What’s in a name?



Depending on the era, the voices of individuals from the past sound like whispering wind chimes reflecting upon the derogatory names (Blackie, Negro, Colored, Ni***r, Darkies) used to describe individuals of African descent. America is not that removed from those names in the minds of some who were direct decedents of a sharecropper and lived on the plantation.

Most of these terms were used by White Americans at a time when Blacks were being denied their basic rights and equality. These names are like tattoos that can’t be erased, only covered up in the minds of the older generation of today.

Adding to the above list of names, some of the older generation reminiscence on other names said to their faces that came out of hatred — ape, Aunt Jemima, boy, buckwheat, coon, cotton picker, gator bait, jigaboo, jungle bunny, mammy, monkey, mud person, nappy head, Negroid, Ni**a, pickaninny, porch monkey, Nigress, Sambo, sharecropper, shine, slave, spade, spook, tar baby, token, Uncle Tom, welfare monkey, jungle monkeys, Niglet, gorillas, welfare sloths, kaffirs, etc. The above names became ornamental words that dangled in the minds and on the faces of individuals who were expected not to react, but to lower their heads and keep walking for fear of retaliation, especially since they lived in a time when a Black man had no legal rights against a White man.

If one wonders how an individual deals with “derogatory verbal pain” the answer would be “you just do.” It’s the daily grind of functioning from within while under the strain of oppression. It’s like having to shove pride down your throat and being made to swallow. It’s hard, but mentally, emotionally and physically the slave of the past showed that it was doable.

There is a current debate in America. As the American flag flies over our great country, so too does the Civil War Confederate flag of the south. In some states the imagery still exists and is a reminder of slavery where individuals were beaten, killed, and forced to pick cotton and perform hard labor on plantations.

When tobacco prices fluctuated and began to drop, the modern-day slave was forced to replace tobacco with cotton as the South’s main cash crop, and from there slavery became profitable again. Drowning within slavery’s immoral ways, the South’s “peculiar institution” was clearly tied to the region’s economy. In defense of this institution, some southerners argued that Black people, like children, were incapable of caring for themselves and that slavery was a generous institution that kept Blacks fed, clothed, and occupied.

Sanitizing American history of derogatory words, artifacts, and images, such as the Confederate flag, which has no place in current America, justifies why America needs to do a better job on healing from its past negative behaviors. The economic benefits of slavery to the South, and the moral constitutional issues it brings even today by having the Confederate flag waving in the face of African Americans, doesn’t allow for restorative justice to ever begin.

There should be continued education of past historical events “lest we forget.” But the words, artifacts, and images should only be in historical museums, books, etc. that represent an era when America got it wrong.

The African American does not want to have a continuation of their pride being lynched. These negative words and images still today are set in the minds of some who generationally continue to separate African Americans as being inferior and not worthy of humaneness.

When one writes, the hope is to bring ideas to life and to have those ideas take up residence in the minds of the reader. This writer hopes for everyone to see one another as human beings first, Americans next, and lastly, appreciate our common differences (race, language, culture, religion, sex, etc.) and not have everything be about skin color.

Instead of castrating the character of the African American, we should be doing everything we can to promote our commonalities as Americans and not our differences.


Ellis is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.