Is it ok for a professor to use the word "Negro" when discussing black history in the 1960s?Historians in the News
tags: Black History Month, Black History, civil rights movement
On April 5, while doing research, I took a lunch-break and picked up a copy of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the Columbia University undergraduate newspaper. In reading the paper, I came across several articles directly related to history and the current culture wars. Since I have a sample of only one newspaper, I can’t determine if the contents were typical of the campus news coverage, if it was just a chance day, or some combination of both. In any event, my lunch time reading turned into a fascinating glimpse into the front-lines of the culture war.
The first article to catch my attention was the front page one entitled “When Professors Make Insensitive Comments, Who Speaks up?” The article recounted the experience of one of two nonwhite students in an American studies seminar last year (apparently the junior year of the student who spoke up). In that seminar the professor informed the class that when studying the 1960s, it was acceptable to use the word “Negroes” to refer to African Americans since that was the term even black people used then to refer themselves.
The student took offense to this usage and communicated it to the professor via email with associated links why the usage was offensive. There was no change in speaking by the professor according to the student and the student subsequently ceased paying attention in class. When contacted by the newspaper, the professor responded:
It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.
So what? Aren’t we all entitled to our own facts? By referring to the historical record, the professor was privileging honkey Eurocentric values at the expense of the right for people to be feel good about themselves based on their politically-correct hyphen. The professor’s inability to recognize that the “historical record” is a subjective experience with no validity save in the mind of the beholder invalidates the professor’s legitimacy as a teacher. TRUTH IS SELF ESTEEEM, not the “historical record.”
Back in the real world, notice how the newspaper slanted its coverage. The title presupposes that the professor did in fact make an insensitive comment. The professor has been accused, tried, and convicted in the article title even before the facts of the case were presented. Imagine instead a different headline: “Twinkie Wilts When Faced with the Real World.” Same facts or “historical record,” but a different interpretation.
This issue is exact one I addressed in my recent post Fifty Years an African American: Perhaps It’s Time for a Change. Given what has happened in the last 50 years, what exactly is so great about the African American era compared to the Negro Era in the previous 50 years? Are we now at a point where the speeches of Martin Luther King need to be censored because of his relentless use of word the politically correct deem offensive? Are the achievements of Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige now to be confined to the dustbin of history because it is inappropriate to talk about the Negro Baseball League? Are the now-showcased triumphs in Hidden Figures of the female Negro computers (as people who computed were called in the days before IBM) at NASA now to be hidden once again? One boggles at how worked up a person can get at that mere utterance of a word that for centuries was a perfectly legitimate with no inherent negative connotations. One shudders to think at how Columbia is preparing such a person for the real world or is it that everyone will be entitled to their own facts from the President on down?