What is in a Name: Critical Response to “The Name Negro” by W.E.B Dubois

by Alsha Brown

Read the letter here: w-e-b-dubois-the-name-negro

My initial response to “The Name Negro” was, at first, quite indignant.My comments on the document range from the calmer “I see your point…but htere is power in naming things” to the more aggressive, “I hate being called African American, and I’d never forgive someone for calling me Negro.”

To properly read and respond to his writing, I needed to separate my mind from my person issues with this topic. See, ever since I became aware of the social divide between black and white, I have struggled with what to call myself. I went to a private school until the 3rd grade and at both the school and at home, people were referred to in shades of brown: Light brown [white] dark brown [black]. I have no connection to the continent of Africa outside the color of my skin, and so being dubbed African-American didn’t sit well with me. I settled with the term black until I began to really think about the word. Black is associated with evil and darkness, with soot and nighttime. If you are evil, they say you have a black soul. If you are cold and cruel, you have a tiny black heart. Why would I  want to be associated with such a negative term? For a time in high school I checked the “other” box on official forms and wrote Afro-Caribbean because my mother is from the Caribbean. I’ve only ever been to her home island once, when I was 3 years old, and I don’t remember. I currently identity as a person of color.

This struggle with identity is what I believe the young man who wrote to DuBois was also struggling with, and the argument that was made back by DuBois is that the name did not matter, it is the actions that we make that matter.

If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name. If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called ‘colored’ or ‘Afro-American’.” This is a perfectly logical point; I can paint a horse grey and call it an elephant, but it is still the same animal, just painted grey and probably very peeved. However, there is power in giving a name to something. There are reasons for the names of things and the way those named. So if you name one group of people BLACK, a word with negative connotations, and another WHITE, a name with positive connotations, there is an effect. By accepting those names, are we not accepting the connotations that come with them?

His disregard for the word itself is quite disappointing, and I believe that only in the context of race can people actually argue that it does not matter. Approach any woman the street and say, “Excuse me, ma’am.” I assure you, her response will be much better than if you referred to her as a female dog instead of “ma’am”. But why, if there is nothing in a name? She is still female, no matter what you call her, right? It is a matter of respect. It is a matter of what the word really means and what you are saying to ad about her when you use it. Words have power; you cannot dismiss the meaning of a word.
Moreover, you cannot change the name of a thing at will. Names are not merely matters
of though and reason; they are growths and habits. As long as the majority of men mean
black and brown folk when they say “Negro,” so long will Negro be the name of folks
brown and black. And neither anger nor wailing nor tears can or will change the name
until the name-habit changes.” The politically correct term for people descended from the slaves brought to America from the African nations has changed many times. The n-word, Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, Person of Color (which, by the way, encompasses more than just African-Americans). And so if the population under the name make no effort to steer the naming toward what they were prefer to be called, isn’t that social apathy? “Your real work as a Negro lies in two
directions: First, to let the world know what there is fine and genuine about the Negro
race. And secondly, to see that there is nothing about that race which is worth contempt;
your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.“Part of this work he mentions is included in the changing of a name. To let the world know that there is something to be proud of the Negro race, a race named for the color of evil, darkness, and outcasts, we must first change the name.

And then too, without the word that means Us, where are all those whose spiritual ideals, those inner bonds, those group ideals and forward strivings of this might army of 12 millions? Shall we abolish there with the abolition of a name? Do we want to abolish them? Of course we do not. They are our most precious heritage.” Again, I must emphasis the changing of the name does not change who the people are. Christopher Columbus is credited with naming the native people of the America “Indians”. That was not their name, this was a name they were given, and over time we have stopped referring to the man native nations under the blanket term of “Indians”, returning to them their identity and allowing us to truly learn about them. By erasing the name, we do not erase people. We erase the social connotations that came with it. We no longer teach are children about “American Indians” as if they are one homologous group.

I do agree with his description of the “real work” to be done, however,I do not agree with him that names are separate and irrelevant to that work.




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