an acceptable term back then?
I'm assuming Negro pre-dates colored.
And when did it become standard to use
"black" and "African-American"?
thanks!
Submitted by Betsy Maguire (W. Simsbury - U.S.A.)
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by JANE DOErell » Tue Jul 12, 2005 3:42 pm

"..1960's. Was "colored" an acceptable term back then?" It probably depends upon where you were. About 1959 I became part of a group of students at the University of Kansas who were integrating places on the Missouri side. Many Missouri places still had the "colored" signs. My friends in the UofK group told me to say "black".
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Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Feb 04, 2007 6:13 pm

This morning’s Sunday New York Times carried the following discussion:

On Language by William Safire, February 4, 2007

Mixed Race

In a more serious vein, how does Senator Obama identify his personal racial mixture? The golf champion Tiger Woods told Oprah Winfrey that he likes to call himself a “Cablinasian,” an amalgam of “Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian,” but perhaps that was jocular. Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. The columnist Clarence Page, who is black, notes that the Illinois senator does not run away from the “black” label: “I can tell you a substantial number of black voters are mightily suspicious and even personally offended by black folks who don’t want to be called ‘black.’ ” In his recent book, “Audacity of Hope,” the senator identifies himself as “a black man of mixed heritage.”

Mixed-race is a coinage first spotted by the O.E.D. in The Guardian in 1971, when the British newspaper referred to “a delegation of six mixed-race Rhodesians.” That new usage was acceptable to many in South Africa categorized as colored, but that description fell out of favor there as well as in the U.S. as recalling the era of apartheid and segregation. Colored had one sense of “neither all black nor all white” and another sense of a euphemism for Negro. Colored is now taken by many to be offensive, but people of color is embraced proudly. In the U.S., black is now widely acceptable, especially in a second reference to African-Americans. Nonwhite is acceptable to demographers but will likely wither as suggesting that whiteness is the norm. Mixed heritage, Obama’s usage following black, suggests ethnicity more than race — like the offspring of British and Russian parents — which is why mixed-race is the compound adjective to keep your eye on.
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Ken G – February 4, 2007
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