The Name “Negro”–Letters between Roland A. Barton and W. E. B. Du Bois Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1928, African American writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, corresponding with a high school student, argued that taking offense at the use of the word “Negro” was unnecessary. In a letter published in The Crisis, Du Bois said that the term entered the English lexicon long ago, and any elimination or replacement of the word would do nothing to change the black experience in the United States. He advised the young man to abandon his protest over the name “Negro” and instead focus on presenting to the world the positive attributes of his race and demonstrating that nothing about African Americans was deserving of contempt.

Summary Overview

In 1928, African American writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, corresponding with a high school student, argued that taking offense at the use of the word “Negro” was unnecessary. In a letter published in The Crisis, Du Bois said that the term entered the English lexicon long ago, and any elimination or replacement of the word would do nothing to change the black experience in the United States. He advised the young man to abandon his protest over the name “Negro” and instead focus on presenting to the world the positive attributes of his race and demonstrating that nothing about African Americans was deserving of contempt.

Defining Moment

In the decades following the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, the lives and experiences of black Americans seemed to head in a different direction from those of the rest of Americans. While the US economy surged, industry churned, and the overall quality of American life improved significantly at the beginning of the twentieth century, black Americans remained plagued by poverty, political inequality, and social segregation. Much of this condition was attributed to the actions and inactions of local, state, and federal governments, which allowed white-dominated institutions to deny African Americans political participation, equitable education, and other benefits of society. At the beginning of the twentieth century, black Americans occupied separate and lesser social, political, and economic positions than whites.

The African American experience at this time was exacerbated by the resurgence of race-based violence. D. W. Griffiths’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation, infamous for its racist depiction of black men, had inspired the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Largely disbanded by the late nineteenth century because of internal dissent, the KKK experienced a surge in nationwide membership during the early decades of the 1900s; by the mid-1920s, membership had reached approximately four million. This rebirth was fueled by disdain for the increased numbers of immigrants as well as a desire to return to conservative social and nationalistic values. Violence against African Americans, particularly lynchings, continued to increase as the KKK and other racist groups spread across the South and the border states.

In addition to single acts of violence, the early twentieth century was marked by race riots. One infamous riot took place in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sparked when a nineteen-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for the attempted assault of a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Just over a decade before the Tulsa riot, Massachusetts scholar, writer, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois had joined with a number of other black and white activists to form the National Negro Committee, an activist group intended to promote civil rights, in response to a 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois. In 1910, the committee became a permanent organization known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Du Bois suggested the word “colored” be used to include all people with dark skin, not just those of African origin. The NAACP would be credited by many historians for helping to reduce Americans’ taste for lynchings and racial violence.

One of Du Bois’s biggest contributions to the NAACP was the founding of The Crisis, a periodical that would act as a constructive forum for addressing racial issues in the country. Over time, The Crisis would become the NAACP’s leading publication, reporting on a wide range of race-related topics and continuing the fight for human rights.

Author Biography

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. He received his undergraduate education first at Fisk University in Tennessee and then at Harvard University; he would later return to Harvard and become the first black American to receive a PhD from that institution. In 1905, Du Bois cofounded the Niagara Movement, a protest group dedicated to actively promoting racial equality. The movement was formed in direct opposition to the accommodationist policies espoused by fellow black activist Booker T. Washington, whose conciliatory approach Du Bois famously criticized. In 1909, he helped found the NAACP, continuing to press for racial equality. Du Bois later taught at Atlanta University and traveled throughout Europe, Russia, China, and Japan. Over the course of his career, he wrote twenty-one books, edited fifteen, and wrote more than one hundred articles and essays. Late in his life, Du Bois traveled to the newly independent Republic of Ghana to work on an encyclopedia of Africana studies. He became a citizen of Ghana in 1963, shortly before his death on August 27 of the same year.

Document Analysis

In 1928, a young high school student named Roland Barton wrote to The Crisis, expressing his disappointment at that publication’s use of the term “Negro” to describe Africans and African Americans. Barton felt that the terms “Negro” and “nigger” were created by white people in order to “make [black people] feel inferior.” Du Bois’s response downplays the value of protesting these words and instead stresses the pursuit of more important goals–namely, showing the rest of the United States that the black race is no different from other races and is unworthy of “contempt.”

Du Bois acknowledges that the terms “Negro” and “nigger” were created by white men long ago and were historically used to distinguish black people from “colored” (mixed-race) Americans who did not want to be considered the same as black people. However, he says, the words have become part of the American English lexicon, and it would be difficult to simply eliminate their use. Furthermore, Du Bois asks, what is the point of doing so? He claims that regardless of its etymology, the term “Negro” is as good a designation for the black race as any. “Negro” refers to the color of black people’s skin, as accurate a racial moniker as any other (“No name ever was historically accurate,” he argues, “neither ‘English,’ ‘French,’ ‘German,’ ‘White,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘Nordic’ nor ‘Anglo-Saxon’”) and better than “hyphenated circumlocutions” such as “Afro-American.”

Du Bois continues by saying that referring to black Americans as simply “Americans” would hinder discussion of “those descendants of dark slaves who are largely excluded still from full American citizenship and… social privilege.” He asserts that black people need a way to verbally distinguish themselves from other racial groups, particularly during the pursuit of racial equality, and asks Barton a simple question: Regardless of what white people (or any other racial group) called black people, would that name convince them to treat black people any differently? Du Bois argues that a change in semantics would not solve the problems of racial segregation and inequality, nor would it undo black Americans’ long-standing “feeling of inferiority” due to having spent centuries being treated as less than whites. In fact, he suggests, moving away from use of the term “Negro” would amount to denying black Americans’ heritage.

Du Bois advises Barton that instead of pursuing a change in semantics, he should focus on the more important issues of racial equality and self-acceptance. He suggests that Barton’s “real work as a Negro” is twofold: to show the world the “fine and genuine” qualities of his race and to accept that “nothing about that race… is worth contempt; your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.”

In closing, Du Bois says that Barton, and others who seek the abolition of the term “Negro,” are following the wrong path. Whether the racial designation is “Negro,” “black,” or “colored,” it is but a name–one assigned to a racial group that is considered by the majority of white Americans to be inferior to them, and changing the name would not change the perception of that group. “It is not the name,” he concludes, but “the Thing that counts”–the thing the name represents, though here Du Bois leaves the meaning of “the Thing” somewhat ambiguous. Nevertheless, his ultimate message is that Barton should concern himself less with how white Americans describe black people and more with how to make them see that black people by any name deserve to have the same rights and privileges as whites

Essential Themes

Du Bois spent his entire career as a scholar and activist pursuing racial equality. The organizations he helped found, including the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, were committed to combating racism in the United States. The verbiage they used in this campaign was reflective of the period, and they used the terms “Negro” and “colored” as frequently as others did.

When Barton wrote to him to protest this usage, Du Bois responded that Barton’s anger was misplaced. To be sure, he said, such terms had long been part of the English lexicon to describe black people; however, it was not the name that had placed them in a lesser social position throughout American history or fostered the sense of inferiority that was ingrained in the psyches of countless black people at the time. Du Bois argued that abolishing the word “Negro” would do nothing to correct racial inequality, combat race-based violence, or help black people feel better about themselves; all it would do was erase black history and heritage in the United States.

Du Bois suggested that Barton would be better served by disregarding the significance of the word “Negro” and focusing instead on working for racial equality. Black Americans needed to present themselves to the rest of society as valuable, upstanding, and unashamed, he said. The recognition of such qualities would elevate black people’s social standing as well as their confidence, while other racial groups would be less inclined to view them with contempt. Du Bois believed that pursuing these two goals was the first step to achieving meaningful change in race relations in the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bennett, Lerone, Jr. “What’s in a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black.” Ebony 23 Nov. 1967: 46–54. Print.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. 3rd ed. Chicago: McClurg, 1903. Print.
  • Gibson, Robert A. “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880–1950.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. YNHTI, 1979. Web. 12 May 2014.
  • Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography. New York: Holt, 2009. Print.
  • Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Lanham: Rowman, 2003. Print.
  • Tischauser, Leslie V. Race Relations in the United States, 1920–1940. Westport: Greenwood, 2008. Print.
  • Washington, Booker T., ed. The Negro Problem. New York: Pott, 1903. Print.
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