Much Ado About a Name; or, Revisiting Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-education of the Negro

In Much Ado About a Name, his Appendix to the 1933 edition of The Mis-education of the Negro, historian and polemicist Carter G. Woodson ridicules a “highly educated” Negro much concerned as to what the race should be called: Africans, Negroes, colored people, or what?

“If others will agree to call Negroes Nordics, he thinks, he will reach the desired end (solving the race problem) by taking a short cut … Many of this class suffer mentally because of the frequent use of “offensive expressions” in addressing Negroes. When dealing with them, then, one has to be very careful. For this reason our friends in other races have to seek guidance in approaching us.”

This is splendid satire. But of course Woodson is wrong. He is right in that a change in terminology will hardly solve ‘the race problem’. And in cautioning Negro Americans against internalizing other people’s often negative opinions of them. “The Negro,” Woodson wrote in 1933, “has permitted other people to determine for him the attitude that he has towards his own people. This means the enslavement of his mind and eventually the enslavement of his body.”    

Wrong, because words do matter. In the poem Liberation Narratives VI poet Haki R. Madhubuti (see Index) warns: “If you don’t know/ who you are,/ anybody can/ name you.” And they will.

Words become lexicalized, thereby fixing the meaning(s) of a word and its connotations. This is one of the reasons that from time to time we may have to find a new word for something to get rid of negative connotations that the word has acquired over time. Reflected, say, in the change of titles for major anthologies of Black literature, from The Negro Caravan (1941) to Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present (1971) to Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (1972) to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996) and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (1997).

On this website I will go with the book/author’s own use. If the choice is my own, I will follow the current guidelines used by The New York Times, Why We’re Capitalizing Black (2020), using both African American and Black, capitalized, “when describing people and cultures of African origin.”

THE SECOND PART of his appendix, The Value of Color, is Carter G. Woodson’s praisesong for the beauty of the many shades of the color black that he had seen in his travels around the world: “Not long ago the writer saw on a street car one of the prettiest women in the world.”

He observed the pride taken by many Afropeans (to use a word chosen by Johnny Pitts, Black British photographer and journalist, for the title of his new book: Afropeans: Notes from Black Europe, Penguin Books, 2019) in the beauty of their skin color – in contrast to what he found in the U.S.A. at the time he wrote The Mis-education of the Negro in the 1930s, before the advent of the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s and the new slogan of ‘Black is Beautiful’.