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"Negro or negro?" Reflections of a Colored Girl by Martha Bireda, Ph.D.

“Negro” or “negro”?

I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.”

With regard to the word Negro, a capital N gave a respect that could equate with some type of social recognition, while the small n was a symbol of the low “place” that the group held in the racial hierarchy of American white society.

In 1962, I was off to college “up North,” as we Floridians called the Midwest. While the Jim Crow laws and customs prevalent in the South had not disempowered the spirit of this colored girl, it was going to be so refreshing to leave behind the “Colored" and "White” designations. I was looking forward to being allowed to evolve into a “Negro.”

Library of Congress

However, a rude awakening occurred during my travels to college, which brought to mind W.E.B. DuBois’s concern about the small n or capital N in my racial designation. In Terra Haute, Indiana, my mother, aunt, and I had to sleep in the car, as no motel would accommodate us. I understood that while I was officially a capital N "Negro" in the North, in many circumstances, I would still be treated as a lower case n “negro.”

My new home as a Negro was Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Negrohood was evident in most aspects of life at Western. We organized our own dances and social activities. In the Student Union, Negro students gathered in their own special area, called the “tac corner.”

The small n was subtle and ever present in our various relationships at Western. In fact, one particular professor demonstrated the belief in our cultural “negro-ness” and intellectual inferiority. This professor of phonetics informed one Negro student that she would probably fail his class because, according to him, Negroes did not hear sounds the same way as whites did. This student, Anitta Rutherford Orr, not only passed that class but became President of the Michigan Speech and Hearing Association.

As I evolved into my capital N Negro consciousness, I realized that the lessons I learned as a colored girl were coming to the fore. And I would continue to cultivate those empowering characteristics as I grew up.

While my group and I would be perceived and treated as lower case n negroes rather than capital n Negroes, we would continue to show our stuff – who we had been reared to be: strong, resilient, never depending on others to define us.

The disparagement keeps coming up to me; if you're called a capital-N Negro, why isn't a white called a a capital-w White?

"In my life, I have found myself as a colored, a negro, a Black, an African American, and a person of color. This is my reflection as a colored girl." This phrase opens each essay in the series “Reflections of a Colored Girl” from Martha R. Bireda, Ph.D. being aired on WGCU FM. Dr. Bireda is a writer, lecturer, and living history performer with over 30 years' experience as a lecturer, consultant and trainer for issues related to race, class, and gender, working with educators, law enforcement, and business, and civic leaders. She also is director of the Blanchard House Museum of African American History and Culture of Charlotte County, in Punta Gorda, Florida. Bireda was born in Southwest Florida in 1945 but spent the first 10 years of her life in a small town in Western Virginia. Her family then moved back to Punta Gorda, where they have deep roots. This is one essay in her series.

Martha R. Bireda, Ph.D., is a writer, lecturer, and living history performer. She has over 30 years of experience as a lecturer, consultant and trainer for issues related to race, class, and gender issues, working with educators, law enforcement, and business, and civic leaders.