The term Negro, similar to Nègre in French and Neger in German, had its origins in the romance languages, as it means “black” in Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. Negro as a primary racial and/or color referent was not used to identify people of African descent until the middle of the 15th century, with the initiation of the African Holocaust (i.e., the enslavement and genocide of African people). By the 18th century, Negro had become an Anglo-American term applied to all persons of African descent and used to designate them as the lowest division of humankind (with Caucasians first, Mongolians second, and Negroes third). Later the term was specifically applied to all African ethnic groups central and below the Sahara desert, particularly those persons of the Congo and Sudan. The term has also been used to describe enslaved persons (in North and South America as well as the Caribbean) whether they were directly descended from Africa or mixed with Europeans or Native Americans. The term was also expanded to African Negro to categorize and distinguish Africans born on the continent of Africa from Africans born in the diaspora.
Negro was further developed into the derogatory nigger and applied to all African peoples before and since the period of enslavement. The concept was always imbued with notions of racial inferiority and was made synonymous with the word slave. In sociocultural context, the Negro is a creation or invention, a primitive subhuman being who embodied the negative and stereotypical beliefs and ideas that European Americans applied to all African people. In the expansion of racial idealization of African people, the term and several derivatives of it and related words were applied to Africans by European Americans. The outgrowths of the word include terms such as Negress (an African female), Negrillo (a “bushman” on the African continent), Negrito (a diminutive African person), negritic (of black people), negroid (possessing African features and characteristics and, also, the lowest category of human beings), négritude (an aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual movement of African culture), negrophile(someone—usually Caucasian— who has a filial relationship with Africans or an extreme interest in African history and culture), negrophobia (fear of African people and African material culture), Negroness (the circumstance and/or quality of being Negro).
Before the interaction with Europeans, indigenous Africans and Africans born in the African diaspora had no words that identified them as black, nor did they refer to themselves as such. U.S. postbellum Southern whites used the term nigger to refer to Africans in day-to-day interaction and in the popular media. In response, many blacks began to refer to themselves as Negroes as a social corrective, in order to challenge being called by the routine epithet nigger. This was an attempt made by blacks to give the term a different face. In this search for collective pride in nomenclature, discussion also surrounded using a capital or lowercase N to refer to Negroes in print. In 1925, Alain Locke offered the idea of the “New Negro” in American society—the individual of African descent striving for self-realization and acceptance in white society.
By the 1950s, there was a concerted movement among people of African descent in North America to cease using the term Negro. The terms used to supplant it included colored, black, and later, Afroamerican. Because of the imprecision of the terms colored and Afro-American, however, beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s, the terms preferred and used by Africans born in the United States included African American, African, and black. Despite the negative denotations of the color black, the term black continued to be used to describe African Americans because the black power movement of the 1960s used the term as a designation of political protest against racism.
One of the main criticisms of the terms Negro and colored was that they did not identify people of African descent with their ancestral homeland of Africa. In 1988, Jesse Jackson and other black leaders called for the uniform use of the term African American. In contemporary African world society, the term Negro is considered outmoded and offensive, and there are many critiques of the term. Richard B. Moore examined the term Negro as a function of naming by either external forces to control blacks or as self-identification and actualization (agency) by blacks. Malcolm X (also known as el Hajj Malik el Shabazz) linked the term Negro to the system of oppression that enslaved African people. Molefi Asante analyzed the concept of Negro and concluded that it ignores the ancestral bond that people have to the continent of Africa and is a “cryptoterm.” In contemporary African American cultural, social, and intellectual thought, the term is a pejorative applied to Africans and African Americans perceived as sell-outs by the black community (i.e., those who seek only to serve the status quo and who actively work against the interests and needs of African people). According to Nathan Hare and Katherine Bankole, those who demonstrate “Negro” behavior seek only to fit in, serve, and emulate the dominating culture; they shun activism and reform and are often rewarded for their unswerving anti-African attitudes and actions.
Racial and ethnic categories for Africans born in North America continue to be used in the government and private sector. Such categories include “African American/Black” and sometimes “Black/Negro” as a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Scholars note the exclusion of North Africans and other Africans designated with “honorary white status” from references to all people of African descent. While there remains discussion about the concept and term Negro in world society, most scholars agree that its original designation was that of slavery and servitude. It should also be noted that the term, as expressed in many other languages, is considered as offensive as the term nigger. Thus, the term Negro is rooted in the imposed social condition of Africans. In addition, the term is usually not included as an ideological concept in examinations of race, in the advanced study of racial formation among people of African descent in the diaspora, or in understanding critical theories of the concept of race. The term Negro is still used as a research indicator for finding materials about African people before the 1960s.
- Asante, Molefi Kete. (1998). The Afrocentric Idea (rev. ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This is an insightful discussion of the power of naming and defining.
- Bankole, Katherine Olukemi. (2000). You Left Your Mind in Africa: Journal Observations and Essays on Racism and African American Self-Hatred. Morgantown, WV: Nation House. Bankole analyses the negative impact of racial stereotypes on African people, especially as it relates to name calling.
- Hare, Nathan. (1991). The Black Anglo-Saxons. Chicago: Third World Press. This is a classic study of Negro psychopathology.
- Malcolm, X, with Alex, Haley. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press. This book illustrates, among other things, the manufacture of Negroes.
- Moore, Richard B. (1960). The Name Negro: Its Origin and Evil Use. New York: Argentina Press. Moore's book is a fascinating study of the origin and evolution of the term Negro.