Negro (1555) is an outdated word meaning someone who seems to be at least part black African. From about 1712 to 1972 it was the main word in printed English for black people. Now it is kind of a put-down, except in certain phrases that come from that time, like the “Negro League” and the “United Negro College Fund”.
“Negro” is what the Spanish and Portuguese called black people. That is no surprise because in their language it simply means “black”. The English had picked up the word from them by 1555. The word “nigger” comes from it. So does “negress“. The word “night” is its distant cousin. So is the “nigra” in “denigration”.
In the 1600s, the words “Negroes” and “blacks” were about equally common in printed English. Negro did not clearly take over till the 1700s. Still, even in the 1780s, say, Jefferson rarely used the word, preferring “blacks” and especially “slaves”. Frederick Douglass in the 1840s and Solomon Northup in the 1850s preferred “colored”.
From 1749 onwards it was mostly written with a lower case n: “negro”, not “Negro”. In the 1920s, the NAACP pushed to have it capitalized. By 1928 the capitalized form became the most common. Two years later the New York Times started capitalizing it too: “in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the lower case.”
In the 1900s, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr and the early James Baldwin all preferred “Negro”. Booker T. Washington pushed for the US government to use it. The US Census used “Negro” from 1900 to 2010.
But that is printed, polite, middle-class usage. During Jim Crow times (1870s to 1960s), the main American working-class terms for black people were “coloured” and (among whites) “nigger”. Among ordinary black people, “Negro” was never all that common, probably because it sounded too much like the N-word. Whites often pronounced it as “Niggro”.
The 1960s swept all of that away.
Even though the early civil rights leaders used “Negro”, the word had become too much the creature of the older black leadership who thought the road to success and freedom in America was to act and dress and talk like white people, to depend on white approval.
By 1963 Malcolm X preferred “Black” to “Negro”. Notice how he uses the two words:
The Negro “revolution” is controlled by these foxy white liberals, by the government itself. But the black revolution is controlled only by God.
By 1966 Stokely Carmichael began to use “black” in place of “Negro”. Being black meant being proud of who you are. Black Power. Black pride. “Black is beautiful.” Two years later James Brown underscored that point with his song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”.
By 1974 the word “blacks” became more common than “Negroes” in printed (mostly white middle-class) English. Among blacks in the US, “Negro” now meant an Uncle Tom, someone faithful to white people.
In 2008 it went like this in printed English:
- 51.9% Blacks or blacks
- 25.4% African Americans (caught on in the 1980s)
- 19.8% Negroes or negroes
- 2.5% niggers
- 0.3% coloreds
The last two were never all that common in print.
– Abagond, 2008, 2016. Pretty much rewritten in 2014.