Revisiting the so-called “negro” question

by William P. Muhammad

Statements recently attributed to Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D) Nevada regarding President Barack Obama, have opened yet another racial debate in so-called post-racial America. This time centering on the use or misuse of the word “negro,” in the new book “Game Change,” Sen. Reid is reported to have said during the 2008 presidential campaign that Mr. Obama’s success as a Black candidate could be given to the fact that he was “light skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect…."

Having apologized for making these remarks and with both the President and the Congressional Black Caucus having accepted it, Sen. Reid’s faux pas was nevertheless an affirmation that in American discourse the issue of race is still the elephant in the room few are willing to talk about. As White conservatives and their allies nearly fall over themselves in demanding Sen. Reid’s resignation as majority leader, Republicans have chosen to politicize his admitted misstatements while accusing Democrats of double-standards.

Using the remarks of former Mississippi Republican Trent Lott as an example, who resigned as the Senate minority leader in 2002 after praising the 1948 segregationist platform of former “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond, Conservatives are crying foul as though the statements of the two senators were one in the same. Comparing more like apples to oranges, at least for those who would be honest, there is little comparison between praising a Black man for his lack of a so-called “negro dialect” and an acknowledgment of American “light skin” privilege to nostalgia for the discrimination and terror of the old south.

That having been said, what is it about the so-called “negro dialect” and dark skin that has Americans so upset on one hand yet so unwilling to discuss it on the other? What caused this dilemma, and how do Black people make a real change in how we are perceived by self and others?

When the word negro was initially applied to Black people, it was not an accident that the term, used in Spanish to describe inanimate objects, became so popular. As Spain was among the early players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it seems only logical that the language used to describe enslaved Africans would remove any semblance of their humanity. Hence, negro, a term used to label and describe the enslaved, would later become a commonly accepted word in the English lexicon to describe a person of African descent.

Also, when our forefathers were brought to the shores of North America, Black people were forcibly put at a disadvantage. Through laws that made it a crime to receive an education along with the intentional and centuries’ long destruction of the Black family, for many of our people the road to self-esteem and self-actualization had been made an arduous one. From slavery and Black Codes to segregation and Jim Crow, hundreds of years of injustice, oppression and repression did not end without a residual effect and a subsequent price to be paid.

The oft repeated “Willie Lynch letter,” where Blacks were reportedly trained to distrust and despise one another and to look only to their enslavers for the fulfillment of their needs, shines light upon one aspect of the pathologies carried over to this current generation. In the historical effort to make Black human beings completely dependent upon their oppressors, both Whites and Blacks have inherited the burdens of their predecessors’ legacies.

While Blacks received the stigma of prejudice and the burden of having our aspirations called into question, the master-slave relationship continued in an unspoken yet unhealthy symbiosis between the mindsets of Black inferiority and White supremacy. With very few leaders willing to step forward to break the cycle, one was elevated as the other was castigated and the so-called “negro question” became what to do with an undesired population of over 40 million Black people.

Today, as politicians and pundits step forward to denounce Sen. Reid’s alleged misstatements, time should be taken to reflect upon the use, meaning and origin of words. As language is the tool of the knowledgeable and the wise to influence either an individual or the masses, consideration should be given to its impact in American discourse.

If Sen. Reid told the truth - and he did - then dark skin and the so-called “negro dialect” continue to be viewed with aversion in American society. Translating to an admission that race remains a primary issue here Blacks cannot afford to downplay the impact and significance of slavery in American history. For the sake of our children and yet to be born generations, it is time to stand up and break the cycle of White supremacy and Black inferiority. Anything less would be an anathema to our ancestors whose blood, sweat and tears soak the mosaic of America’s collective history.