The current controversy regarding the use of the word “Negro” on the US Census forms reminds me of an exchange I had with Chauncey Spencer, now deceased, in June of 2002. Son of Harlem Renaissance poet (and Lynchburg resident) Anne Spencer, ninety-six years old at the time of our meeting, Chauncey Spencer had been a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, our country’s first African-American fighter pilots. In fact, he’d help to found the Tuskegee Airmen (with a little help from a guy named Harry Truman).
” ‘People! We’re all just people!’ My mother always said that,” the World War II hero noted re whether or not to use the word “Black” or “African-American.”
The word “Negro” wasn’t mentioned—I think even to a ninety-six year old African-American, that word was passe.
Our conversation continued: I’d felt compelled to amend Anne Spencer’s statement.”White Americans need to understand more of African-Americans’ experience, first,” I said, before we can all agree that such words don’t matter. And the former Tuskegee Airman readily agreed.
* from “White Things” by Anne Spencer: Most things are colorful things—the sky, earth, and sea /Black men are most men; but the white are free!