The Rise and Fall of Unique Labels for Americans of African Descent in Books and Newspapers, 1800-2000

Jeffrey Swindle, University of Michigan

Why do labels for the same groups of people often change over time? In this paper, I construct a general theory of labeling to explain when and why common labels for Americans of African descent (e.g. ‘Negroes,’ ‘Blacks,’ and ‘African Americans’) have changed over time. I argue that labels become popular and continue to maintain their popularity to the extent that they are cultural resonant, politically strategic, and rhetorically palatable. Using digitized collections of millions of books and American mainstream African American-focused newspapers, I analyze how often different labels have been used over the past two centuries. I then analyze the use of these terms across individual texts published during these critical points in time. This information then allows me to identify time periods when the popularity of different labels rose and fell and to speculate on some of the historical factors that contributed to these trends, such as W.E.B. DuBois’ petitions to newspapers editors to capitalize ‘Negro,’ the creation of ‘Afro-American’ Departments at universities, and James Brown’s hit song Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 253. The Enduring Global Color Line