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In a few days, I have to do a class presentation project about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

I want to say that the movement's original name was the "New Negro Movement," but I'm not sure if that's okay. I'm white, and I really don't want to offend anybody in my class.

Is it all right to say this word in context? Or, should I ignore its original name, and only refer to it as the Harlem Renaissance?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Drew, Nathaniel, tchrist, michael_timofeev, user140086 Jan 2 '16 at 17:31

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    I don't think it is such a big issue to use it in the historical context. Why not ask your friend who is black? The linked question will be helpful to you.When and why did the N-word and “negro” go apart? – user140086 Dec 31 '15 at 13:44
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    If you're worried about it, throw a "what is called..." or "what was called..." in there, to emphasize that this isn't your words. – T.E.D. Dec 31 '15 at 16:16
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    Say something like: "The leaders chose to call their organization the 'New Negro Movement'". That will absolve you of any guilt and put the onus on those who actually chose the name. – Anonym Dec 31 '15 at 20:30
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    "in context" isn't that always the answer? The context is always key. – DA. Dec 31 '15 at 22:10
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    @Rathony Not sure asking a 'black friend' is necissarily good gauge of things. I used to be friends with a black guy who was completely fine with people using the word 'nigger' and people making racist jokes, and he would make the most politically incorrect jokes of all of us. Call me crazy, but I don't think all blacks would be that happy about it. Generalisation is not your friend. – Pharap Jan 1 '16 at 3:29

11 Answers 11

14

Is it okay to use the word “Negro” in a historical context?

Yes, absolutely. If that was term used, even in a pejorative sense, in the context of serious research you can always include things that are true and relevant.

I'm white, and I really don't want to offend anybody in my class.

That is impossible to answer even if the members of this forum were in your class. It is entirely possibly you could offend somebody. Whether or not your report or talk will offend someone should be the least of your concerns if what you are writing or saying is well researched and based on reliable facts. Academic study, even of sensitive social issues, isn't restricted to nationality, gender, religion, or ethnicity.

19

In the context of this class, and definitely in the name of the movement, I would say it's okay. To be even more safe, you can refer to the movement as the "New Negro Movement" and its members as African Americans (if that's correct).

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    I'd add that when used in the proper name of a group, it's appropriate to use historically outmoded terms even in a modern context. For instance, the UNCF uses "Negro" in their name, and the NAACP uses "Colored People" in their name. These terms are inappropriate in casual speech today, but they attest to the history and longevity of those modern organizations. – recognizer Dec 31 '15 at 15:56
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    Let's also not forget that they themselves chose those terms. Ice Cube and Eazy-E would probably not be offended or embarrassed if you spelled out NWA, at least any more than anyone is embarrassed about things they did as teenagers... – corsiKa Dec 31 '15 at 18:16
  • This is OK in theory, but given that this term makes the OP uneasy, it's likely to make others in his class feel the same way. – Chris Sunami Dec 31 '15 at 18:56
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The United Negro College Fund still operates under that name, even if they have changed their branding to UNCF. However, a disclaimer may be in order. Even Mark Twain agreed somewhat with the decision to ban his works based on racial epithets, primarily because he intended them for adults, not children. Something along the lines of "... the outdated term, the "New Negro Movement", which used a term consider politically correct for its day, although not for ours".

  • Are you answering another question? – Tom B Dec 31 '15 at 15:12
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    I think Twain was being sarcastic in that letter... he continues to say that his own experience of a "soiled mind" as a child was from an unexpurgated Bible. – sumelic Dec 31 '15 at 20:12
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For historical reasons the term has been considered derogatory since the late '60s. As far as I can see the context you mention does not appear to have any intent other than its academic usage.

Negro (n.):

  • "member of a black-skinned race of Africa," 1550s, from Spanish or Portuguese negro "black,". Use with a capital N- became general early 20c. (e.g. 1930 in "New York Times" stylebook) in reference to U.S. citizens of African descent, but because of its perceived association with white-imposed attitudes and roles the word was ousted late 1960s in this sense by Black.

    • Professor Booker T. Washington, being politely interrogated ... as to whether negroes 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," June 2, 1906]

(Etymonline)

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    The word "Negro" is not derogatory. You're thinking of another word beginning with the same letter. Black people in the United States have indicated that they prefer other terms for their group name, and it is considered rude not to call people by the name they prefer. – deadrat Dec 31 '15 at 15:10
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    @deadrat - Since the Black Power movement of the 1960s, however, when the term black was favoured as the term to express racial pride, Negro (together with related words such as Negress) has dropped out of favour and now seems out of date or even offensive in both British and US English. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/negro – user66974 Dec 31 '15 at 15:12
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    I agree. The term Negro is out of favor and out of date and mainly used in historical contexts. It's considered offensive to apply to black people because it's impolite to ignore people's preferences about what they prefer to be called. This is different from the word have a derogatory meaning or history. – deadrat Dec 31 '15 at 15:58
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The official name of the movement is a historical fact. There is absolutely no academic excuse for falsifying history. However, it may be part of your task to explain the historic context to your audience so that they may judge the significance of the choice of words made at that time properly.

It is in the nature of history to often be offensive in various manners. We still want to learn as much about it as possible in order not to repeat mistakes that were made. Hindsight may not be impressive, but it's better than blindness.

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Go ahead and use the term. As a scholar, it is important to not shy away from the past. If we forget exactly how offensive things were in the past, we are doomed to repeat those mistakes in the future. This is not to say you should be too cavalier about it, though. Personally, I would take a page out of Warner Brothers' book and begin your presentation with a warning similar to the following:

enter image description here

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    That's a cool disclaimer, but the underlying material is still racist. If the cartoon is intended as part of a documentary it's fine, if intended as entertainment in my opinion the racist message still comes through as offensive. Politically correct or not depicting a race in an intentional derogatory way is still damaging and WB says as much in the text you are citing. – Tom B Dec 31 '15 at 17:50
  • There's a difference between having some racist content and the entire thing being racist material. It's not like Bugs Bunny went around killing black people for fun. – corsiKa Jan 4 '16 at 15:59
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Usage is always based on context, and there are a lot of simmering racial tensions in the modern American classroom. I think most of the other answers are ignoring the fact that this is a practical question, not an abstract one. There are two separate issues here: Is that word generally OK in a historical context, and is anyone likely to be offended in your class.

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is yes. I'm assuming this is for a high school class. If so, most of your classmates probably won't have any historical context for the word, and will be likely respond to it negatively. To a certain extent, you can predict their reactions based on your own. The very fact you're asking the question means that the word makes you uncomfortable, and that you're not sure if it's offensive or not.

I think your best bet is to introduce the term very carefully, describing it as the name chosen by the leaders of the movement themselves. You'll also want give some context on how the word originally had much more positive connotations --usage of the term "Negro" was considered a big step forward at the time. After introducing the original name, however, you've done your historical duty. After that, use "Harlem Renaissance" instead, for everyone's comfort, including your own.

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    How is this the best answer? It raises some good points, but says Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is yes. I'm assuming this is for a high school class. If so, most of your classmates probably won't have any historical context for the word, and will respond to it negatively.. I fail to see how anyone can know that without complete blind speculation as to the nature of the class, the racial makeup, their education level, and lots of other unknowns. – Tom B Jan 1 '16 at 19:35
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    @AlbertHendriks Oh, Yuck. Bow ye to false political correctness. Neither I nor you nor the OP came up with the name so walking on eggshells is more offensive than presenting it correctly. – Anders Jan 2 '16 at 7:50
  • @TomB This would be a typical assignment for an American high school class, I'm pretty confidently making the guess that is what it is. However, all that aside, I think we can assume that the OP is a reasonable representative of his (or her) class (whatever or wherever it is). If the word makes him uncomfortable, and he isn't sure how offensive (or not) it is, we can safely assume the same will be true for his classmates. – Chris Sunami Jan 2 '16 at 17:11
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    @Anders Usage is ALWAYS dependent on context. It's easy for you to bravely oppose political correctness on principle, but here you're potentially asking a (presumed) teenager to needlessly wade into a firestorm. The modern American high school classroom is a tinderbox of racial tension and conflict. In that context, walking on eggshells is not only wise, it's a necessity. I'm not asking him to NOT use the word --in fact I'm inviting him to educate his classmates around its actual history. But not advising caution would be entirely misleading. – Chris Sunami Jan 2 '16 at 17:21
  • @ChrisSunami note: my strong reaction was toward Albert Hendriks's amplification, I agree in general with your advice and points, but perhaps it is a little too strongly put because I don't agree that it would be a "firestorm" in this case. There are other historical words and situations that might be. It's worth being careful to present it correctly, but if you become an apologist you may just end up drawing the negative attention. IMHO, overkilling PC is harmful too. – Anders Jan 2 '16 at 21:11
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Due to the fact that it is a historical text, I suppose you can use the word, as long as:

  1. It is not used as a means of causing offense.

  2. If the context in which the word is used is offensive, it must be due to the fact that the word was being referenced (a quotation from a source).

2

To expand on some of the other answers, this is greatly dependent on your country. Outside the US it's considered perfectly OK to use the word negro in a historical context, and there is much more tolerance for using it in any context where it is not actually intended to be insulting.

In the US you should beware of the word, even if you are strictly reporting on a historical name. I would use "Harlem Renaissance" over "New Negro Movement" wherever I could.

To illustrate this I draw your attention to Lawrence Hill's historical novel "The Book of Negroes" (named after an actual historical document of that name, which is central to the plot) which drew no attention at all for its title in Canada r the UK, but which was retitled "Somebody Knows My Name" for the US market.

  • Oops. Good point. Fixed. – DJClayworth Jan 1 '16 at 22:58
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I want to say that the movement's original name was the "New Negro Movement,"

Then say that!

but I'm not sure if that's okay.

It's okay. You did not assign the name and had nothing to do with the changes in language that occurred before you were born. You are reporting the name, and a truthful report will tell the name as it was.

The people more likely to claim to be offended are whites fighting the social status wars against other whites ("OMG, I can't believe you said that"). Black Americans are generally aware that Negro was a term that was in favor among many black Americans in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Many whites are also aware of that.

Maybe there is some doubt as to whether your whole audience understands that history, or can distinguish between names that you quote and terms that you personally might use to describe black people. In that case there is a balancing act between spelling out those facts and distinctions to the extent needed to make everything clear, and insulting the intelligence of the listeners.

It's also possible to not attempt to explain anything, but to have a prepared response for anyone who challenges the use of the historically correct name, stating that it's not your choice of word (or whatever you might want to clarify at that point).

0

In a historical or literary context, in my experience you can always use "negro," "nigger," etc. Try to avoid it if possible of course, but if it comes down to using the word or awkwardly skirting around it, always choose the former.

For example, in a literary paper, don't do this:

"Miss Watson's big [N-WORD], named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him." (Twain 58)

And in the case of your presentation, you are of course allowed to say "New Negro Movement." Just note that it is a term that some people may find offensive, so be mature about it.

Note the first part, "in a historical or literary context." This does NOT give the excuse to throw the N-word around.

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