The language of the oppressed

A friend asked why I use the term Black–which I use as a proper name, not as an adjective. The question of what you call yourself is a sensitive issue for all of the oppressed, including women, the disabled, LGBT people, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, oppressed castes in India, indigenous peoples all over the world. The vocabulary of epithets & hate terms for each is vast; even women’s body parts are given demeaning names.

An important part of every social movement has been deciding what we call ourselves, what names we deem respectful & that embody our dignity. There is of late a trend of thought that wants to reclaim hate language like slut or whore. Why one would ever want to do that escapes me & I frankly consider it politically jejune. We’re not in a pissing contest but a momentous historic struggle to end oppression & see each other with dignity. Language is a part of that.

Since I was a kid there have been a few different names for Black people–not including the numerous hate terms. A Black co-worker once laughingly told me name changing was to make people think something had changed when everything was just the same.

In the 1950s & 1960s, Negro was the appropriate term & that’s what Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., & other activists in the Civil Rights Movement used. With the Black power movement in the late 1960s-1970s, radical youth began calling themselves Black in association with the demand for Black power & the slogan “Black is beautiful.” It’s a movement that came under severe political repression.

Somewhere in the 1970s, middle-class Blacks began calling themselves African-Americans. Its usage seemed peculiar to many because Blacks in the Americas go back 500 years plus. The offspring of Irish, Italians, French, Germans, etc., who came much later don’t call themselves French-Americans, etc. So why should those of African ancestry do so when most feel no more connection to Africa than, for example, my family does to Tipperary?

I wanted to use the name acceptable to Blacks I worked with and asked them what they preferred to be called. They were of the Black power generation or younger & all were working class. They were dismissive of the term African-American, considered it awkward, & said Black was the name they preferred. It’s possible there is a class difference in preference; it’s possible time has passed me by & the name is no longer suitable. But that’s the only reason I use the name Black. Plus I love its association with power & beauty.

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