While moving from one location in New Orleans to another I discovered some books I had kept in storage. I started reading one titled A Pictorial History of Black Americans. Although I perused this book several times in the past, I always got caught up in looking at the pictures and reading their captions and never got around to the content. So, the book had been on my coffee table for several weeks calling to me to read it. I began by reading the Introduction and was struck by the prescience of the authors who captured, over fifty years ago, what we genealogists and family historians would be discussing by the year 2000 of what it means ethnically to be a Black American. The popularity of DNA testing in genealogical research accelerated this discussion, not only among people traditionally called “Negro,” or “Black” or “African American” but also among people known as “White.” I’ve thought about this issue for decades (since before I started studying cultural anthropology as an undergraduate student) but, with younger generations less and less adhering to the “racial” divide in this country based on phenotype it’s interesting for all of us to ponder just what does this “racial” thing really mean?
From the book, originally published in 1956:
Blackamericans, Wherever in America
Who or what is a Negro? For America the issue has never been settled with finality, for at various times black people have been known as “colored people,” “people of color,” “Negroes,” “Afro-Americans,” Aframericans,” “Black Anglo-Saxons,” “Black Americans,” and by a number of other appellations. Most southern states have laws to the effect that any person having any Negro blood whatever is a Negro. The United States Bureau of the Census declares:
A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned [marked on the census form] as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood very definitely predominates and he is universally accepted in the community as an Indian. Mixtures of nonwhite races should be reported according to race of the father, except that Negro-Indian should be reported as Negro. [Highlighting added]
The problem is that the reasoning behind the state and federal pronouncements about “Negroes” seems to imply that somewhere at some time there existed a race or a nation of “Negroes,” and that all of the people in the United States who are not 100 percent white and who are not distinctively Indian belong to the Negro race or nationality. Such reasoning does not help much in identifying people by race, if that is important. Many Americans who are called “Negroes” are “whiter” than tens of thousands of other Americans who are classified as “white.” For three hundred years and more, runaway slaves (and later freedmen) intermarried with the Indians of nearby tribes so frequently as to have produced in some sections of the country a distinctive physical subtype. The Blackamerican of pure African descent is quite rare, and recent computer studies show that millions of “white” Americans have to varying degrees African ancestry of varying degrees of remoteness.
Who then, is a “Negro” and what difference does it make? It is far easier to answer the second question than the first. As long ago as 1819, the South Carolina courts held that a Negro was a slave, or subject to becoming a slave, and that a slave was ipso facto a Negro. The Mississippi Supreme Court said that in the eyes of the law “a Negro is prima facie a slave.” The courts seemed to be trying to provide a simple rule of thumb for the complex problem of deciding who should have what rights in a society in which all men were held “created equal,” but some, by common agreement among their fellows, were to be treated as though they were not.
Now that slavery has been officially abolished for more than a hundred years, it would seem that our efforts to get on with making this a free and equal society could be enhanced by avoiding the use of words which because of past associations are likely to be weighted with meanings we no longer intend to convey. The problem is that in their subconscious understanding most Americans still associate “Negroes” with cotton fields and cakewalks and a debased status in society. It is probably that all Americans are descendants of people who were slaves at some point in their history, but “Negroes” and “slaves” still have such a vivid association with our recent past that the use of the word Negro is not now an effective way to express the highest level of appreciation for people who consider themselves the equals of any other.
The black people of America are African by derivation, American by nationality, and Blackamerican in terms of the rich, distinctive subculture they have developed here in the West. As Malcolm X once said, “We are all black, different shades of black.” Some Blackamericans have fair skin and blond hair. Some are as black as the African night their fathers knew. But being black in the contemporary world is not so much a matter of skin color as it is a state of mind—an attitude about the value of persons and their rights as human beings without regard to such physical accidents as color. To be “black” is to adopt a cultural response which denies and negates the traditional implications of being “white,” or “nonwhite,” or “Negro,” as the case may be. It is an assertion that we are what we are without reference to what others may name us or name themselves.
This concept of who you are and what to call yourself has been an open debate among the Creole communities of south Louisiana for decades. We know, based on documentation, that the original meaning of the designation was one of nativity…being a native of the area…not ethnicity (the documents mention Creole horses, Creole tomatoes and, yes, Creole people of all colors), and that the Creole culture grew out of the blending of a variety of people and their cultures. So, when people ask who you are or “what are you” based on how you look, tell them you are an American.
Just something to ponder.
Source: A Pictorial History of Black Americans, by Milton Meltzer and the Estate of Langston Hughes (5th revised edition), 1983. Originally published as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, 1956.