Baugh, John. 1991.

"The politicization of changing terms of self-reference among American Slave Descendants."

American Speech 66(2): 133-146.

Baugh investigates changing terms of self-reference among American Slave Descendants* (ASD) and whites, and their variable awareness of racial and ethnographic boundaries. The study first gathered respectful and disrespectful terms that were suggested by ASDs, and conducted telephone surveys targeting ASDs (insiders**) and whites (outsiders) to examine reactions to those terms. The finding was that age-differences greatly influenced perceptions of ethnic referential terms: while older generations from both races considered some terms acceptable, younger generations found them highly offensive.

The study concluded that the motivation for referential change was a reflection of ethnic-consciousness movements triggered by the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and was thus rejection of oppression by a marginal ethnicity themselves.*** Redefinition of status often begins by changing names. In the 1970s, the term "negro" was replaced with the term "black" as the Black Power Movement emerged in 1966 from the left wing of the civil rights movement, rejecting its dogma of integration and assimilation and advocating cultural nationalism. However, by the 1980s, this term was considered as "baseless" in relation to the ethnic-consciousness movements, and therefore it began to be replaced with the term "Afro-American" or "African American." Eventually, "Afro-American" was dropped because of its association with the term "hyphenated Americans."

The goal of referential change seems to have been to assert ethnic pride, to raise racial consciousness, and to emphasize a race's distinctness from the preponderant group in society. In other words, the motivation of referential change seems to originate in an attempt to assert political and ethnic identity as well as to achieve group solidarity.

[by class member]

[notes below by PLP]

[* Baugh, who identifies himself as ASD in the article summarized here, did not intend it to be a new folk or popular term; rather ASD is a neutral technical term for the people who have called themselves 'Negro', 'black', 'African American' and other things.. He writes: "I have adopted the term American Slave Descendants for two reasons. First, since this discussion looks at terms of self-reference, 'ASD' strives for terminological neutrality in a text that must refer to Americans with African ancestors. The second justification grows from Edmund Morris's [cit.] self-identification as an 'African American'. Morris is a naturalized American and a white native of Kenya; he labeled himself as an 'African American' in order to mock Jesse Jackson [...]. Morris cannot claim to be a descendant of American slavery, and the adopted terminology excludes people like him." 1991:144, fn. 1]

[**Baugh also makes the point that this insider/outsider boundary is a dynamic one, and not simply based on race or descent, by introducing another term: all his ASD informants are also insiders to Vernacular African American Culture (VAAC): "Some people are active performers in vernacular black culture, others are not; this distinction approximates racial grouping, but acknowledges the history of racial osmosis... The insider/outsider distinction is preferable to racial designations because the latter are increasingly vague when one considers the longevity and complexity of race mixing in America and the fact that so many blacks have successfully passed for white without racial or linguistic detection." 1991:140-41]

 

[***Not all changes are recent enough to have been "triggered" by the civil-rights movement -- the pattern goes back farther, a century or more. That is made clear in Geneva Smitherman's companion article from the same issue, " 'What Is Africa to Me?' Language, Ideology and 'African American' ", American Speech 66(2):115-132.]