What it means to be colored

Bunnie Jackson-Ramsom said she doesn’t mind the term colored. “I would rather be called colored than the N-word. I am not offended by it. I have been called a lot of things that are worse,” said Jackson-Ransom, who grew up in tiny Louisburg, N.C. “We were once colored. I understand from whence the word came.”

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Bunnie Jackson-Ramsom said she doesn’t mind the term colored. “I would rather be called colored than the N-word. I am not offended by it. I have been called a lot of things that are worse,” said Jackson-Ransom, who grew up in tiny Louisburg, N.C. “We were once colored. I understand from whence the word came.”

Bunnie Jackson-Ransom remembers when she became black.

It was about 1966, and a new breed of young and vocal civil rights activists were starting to reject terms like “colored” and “Negro” to become black. Not long afterward - following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. - James Brown released, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

And with a loud roar, the age of “colored people” was dead.

But this week, the term, returned, if not by accident.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, in Savannah defending his controversial plan for a statewide Opportunity School District, said: "The irony of some of the groups who are opposing doing something to help these minority children is beyond my logic. If you want to advance the state of colored people, start with their children."

Deal later backtracked and said that his reference to “colored people” was a mangled attempt to say “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” which has opposed the plan.

The Republican governor is not the only one who’s ended up in hot water over the term. Earlier this year, Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach was forced to apologize for saying “colored people,” on the air during a segment about actress Zendaya Coleman playing the ironically white Mary Jane Watson in an upcoming “Spider-Man” reboot.

The governor’s tortured explanation points out the delicate nature of the word’s usage. Once generally accepted, it is still used on occasion – as with the NAACP.

And in a world where organizations like the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of Negro Women still play prominent roles in society, the lines on language are sometimes blurred between what is appropriate and what is a racial slur.

“Just looking at the evolution of the term, colored is not a word we should be using in 2016 to describe black people,” said Nicole Dukes, a Clark Atlanta University professor who is also working on her dissertation at Georgia State University on African-American vernacular English. “We know that the term exists and we can’t divorce ourselves from history. But we still don’t use that term. We are not in that same place we were when those terms were used.”

Jackson-Ramsom, the former wife of Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson who grew up in tiny Louisburg, N.C., said she doesn’t mind the term.

“I would rather be called colored than the N-word. I am not offended by it. I have been called a lot of things that are worse,” she said.

Still, she embraced the term black.

“I remember when no one dared called us black. But I became black when people began wearing afros and declaring that black was beautiful,” said Jackson-Ransom, the owner of a local public relations firm. “I liked lifting up the term black. I liked the inclusivity of the term black. All of us, no matter the color of our skin, began to call ourselves black.”

“Colored is how white folks described us”

For much of the 20th century, words like “colored” and “Negro,” were polite and accepted terms to call American blacks, although the word “colored” began to appear in publications to describe blacks as far back as the 1700s.

In 1863, the War Department created the “Bureau of Colored Troops,” as part of their efforts to bolster the Union Army. And up until 1900, black people were listed on the U.S. Census as “Colored” before becoming “Negro” in 1910.

In the meantime, hundreds of black organizations, like the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs; schools like the North Carolina College for Negroes; and entertainment outlets like movies featuring an “all-colored cast,” became common as blacks built their own communities.

In 1910, the organization founded in 1909 as the National Negro Committee, re-branded itself as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

David Levering Lewis, in the first volume of his massive Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on former Atlanta University professor and one of the NAACP founders W.E.B. Du Bois, said “Colored,” was chosen over Afro-American or Negro in the name: “In order to proclaim the association’s intention to promote the interests of dark-skinned people everywhere.”

Which is why Richard Rose, the 68-year-old president of the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP, doesn’t buy the argument that the word “colored” and the name of his organization are interchangeable.

“I grew up in Memphis and colored is how white folks described us and what they put on water fountains and doors to indicate that we had to be relegated. It was not a term that black folks like to use,” Rose said. “So they are not the same thing. And anyone who says it is, is saying it out of ignorance. And I will be happy to tell them why they are ignorant.”

Taking ownership

Alexis Scott, the retired publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, said that until the mid-1930s, the tagline of the paper was: “Only Negro Daily Newspaper in the World.”

It later changed to "The Nation's Only Colored Daily Newspaper," which it kept until the World War II.

Scott said that at one time, she was referred to as “colored” and vividly remembers the visual reminders that marked “colored” bathrooms, waiting rooms, water fountains and backdoor entrances.

“It is definitely associated with segregation, so it is offensive as a throwback to that era,” said Scott, who is also a commentator on “The Georgia Gang.” “I was colored by society standards, but within my own society, we were Negro. And in the Atlanta Daily World, we were Negro. That is how we defined ourselves.”

Scott said the use of the term Negro was a major way for blacks to assume agency over who they were. If Jim Crow discriminated against “colored” people, then being Negro allowed them to take ownership of their image.

“White people put up the signs, so it was a reaction to that characterization. That is why we were Negroes,” Scott said. “It was a rejection to the larger society.”

By the mid-1960s, black leaders – like Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks who popularized the term “Black Power” — started to reject terms like colored and Negro as relics of slavery, racism and Jim Crow.

Black soon became the preferred term.

But by the late 1980s, “African-American” became the universally and politically-correct term, although it is still used interchangeably with black.

As of late, “people of color,” has surfaced to include nonwhites, although it is mostly associated with blacks and Latinos. In Robach’s apology, she said she meant to say “people of color.”

Abraham Park, a 25-year-old Korean graduate student at the University of Georgia, identifies with the new term.

“I don’t see the term people of color as bad. I am proud to be a person of color,” Park said. “But I understand that my cultural history here might not be that deep.

Ashley Graham, a 21-year-old student at Emory University, identifies simply as black, because although she was born here, her parents are Jamaican. “People of color,” she said, is somewhat misleading in its generality.

“It can make people forget that all ‘people of color,’ don’t have the same experiences,” Graham said. “We are not all the same.”

“Fighting words”

Jim Alexander, an 81-year-old retired photographer, grew up in the north in an all-white New Jersey suburb. As a member of what he calls the “black cultural movement,” he has been called – sometimes reluctantly — everything from Negro to African.

“Colored is what we were growing up,” said Alexander, who has lived in Atlanta for 40 years. “When I would go to places like Ridgewood or Patterson, which had larger black populations, being called black was fighting words. Colored was accepted and it wasn’t anything that offended me one way or the other.”

Just as the term Negro worked to dismiss the term colored in the 1940s and 1950s, the widespread use of the word black in the late 1960s and 1970s, soon replaced both words.

Although sometimes slowly.

Dukes, who was born in Oakland in 1973, was recently shocked when applied for a passport and noticed that she was listed as a “Negro” on her birth certificate.

“Being black made us look down on the term colored and Negro just got lost,” Jackson-Ransom said. “I am not offended by the words colored or Negro and I am definitely not offended by black. I’m just glad I’m black.”