Naming and Self-identification in the Black Community

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Naming is a complicated business. Names play a vital role in defining group identity and the identity of individuals who belong to that group. Naming can be a tool for empowerment and/or oppression – a means of projecting ideas of social inferiority; a tool to reclaim and redefine individual and collective identity. For perhaps no group is this legacy as relevant or as complex than African Americans. Since the first Africans arrived on the shores of what would become the United States, the connotative struggle over what Anthony Neal describes as ‘the naming’ has been inextricably and dialectically bound to the ongoing struggle for civil rights and racial equality. From Black activists and intellectuals to the layperson on the street, the labels of ‘African’, ‘colored’, ‘Negro’, ‘Black’, ‘Afro-American’ and others have been alternatively (and oftentimes concomitantly) embraced, critiqued, discarded, and reclaimed.

These processes and transitions have often overlapped with key moments or turning points in the long Black freedom struggle. Writing at the height of the New Negro Movement in the 1920s, W.E.B Du Bois championed ‘Negro’ as ‘a fine word…much better and more logical than “African” or “colored” or any of the various hyphenated circumlocutions.’ Just a few decades later, Black Power advocates denounced the word ‘Negro’ as applicable only to those ‘who are still in Whitey’s bag and who still think of themselves and speak of themselves as Negroes’ – an ameliorative and racially timid group not worthy of ‘brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves.’

There is a wealth of academic and popular scholarship on the broader impact and political, social, and psychological utility of naming and self-identification within the African American community and there is little that could be said here that has not already been expressed in far more cogent terms by figures such as Du Bois, Ira Berlin, Darlene Clark Hine, and Lerone Bennett, Jr. Instead, this article is concerned with a more specific question: why is the Journal of Negro Education still called the Journal of Negro Education? Today, at a time when ‘Negro’ is widely recognized as, at best, an anachronistic label, and, at worst, a racial slur, why does one of the nation’s premier journals for Black education remain so firmly wedded to it?

The Journal of Negro Education was founded in 1932 by Charles Henry Thompson, a Howard University professor and the first African American to earn a doctorate degree in educational psychology. In the journal’s first issue, Thompson outlined three key purposes for the fledgling publication; to ‘stimulate the collection, and facilitate the dissemination, of facts about the education of Negroes’, to create space for ‘critical appraisals of the proposals and practices relating to the education of Negroes’, and to ‘stimulate and sponsor investigations of problems incident to the education of Negroes’. Contributors were not required to limit themselves to the term ‘Negro’ in their analysis of Black education, and scholars such as Mary Crowley and Du Bois (despite his previously expressed preference for ‘Negro’), used the term interchangeably with ‘colored’ and ‘Black’ in early articles. However, as demonstrated through its title and the editorial contributions of Thompson and others, ‘Negro’ appeared to be the most widely accepted label of identification. This led to tensions with Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Journal of Negro History, who believed that the title threatened to undermine the circulation of his own journal and the fundraising capacity of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the journal’s parent organization.

Thompson stuck to his guns, and ‘Negro’ would remain in its title and its go-to identifier for several decades. However, this consensus would begin to be challenged during the 1960s, as demands for Black Power entered the national consciousness. Thompson’s move to a position as editor emeritus in 1963 also created space to reconsider the journal’s naming practices, although his successor, Walter Daniels, was a close confidante who appeared be in lockstep with the philosophical and connotative choices of the journal’s founder. This was similarly true for Earle West, a white scholar who became the journal’s editor in 1970 and, like Thompson and Daniels before him, was part of the Howard milieu.

This would change in 1973, when Northwestern University professor Chuck Martin was tapped to join Howard’s faculty and become the journal’s new editor-in-chief. Martin was keen to modernize the journal’s content and ‘develop changes in the journals’ appearance and format’, something that extended to its name. Such efforts were in keeping with broader structural and philosophical changes which were reshaping Howard’s campus during the late 1960s and early 1970s; changes that were driven by student demands and the impact of the ‘Black revolution on campus’, and directed by the new administration of president James Cheek and figures such as Andrew Billingsley, the new vice president for Academic Affairs. While Martin recalls that ‘entrenched faculty were unsettled…it was obvious that “Change is Gonna Come.”’ In addition to giving the journal’s format a facelift, Martin pushed to diversify the journal’s board and bring in scholars from other institutions.

This change would not stretch to the journal’s name. Martin’s movement to adopt a ‘preferred racial identifier such as Black or Afro-American’ was met with considerable resistance, particularly from the university’s Board of Trustees. In response, Martin and the journal’s new team adopted a series of half-measures. A new subtitle was added which identified the journal as a ‘quarterly review of issues incident to the education of black people.’ Through editorial comments, Martin also pointedly made reference to ‘Black people’ and ‘Black scholarship’, largely avoiding the use of ‘Negro’ except in reference to the journal’s title. Indeed, aside from its title or references to historical quotations, by the mid-1970s ‘Negro’ appears to have been largely expunged from the journal’s content. This somewhat awkward juxtaposition of an identification with and disregard of the term would continue under the editorships of Faustine Jones-Wilson and Sylvia T. Johnson during the 1980s and 1990s. D. Kamili Anderson, who joined the journal as an associate editor in 1988, was just one figure who openly criticized the continued use of ‘Negro’, describing it as ‘a philosophical and a marketing negative.’

During the early twenty-first century, debates over the journal’s name once again returned to the fore. This may have been influenced by the widely publicized renaming of the Journal of Negro History as the Journal of African American History at the beginning of 2002 – something which itself came close to three decades after ASNLH’s renaming as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History in 1973. The journal’s impending 75th anniversary may also have encouraged critical self-reflection and a more open discussion of its continued deference to ‘Negro’. After Frederick Harper assumed editorial control in 2004, he took up longstanding efforts to change the journal’s title. However, like the efforts of earlier editors and contributors, this campaign would ultimately flounder.

Logistical and financial factors contributed to this decision. Changing printed and digital materials, as well associated stationary, business cards, artwork, etc., would cost time and money. Similarly, vendors and constituents would have to be notified of a potential change and, where necessary, given an opportunity to provide feedback – another potentially costly and time-consuming endeavor. There was also the question of what word could replace ‘Negro’ in the journal’s title. ‘African American’ would not necessarily align with its diasporic focus, and terms such as ‘Pan-African’ or ‘Africana’ were loaded with their own concerns. What if the journal changed its name ‘to include a racial identifier that is timely and preferred now’, but which might no longer be so in the future? For Harper, like Anderson before him, such issues made ‘the struggle to change the JNE’s name…a complex and convoluted one’, which took up valuable energy that could otherwise be directed towards improving the journal’s overall quality and appeal. From a different perspective, the journal’s outlook over the past few decades has been somewhat conservative – certainly compared to outlets such as The Black Scholar and the Journal of African American History – and this may have created further barriers to change.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for why the journal’s name remains unchanged is continued affection for its original title. After Harper assumed editorial duties, he was warned by his predecessor to ‘be careful about attempting to change the name’, as an ‘overwhelming majority’ of subscribers supported keeping its original title. Soon thereafter, at an educational conference in Washington, D.C., Harper casually mentioned a potential name change and was inundated by attendees imploring him to keep the original title. Surprisingly, most of these calls came from university students in their early twenties, a generation that Harper assumed would harbor the most negative feelings about the term ‘Negro.’ In a special issue celebrating the journal’s 75th anniversary, Harper noted that continued support for its original name from contributors and subscribers, as well as the Howard Board of Trustees and central University administration, all meant that a name change was unlikely.

It remains to be seen whether the more recent revival of Black activism and the movement for Black Lives will finally lead to a change of heart (and name) for the Journal of Negro Education. Regardless, its continued loyalty to ‘Negro’ provides another reminder of the complex and highly contingent politics of naming, as well as the ongoing struggle to define the rhetorical, as well as the literal, terms of Black equality.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.