Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Uses of the word "Colored"

I'll just begin by saying that two days ago, I received the first hard-cover copy of my novel, and I think it looks beautiful. The cover image, which you can see on my website, looks particularly beautiful--those two men engaged in an intensive tête-à-tête. The way it's designed, with their faces hidden behind the book title, makes me think of the things we say and the words we use in public versus private. Which brings me back to the theme of the blog. This week's word is colored, which was used commonly in the sixties, when my book takes place. As usual, Phil has taken the close look at it that it deserves. I especially like the reference to C.P. Time, and the difference between being "on time" and "in time."

colored, Colored, colored people. Origi­nating in the earliest period of colonial slavery and used throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially after the Civil War to the 1880s, as a euphemistic term for a black person or black people. More specifically colored has served as a reference to light-skinned African Americans and a euphemism for darker ones. As Black entertainer Bert Williams said, "It's no disgrace to be coloured, but it is awfully inconvenient."

Though eventually supplanted by negro (later capitalized), colored was still regarded as a polite name for black people in the United States throughout the early twentieth century. The term was also used to refer to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexicans, and people of mixed background, or mulattoes, es­pecially lighter ones.

Today, as noun or adjective, colored is regarded as offensive, especially in the United States, when used to refer to black people or to any groups consid­ered nonwhite. The term colored is not parallel with white, as black is, and col­ored smacks of subordination. Black people tend to see the term colored people as a reference to those black people who "know their place." Colored has also occurred in certain pejorative expressions, such as the dated expres­sion colored peoples' (folks') time (ab­breviated to C.P. time or C.P.T.), mean­ing "late" or "I'll get there when I get there." This is often an unflattering ref­erence to the alleged difference between the internal clocks that govern black people, especially the rural or the poor, and those that govern white society. (However, as used among African Americans, the expression may carry the positive slant noted by Smitherman [1994, 45], who claims it represents natural, rather than artificial, time—“be­ing 'in time' . . . . is more critical than be­ing 'on time.'")

Used in certain titles of organizations, such as the historical "Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry" and the contem­porary "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" (NAACP), colored is neutral. At the same time, the expression people of color, though overgeneraliz­ing, is in favor among those black people and others who respect the sense of soli­darity that comes from being identified this way.

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