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Season Two: Episode 05
I Love The Skin I'm In

In this episode, Shelley reflects on an interview from 1991 that covers the topic of racial identity. Which is the correct terminology? Black? African-American, People of Color? The interview also discusses class differences among Blacks. 

Be advised that this episode contains frank discussions about race and uses the n-word. Listener discretion is advised.

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The Name "Negro"
by W.E.B. Du Bois
March 1928

Dear Sir:

I am only a high school student in my Sophomore year, and have not the understanding of you college educated men. It seems to me that since THE CRISIS is the Official Organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which stand for equality for all Americans, why would it designate and segregate us as “Negroes,” and not as “Americans.”

The most piercing thing that hurts me in this February CRISIS, which forced me to write, was the notice that called the natives of Africa, “Negroes,” instead of calling them “Africans,” or “natives.”

The word “Negro,” or “nigger,” is a white man’s word to make us feel inferior. I hope to be a worker for my race, that is why I wrote this letter. I hope that by the time I become a man, that this word, “Negro,” will be abolished.

Roland A. Barton

My Dear Roland:

Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. 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-Americans.”

Moreover, you cannot change the name of a thing at will. Names are not merely matters of thought 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.

Suppose now we could change the name. Suppose we arose tomorrow morning and lo! Instead of being “Negroes,” all the world called us “Cheiropolidi,”—do you really think this would make a vast and momentous difference to you and to me? Would the Negro problem be suddenly and eternally settled? Would you be any less ashamed of being descended from a black man, or would your schoolmates fell any less superior to you? The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in any name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.

Or, on the other hand, suppose that we slip out of the whole thing by calling ourselves “Americans.” But in that case, what word shall we use when we want to talk about those descendants of dark slaves who are largely excluded still from full American citizenship and from complete social privilege with the white folk? Here is Something that we want to talk about; that we do talk about; that we Negroes could not live without talking about. In that case, we need a name for it, do we not? In order to talk logically and easily and be understood. If you do not believe in the necessity of such a name, watch the antics of a colored newspaper which has determined in a fit of New Year’s Resolutions not to use the word “Negro”!

And then too, without the word that mans 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.

Historically, of course, your dislike of the word Negro is easily explained: “Negroes” among your grandfathers meant black folk; “Colored” people were mulattoes. The mulattoes hated and despised the blacks and were insulted if called “Negroes.” But we are not insulted—not you and I. We are quite as proud of our black ancestors as of our white. And perhaps a little prouder. What hurts us is the mere memory that any man of Negro descent was ever so cowardly as to despise any part of his own blood.

But why seek to change the name? “Negro” is a fine word. Etymologically and phonetically it is much better and more logical than “African” or “colored” or any of the various hyphenated circumlocutions. Of course, it is not “historically” accurate. No name ever was more historically accurate: neither “English,” “French,” “German,” “White,” “Jew,” Nordic” nor “Anglo-Saxon.” They were all at first nicknames, misnomers, accidents, grown eventually to conventional habits and achieving accuracy because, and simply because, wide and continued usage rendered them accurate. In this sense, “Negro” is quite as accurate, quite as old and quite as definite as any name of any great group of people.

Your real work, my dear young man, does not lie with names. It is not a matter of changing them, losing them, or forgetting them. Names are nothing but little guideposts along the Way. The Way would be there and just be as hard and just as long if there were no guideposts,—but not quite as easily followed! 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.

Get this then, Roland, and get it straight even if it pierces your soul: a Negro by any other name would be just as black and just as white; just as ashamed of himself and just as shamed by others, as today. It is not the name—it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!

Copied the text: W.E.B. Du Bois. “The Name "Negro"”. Letter, March, 1928. From Teaching American History. (accessed July 31, 2023).

Which is the correct terminology: Black, African American or People of Color?

It depends. "Black" refers to dark-skinned people of African descent, no matter their nationality. "African American" refers to people who were born in the United States and have African ancestry. Many people use the terms interchangeably.

Young Black activists in the United States started using "Black" in the 1960s when referring to descendants of slaves as a way to leave the term "Negro" and the Jim Crow era behind, says Keith Mayes, associate professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. "African American" caught on in the US in the 1980s as a more "particular and historical" term than the generic "Black," Mayes says. "People of color" was originally meant to be a synonym of "Black," but its meaning has expanded to accommodate Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and other non-white groups, says Efren Perez, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of California Los Angeles. To say you are a person of color is more celebratory and positive than to say you are part of a "minority," he says. All three terms are acceptable. Which you prefer comes down to personal choice, the situation you're in and how invested you are in your racial identity, Perez says.

The meanings of words and phrases can change over time. For example, the words "colored" and "Negro" are now considered dated and offensive - but they weren't when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund were created in the early 20th century. Those organizations haven't changed their names, but "by no means they are trying to perpetuate a name that is offensive to Black people," Mayes says. "Their very history, it's about advancing the Black cause."

-Nicole Chavez, CNN

Dive Deeper

Afro-American or black: what’s in a name? Prominent blacks and-or African Americans express their views

An old and controversial issues has resurfaced. What should we call ourselves, "Blacks" or "African-Americans"? The debate was rekindled last winter after 75 national leaders met to discuss a Black agenda. Speaking for the group, the Rev. Jesse Jackson declared: "To be called Black is baseless. . . To be called African-American has cultural integrity." Others who support the redefinition say a name-change campaign could give impetus to a new mass movement for equality. It could have the same effect as the campaign to be called black had in the 1960s and the movement to be called Negro before that. Opponents of the campaign say it is an exhaustive exercise in semantics that diverts attention from more serious issues such as crime, poverty and inadequate eductional and employment opportunities. Whether they are for, against or neutral, prominent Black leaders suggest that the answer to the question, "What's in a name: Black or African-American?," is more than skin-deep.

Afro-American or black: what’s in a name? Prominent blacks and-or African Americans express their views. (1989, July 1). Ebony, 44(9), 76.

African-American Nomenclature: The Label Identity Shift from "Negro" to "Black" in the 1960s


In the United States, Americans of African Descent have held many identity labels: African, Colored, Negro, Afro-American, Black, and African-American. In the 1960s, there was a shift from the use of "Negro" to the use of "black" as a group identifier. In 1966 Stokely Carmichael shouted the phase "Black Power." Three years later, in 1969, "Negro" was replaced by "black" as the dominant label identifier. This paper will how I measured when the shift occurred and will also set out three major explanations for why the shift happened relatively quickly. Understanding the shift to "black" may help with understanding why the identifier "African-American" has not completely replaced "black."

Bell, Z. (2013). African-American Nomenclature: The Label Identity Shift from "Negro" to "Black" in the 1960s. UCLA. ProQuest ID: Bell_ucla_0031N_11240. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5h71vr1. Retrieved from

From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming

Discusses the use of politically correct terms such as 'African-American' to describe black people. Plight of Jesse Jackson to promote pride and a sense of ethnic identity among African-Americans; Suggestion that naming groups of people is a political exercise; How ethnic groups in the U.S. make reference to a historical land base; Use of the phrase 'black power' by advocates of racial assertiveness; Condemnation of anti-white separatism by Roy Wilkins, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Martin, B. L. (1991). From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming. Political Science Quarterly (Academy of Political Science), 106(1), 83.

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