411 Focus

As I got older, the term "colored" became offensive, and by the time I was a teen ... I was a "Negro"

Contributed By:Dorothy Nevils maslivend@sbcglobal.net

When colors changed

My world was a world of color, and, like the leaves at the end of a season, colors change. Leaves change from lustrous shades of orange and bronze and a hundred other combinations of yellow and red to the beautiful subtleties that paint autumn.

Unlike the seasons, the world I knew changed according to the whims of the people, not the calendar. The calendar only noted the dates established through the years, and it returned the same numbers every year, differing only for leap year. Color, though, was a different story, and there was little logic in the mix.

When I was a young girl I lived in the country, down a road that dipped and turned for what seemed like twenty miles–though it may well have been less than five – lined on each side with Johnson grass, those tall, resilient stalks that refused to die lest wrested, root and all, from the red clay. They were the bane of farmers, and cut the skin of youngsters like a razor.

The road was covered with rounded stones – gravel it was called – that jumped into the “stickerbugs” protruding from the clay when a car passed, and it twisted and turned until it married another road, or wandered off in another direction, passing perhaps a total of twenty houses before it hooked up with another, and headed home.

On this particular road, Lufkin Road, which curved and dipped at will, there were two grade schools – one for white and one for colored. Unlike in “town,” country folks stayed wherever, though larger houses generally housed white families.

“White” and “colored” marked the only distinction deemed necessary. However, there was a need to distinguish between the “colored” students, and children with lighter complexions were favored. Boys were drawn to “light-skinded” girls, except when it came to classwork and recess. I was one of the last chosen for recess.

As I got older, the term “colored” became offensive, and by the time I was a teen and attending high school, I was a “Negro.” The “Negro high school,” Douglass, didn’t offer some of the advanced classes, so to take them, the one or two Negro kids – I don’t know how we were described when the White people referenced us – walked across Highway 51, the busiest road in those parts, replaced now by Interstate 57 to the east.

The term “Negro” was difficult for some people. Perhaps it was too time-consuming, time that could be spent on more important things – or nothing at all; so, many opted for the shortened “niggra,” halfway – give or take a few letters – between the accepted and the vulgar during that period. “High yellow” was still a frequently used term in the black community, used both as complimentary or derogatory, depending on the relationship between the speaker and the person spoken of. For some, high yella was the “catch of the day,” the ones first to fill the dance floor… or to snub the extended hand of “his lowness.”

The 60’s brought in a new color, or, shall I say, a new interpretation of the same. Yellow, brown, light, dark, black… Colors fell all over the place! A garden burst out in hidden colors! Black was no longer the last word before a fist was formed… or a rock retrieved… then hurled to hurt!

No. It was a reality, an assertion that lifted the chin, a promise… open for fulfilment… an identity embraced with pride! Let us never, ever, lose sight of that…

Story Posted:02/23/2019

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