Image: Gerald Lenoir
From Negro to Black
by Gerald Lenoir, Identity and Politics Strategy Analyst
I was born 1948 into the rich milieu of Negro culture and customs and grew up in Los Angeles. My parents’ roots in the Creole ethos of New Orleans grounded me and my siblings in the language, music, folkways and culinary traditions that thrived in the segregated South. During the Great African American Migration of the 1940s, my parents and maternal grandparents, along with multitudes of other Negro migrants, transplanted themselves and their culture in California.
Mama’s creative culinary genius meant that we had a steady diet of gastronomic wonders—red beans and rice, okra gumbo, jambalaya, and po’ boy sandwiches. As toddlers, Mama would sing “Fais Dodo” (Go to sleep), a song from the Louisiana Cajun culture, to soothe us into slumber. Legendary “N’Awlins” natives like Satchmo, Brook Benton, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino and Mahalia Jackson were the musicians and singers whose 33 1/3 vinyl records could be spinning on Daddy’s turntable any time of day or night. The mélange of European classical music and West African rhythms dubbed jazz, the distinctive sound of New Orleans R&B, and harmonic Zydeco tunes were auditory fare served up at home regularly.
Like most southern migrants, family was everything to us. Mama was the oldest of nine children. Among them and their respective spouses, they brought 31 children into a close-knit matriarchal clan. All of us lived in Los Angeles and Compton, so the village that raised all of the first cousins was awesome!
The culture was not without its flaws, however. Light-skinned Creoles with “good hair” were often favored by Negroes and whites and treated preferentially. Colorism dictated that they had more worth and were more beautiful than those of us with darker skin and nappy hair. The closer your appearance was to the dominant white standards, the more you were accepted by society. That changed dramatically in the 1960s.
With the Black Power Movement came a surge of Black pride and cultural empowerment. James Brown’s recording of “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became the strident anthem of my generation. Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” and Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” reinforced a narrative of racial self-esteem. We grew Afros and dressed in daishikis as visible symbols of our newfound Blackness. We transformed ourselves form being white-designated Negroes to self-actualized Black people.
I was deeply impacted by the Negro-to-Black identity transformation. The cultural shifts had readied me and my peers to become political actors in shaping our own destiny. In 1969, as a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined the thousands of Black and white students who answered the call of our Black student leaders to strike and shut down the university until the demands for Afro-American Studies and for more Black professors and students were met. We won educational opportunities that valued who we were and honored the contributions of Black people to this country.
The present-day Black Lives Matter political movement and the cultural renaissance that is unfolding builds upon the gains of our past struggles. Young Black changemakers are creating a caring culture, an inclusive identity, and a potent political movement heading towards a freedom future.
Amen and Ashé!