Gene Seymour at Bookforum:
Fine. Let’s start with “Negro,” or, if one prefers, “negro.” Even with this word’s present-day, often lower-case status, there are African Americans for whom “Negro” is a trigger word for outrage or affront. Some want the word excised altogether—which, at least to this African American, displays amnesia toward (or, worse, disrespect for) our collective history. Between the years 1900 and 1970 (give or take), “Negro” defined a people in transition through two world wars, a cultural renaissance, and a social and political movement that changed everything around it. Those who defined themselves as “Negro” flew airplanes to battle fascism, made their own movies, established baseball franchises, and used their hard-won education in law, the arts, and science to pull their people ahead with them, transforming a nation that otherwise refused to see them as they were, when it chose to see them at all. Where that other “N-word” demeaned and distorted (and still does, no matter who uses it), “Negro” dignified and elevated. After the ’60s had run their course, Negroes collectively agreed to shift to “black” because the other was no longer considered sufficient, or useful. It was outdated, perhaps. But an insult? Our grandparents and great-grandparents might beg to differ, no matter what they chose to call themselves.
I am, in short, riding the same train as Margo Jefferson, who may be even more bullish on the matter than I am, certainly more lyrical: “I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. . . . A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.”