Paul R. Lehman, President Obama signed a bill eliminating the word Negro that signals change in identities

August 15, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Posted in African American, American history, American Indian, American Racism, Bigotry in America, black inferiority, blacks, discrimination, DNA, equality, ethnic stereotypes, Ethnicity in America, European American, Hispanic whites, identity, immigration, law, minority, Non-Hispanic white, President Obama, public education, Race in America, skin color, skin complexion, Slavery, U. S. Census, U.S. Supreme Court, white supremacy, whites | 1 Comment
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When Africans were brought to this country and enslaved, one of the first things taken from them was their identity. Taking away their identity was important because it represented the history of who they were and that they were valued. Although each enslaved African would be given a slave name, they would all be commonly called black or negro because of their skin color. The African identity was taken away from the enslaved, but the slave sellers and owners knew who they were, what they did (farmer, fisherman, craftsman, etc…) and where they were from because their selling price would be influenced by that information.

An example of the value of the African’s identity was underscored in a 1764 poem by James Grainger, “The Sugar Cane.” This poem was constructed using four parts called books; the fourth book, “On the Genius of Africa,” shows the value of a slaver knowing the identity of the African captives: “Negroes when bought should be young and strong. The Congo-Negroes are fitter for the house and trades, than for the field. The Gold-Coast, but especially the Papaw-Negroes, make the best field-Negroes: but even these, if advanced in years, should not be purchased.” This information focuses on males, for females the advice is when looking for a sound Negro: “Where the men do nothing but hunt, fish or fight, all the field drudgery is left to the women: these are to be preferred to their husbands.” The reference continues for males: “The Minnahs make good tradesmen, but addicted to suicide. The Mundingoes, in particular, subject to worms; and the Congas, to dropsical disorders.”(The Making of the Negro in Early American Literature, Paul R. Lehman, 2nd edition, Fountainhead Press, 2006, P. 38)

For enslaved Africans in America, their identity was taken away so their history and value would be tied to American slavery. If the only identity an enslaved person had was that of being American black or Negro (both terms mean the same) then they did not exist except in the system of slavery. The only personal identity they had linked them to their owner, as in the reference—John Smith’s Negro, “Tom.” During the early 1700’s,the term for slave went from Negro and black to simply “slave” due to the common coupling of the two phrase “black slave” or “Negro slave.” However, many of the enslaved were still Europeans and American Indians, but the majority of the enslaved was African/ African American.

Once the government instituted the system of white supremacy and black inferiority, race by color became an important part of personal identity in American society. Americans were no longer able to identity with a particular ethnic or culture group. Kamala Kelkar, (PBS NEWSHOUR, 5/22/2016), noted that “In 1790, the U.S. Census counted people by lumping them into one of three categories—slaves, free white females and males, or all other free persons.”The most important identity an American could have or want to have was white. The most damning identity one could have was that of either slave or Negro.

Immigration to American from around the world, but especially Eastern and Southern Europe brought many changes to the invented concept of race. Although most European immigrants were not referred to as white, they all were willing to give-up their cultural identity to be called white. For people of color, the term Negro was used regardless of their place of birth outside of the U.S. As recently as 2010, the Census form still included the term Negro or black, but the list for other people of color had expanded. Kelkar explained that “The Department of Energy Act has for decades described “minorities” as, “Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or as a Spanish-speaking individual of Spanish descent.”Because of the system of white supremacy and black inferiority, people of color were identified as “minorities.”

For over two-hundred years the words race and ethnicity were generally undefined and used indiscriminately to the confusion of all, especially the U.S. Census. As recent as 2010, Americans in a number of categories were told on the Census form to identify themselves as white, if they could not find an identity that suited them. This group included mixed-ethnic individuals such as Asian Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics. In effect, the concept of race by color had reached a point of meaninglessness. The problem was that the terms race was interpreted as pertaining to multiple biological groups of human beings or ethnic groups. The fact is that only one race of human beings exists—Homo sapiens. Ethnicity or ethnic groups pertains to the variety of cultural groups within the human race.

Every human being on the planet Earth has two identities—one ancestral or ethnic, one cultural. The ancestral or ethnic identity is represented by a person’s biological parents; the cultural is the identity the individual selects. For example, an Asian American has Asian as an ancestral identity, and American as the cultural which he or she embraces. The terms Negro and black do not allow for either identity nor does the terms white and Caucasian.  Fortunately, things are about to change.

President Barack Obama just recently signed H.R. 4238 “which amends two federal acts from the 70’s that define “minorities” with terms that are now insensitive or outdated.” In addition, the bill was sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng, D-NY, with 74 Democratic co-sponsors and two Republican ones;” it passed with 380 votes. The two words removed from the books are Negro and Oriental. According to Kelkar “The new bill changes the language to, ‘Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American or Alaska Native.’”

The changes in identity were inevitable because race by color was an invention based on false assumptions and beliefs. Black or Negro and white or Caucasian were never biological categories of the human race but were put in place because of the government’s control. No one ever came to America with only the identity of black, Negro, or Caucasian or white; they always had an ancestral and cultural identity. Once in America, however, the Europeans recognized the value of being identified as white and so the abandoned their ancestral and cultural identity for white. People of color coming to America realized the stigma associated with being call Negro or black and usually decided to retain their ancestral and cultural identity. Now the people of color who were previously called Negro can be specific in their ancestral and cultural identity—African American. For whites and Caucasians, no official changes have been made although the term European Americans was used on occasion by the Supreme Court, but they always had the freedom to identify themselves using their ancestral identity such as Irish, Italian, Polish, German, etc. In any event, the fact is that identity-based on race by color is rapidly being deconstructed.

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  1. My Mom is older generation (60+). I noticed her using the term “Oriental” the other day. I have also used this term when I was younger (not meaning it in a derogatory way). I did notice when she said it how archaic it felt to me. I would even say some people use it as a compliment. It can mean something “mysterious” or something of great wisdom (“Oriental Wisdom”/Confucianism) I don’t think she meant it in a derogatory way. She says it just as part of her lexicon. I haven’t really “sworn off” the term Oriental, but 98% of the time I would use “Asian”. I still use the term “black” most often to refer to African Americans. Speaking honestly, I find “African American” a bulky term. I RARELY refer to myself as European or by my more specific European roots. (Just for transparency purposes, I am “white male”, over age 40).

    After what I wrote above Dr. Lehman, you may cringe or wince to know I attended your class in the 1994-1999 time span (my memory fails the exact year) at UCO. It was a summer course as I remember it. I remember you as a conversational type professor (though very intelligent conversation) and feeling more comfortable talking about race with you than I did with most (probably ANY) of my professors. I remember you as a very kind man, an “unassuming” type who put students at ease to discuss issues. It is one of the better memories of my college experience. I had thought of you every so often and wondered how you were and what you were up to. I am extremely happy to have found your blog and that you are still using that active mind of yours.


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