The coining of "Afro-American"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Thu Oct 13 02:49:00 UTC 2011

On Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 8:43 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender: Â  Â  Â  American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: Â  Â  Â  "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject: Â  Â  Â The coining of "Afro-American"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Lawyer E. J. Waring claims he coined "Afro-American" in 1878, when he
> was the 18-year-old principal of the Colored Public Schools of
> Columbus, Ohio. Â He rails at a critic of his coinage.
> One problem is that the OED has an instance of "Afro-American" from
> 1853, seven years before

_lawyer_ Waring

Ah, that should be "_Lawyer_ Waring." As the son of Lawyer H.W. Gray,
I can assure of the necessity of using the upper-case letter. Would
you write "_mister_ Waring"? [Vide infer.]

> was born. Â (1878 would be the
> 2nd earliest instance, if one could be found. Â Waring's 1898 claim
> and use is coeval with the OED's 4th earliest.)
> I have appended the article, which at the least provides one
> African-American's picture of the conflicts over choice of the term
> preferred by [African-Americans] for use by themselves or by others.
> Joel
> _________________________________________________________________________________
> Collection: African American Newspapers
> Date: January 12, 1893
> Title: THE NEW RACE NAME, &#x93;AFRO-AMERICAN.&#x94; ----- -----
> Location: Philadelphia, PA
> [This is from Accessible Archives, which presents an easily copyable
> text. Â I did not confirm it from page images.]
> I am the author of the word "Afro-American." I coined, or invented,
> or constructed the word in 1878, in the month of May, at Columbus,
> Ohio, when I was principal of the Colored Public Schools of that
> city. I am now about to endeavor to answer an "arraignment" of the
> title "Afro-American" published in the "Christian Recorder," December
> 15, 1892, and written by my friend, Hon. Isaiah C. Wears, the
> distinguished American (Negro) scholar. I will not be deemed
> presumptuous arrogant, or guilty of impropriety if I introduce myself
> to some readers of the "Recorder," who may wonder who is this
> Afro-American "Jack in the box," who "pops" up to answer Isaih C.
> Wears, the eminent American (Negro) philosopher, who, it may be
> stated parenthetically, has shown himself, in the article under
> consideration, to be a "Jack," whether in or out of the box. If I am
> "Jack in the box," and although only 33 years old, I have a record of
> honorable achievements, which the "Jack out of the box," Mr. Wears,
> cannot show, although he is close to the dignified, honorable and
> beautiful period of human life, three score and ten; and if I am
> spared so long, and shall become like Mr. Wears, a "Jack out of the
> box." I shall know better than to write an article such as the one I
> am attempting to answer. I have for years read his writings. I have
> often listened to his eloquent tongue, but this article surprises me.
> It seems that on this occasion, when Mr. Wears, the great American
> (Negro) "Jack" escaped from his "box" to write this article, he must
> have left behind him some essential intellectual equipments. It
> sounds like an old speech "dished up" again. My word,
> "Afro-American," is attracting wide spread discussion in all the
> leading colored journals of the day. Time is too precious to answer
> all objections raised to the word "Afro-American, - and many
> objections raised have been too silly to answer - but Mr. Wears is
> the first eminent American (Negro) to write a long article against
> the new race name, and although the article is unfair; fallacious in
> premises and conclusions; and made up of satire, sarcasm, ridicule
> and innuendo, in great part, yet I wish to answer it. Mr. Wears, the
> conspicuous American Negro literature, should know some things he
> seems to know. He should know that usage and people largely make
> language and words. Usage has applied the following names or epithets
> to our race in the United States: viz. "moke," "coon," "darkey,"
> "nigger," "negro," "colored man," "colored American," "African," and
> "colored citizen of African descent." Will Mr. Wears deny this? Now I
> add to the list, "Afro-American." No sensible man can object to it.
> But Mr. Wears calls "Afro American" a "new-fangled cognomen." O! No!
> it is not, it is 14 years old. I coined and gave the word to the
> world in 1878. Mr. Wears has been a Rip Van Winkle. He has just waked
> up; he heard the word he did not stop to learn that the word was in
> universal use, so he popped up and objected, thus making himself
> ridiculous. He knows, or ought to, that for half a century, Negro
> writers have attempted to change our race name to


I had no idea that this loser was already in use when my grandparents
were mere chirren.

> Africo American, AFric-American, or Af-American, but when I, a young
> colored man, 18 years old, in 1878, coined the word "AFro-American,"
> which, on account of its aptness and euphony, sprang immediately into
> popular favor, continued to grow in use, and today is the real race
> name, then Mr. Wears gets up like a "Jack out of the box" on his hind
> legs and "howls!! O! ye Gods what what a sight! Mr. Wears does not
> know does he? that our leading colored writers and speakers recognize
> and use the word Afro-American. Our colored Journals use it, viz: -
> "Age," "Lancet," "Plain Dealer," "Freeman," "Gazette," "Recorder,"
> etc. White Journals and the Associated Press use it. We have an
> AFro-American Press use it. We have an AFro-American Press we have an
> AFro-American League, and W.D. Whitney, the compiler of Worcester's
> dictionary, wrote me a letter, June 29, 1886, which lies before me as
> I write, in which he says, 'The name Afro-American seems appropriate
> enough, and if it is accepted and used by the public, it will serve a
> very good purpose." And Mr. Wears places himself in antagonism to all
> this, and he "arraigns" the word Afro-American. Yea, verily, things
> are reversed. Mr. Wears should be "arraigned" for contempt. Mr. Wears
> is too late. An avalanche of counter-opinions will overwhelm him. He
> cannot turn the irresistible tide of usage. He is an Afro-American
> and cannot help himself. Mr. Wears may vent his spleen if he will
> feel better; he may charge race treason; he may charge that I seek
> the "potencies of leadership;" he may call me a "modern Aaron" and
> "Jack in the box." But none of these things move me. I am proud
> indeed that I have given the world the word "Afro-American," a word
> received with universal favor, thus making me in a sense god-father
> to my race, numbering 8,000,000, in giving them the euphonious,
> dignified, significant, comprehensive name, Afro-American. Yes! I am
> gratefully proud of it. When we remember that leading colored
> journals, writers and speakers use "Afro-American," it seems that Mr.
> Wears goes a long way from truth, to charge as he does, that those
> who use the term have in view "purposes of a character that no one
> entitled to decent respect would care to acknowledge or presume to
> defend." Bishop B.F. Lee, late editor of the RECORDER, distinguished
> for piety and learning, adopted the word in his editorial writing. It
> is universally conceded that for breadth and depth of learning he is
> far the superior of Mr. Wears; in christian piety and noble manhood
> he is par excellence. Does Mr. Wears contend that Bishop Lee is not
> entitled to "decent respect," because he uses the word Afro-American?
> Mr. Wears owes an apology for the inadvertent, I hope, use of the
> words, "decent respect." Epithets are not arguments, and do not
> command "decent respect." I sweep away a great part of Mr. Wears'
> alleged objections to my word by stating that he ought to know that
> no fixed rules govern the "coinage" of words as in case of derivation
> of words. When I first published my word fourteen years ago, Dr. E.H.
> Cook, one of the most learned white linguists in the country, raised
> the point that in deriving my word Afro-American, I had destroyed the
> root "Afric." I replied that I had "coined," not "derived" my word.
> Dr. Cook at once conceded the correctness of my position. My Wears
> who is not a linguist, of course will concede I am right. Hence it
> follows that all Mr. Wears has said about ethnology was to no
> purpose. It makes no difference whether the word has any technical
> ethnological correctness or not. When I read that Mr. Wears proposed
> to reject my word "AFro-American" and use instead "American," I
> actually laughed aloud, and mentally exclaimed, "rot," "slop,"
> "idiocy." The point is that those who reject "AFro-American," fail to
> agree as to what shall be the race name. One says "Negro" with little
> "n;" another, "Negro" with big "N;" another, "colored man," and now
> comes Mr. Wears and proposes


Yes. That would certainly have worked.

>O, no! If I tell some one
> that Mr. Wears is man of much wealth, culture, character and
> respectability and a credit to his race and city, no one would know,
> if I said he is an "American," whether he is a Chinese, and Indian or
> a white man. But I say Mr. Wears is an American (Negro) or an
> "Afro-American," every one knows Mr. Wears is a colored gentleman.
> Mr. Wears thinks I am "near-sighted." He is "blind" if he thinks
> "American" is the name for colored people.

American is not a race for colored people.

Lawyer Wasring's "incisive mind pierces to the heart of the matter!"

> American is not a race or ethnological name. All
> residents of inhabitants of the United States are Americans by usage
> of the term, whether aliens, native born, or naturalized and not
> because they live on the American Continent, for if this were so, the
> people of Canada would be called Americans instead of Canadians, and,
> further we have Anglo-Americans, Afro-Americans, German-Americans,
> Irish-Americans, Scotch-Americans, Chinese-Americans. Mr. Wears knows
> he is wrong when he pretends to say that white people of foreign
> ancestry either immediately or remotely, are proud to call themselves
> American. It is German-American, the fatherland and the adopted land.
> I fear Mr. Wears is affected with

a "fad" common to many colored people who get a little money and
learning, whose immediate desire is to get away from the black people.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

> I expected better things of him.
> No! We are mulatto, yellow, brown and black, and

a taint of Negro blood is as fatal as the ebony hue.

As Gates argues in "Black in Latin America," this is the case even in
Spanish- and Poertugese-speaking nations, despite - or, as is shown by
- their plethora of terms for the non-white. "Non-black" does not
equal "white."

> We are Negroes, "Afro Americans"
> - all alike. All Mr. Wears' demagogic talk and buncombe about
> "rallying around the name American" is too transparent. It is fancy
> and fiction. Is Mr. Wears ashamed of his Negro or African lineage? If
> not, why object to AFro-American, which simply means his ancestors
> were Africans and he lives in he United States? Mr. Wears says he
> objects to AFro-American because it may become a permanent "race
> title." Well,

is it not better than "nigger" and "darky"?

Youneverknow. Is "Society of Friends" not better than "Quakers"?
Certainly, "nigger" has and has had undeniable acceptance, in-group-ly

> On another
> important point he is wrong and ignorant. He says our race enemies
> welcome the word. It is no such thing. They oppose its use. They say
> it will be a recognition of us as "part and parcel" of the American
> people. Fourteen years ago the "Cincinnati Enquirer" said it is not
> time for the term "AFro-American," and at the same time the "Chicago
> Tribune" said, we agree with Mr. Waring that AFro-American is just as
> proper as Irish-American or German-American."

We are separate and distinct from other people in color, hair,
civilization, religion, education, business; and the law of the land
makes us separate and distinct. All Mr. Wears' high flown words and
ridicule cannot alter
these facts. Down in Georgia he will be a "nigger" riding in a "jim
crow" car. The law and public sentiment of white people say so.

Not nowadays. He'd be only an "n-word" everywhere.

> I prefer to call Mr. Wears an Afro-American rather than "nigger." But I
> must close. Mr. Wears has failed to make a single tenable objection
> to my word. Usage has adopted the word. The word is significant and
> self-defining. It is euphonious and comprehensive. It is respectable
> and dignified. It recognizes our

_African_, _Negro_, or _black_

It's been a problem since back in the day.

>  blood. It recognizes our American citizenship, our American home, our American
> birth. It points to our race history on two continents. It does in
> fact, if not in theory, meet every ethnological and literary
> requirement. It is repudiated by our white "enemies," therefore we
> should use it.

It is approved by our white "friends," therefore we should use it.


> Mr. Wears' frantic lamentations will over extend the
> use of the word. It is rooted, grounded and spreading. The opinions
> of hundreds of intelligent and patriotic colored people will
> out-weight the opinions of any one individual. Therefore, Mr. Wears
> can masquerade as an "American," become lost among the white people
> of this country, and the colored people derive no benefit by pointing
> to him as a wealthy, cultured and able AFro-American, because he
> objects to it. Mr. Wears owes nothing to colored people for his
> successful career, therefore he owes them nothing.
> 217 Courtland St., Baltimore, Md.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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