How the labels have changed over the years

Published 8:28 am Wednesday, February 9, 2011

by Clarence Foster

I noticed the name thing at some point in the third or fourth grade. Some sort of form had to be filled out. Who — and what — are you? It was 1954 or 1955.

Before the time of the form, I was a colored person. Negro: a Sunday/go to meeting, urbane formality could be found in various printed pages. But colored was for everyday casual use. A harmless bit of impersonality.

The form changed things. As I look back from 66 years, it occurs to me that the form was primarily for me, and less so for the offices that generated it.

I could be colored, or Negro, or perhaps brown, and the form would be my official recognition and acceptance. A contract.

The writing was on the wall, “whites only,” “colored only,” “colored not served here,” “colored around back. . .”

On rare occasion, I’d see a white person use a colored-only facility. This raised important points. Was this legal? In fact, the whole concept of legal, was a murky, thorny issue. Our legal, their legal, inspiring a capriciousness in law enforcement. There was this expression — John Law — that seemed the very embodiment of arbitrariness.

On using the colored facility, the white person might say that he didn’t care, he had to go now. On another occasion, you might hear, “I don’t hold with this; they can’t tell me what to do.” These moments, these people — freedom fighters — came in all colors.

We were approaching turbulent times. In the space of the next 10 years, I moved from colored, to brown, to Negro, to Black.

Today’s black with the small “b” seems to be a less politically charged ordinariness. But not then.

Before the revolution, black was a malicious diatribe hurled by one colored person at another, (discriminating whites had their own more cherished insult). A curse, a slur imposing the ultimate non-whiteness.

For this, parents would punish; teachers would punish. Fights were a certainty; the cursed victim might be moved to tears. Naturally, a very dark person might be typical prey but just as likely not one to be fooled with.

Living in the moment, I was comfortably colored, or brown, albeit dark brown.

Clearly, something had to be done about black. But what?

Embrace it.

Embrace it!? Over the next 10 years, the whole world turned upside down. Imagine, the very light-skinned, in a stunning reversal in storybook intrigue, passing for black. The charmed high yellow (the beige?) briefly lost standing.

Even my carefully calibrated brown had to go. I remember, deep in the times, brownly siding with Tarzan, against the “savages.” And at the very tip of irony, some whites (the tanned?) were heard to grumble.

Say what you will or won’t about James Brown but know that his presence in the 60s, his prideful songs, and not just the famous “I’m black, and I’m proud,” was as profound as anyone’s. Taking on the “black” issue, and winning, was as big as anything.

The idea had few early supporters. Nevertheless, I can recall the poet Amiri Baraka as a valorous promoter. His name provides perfect segue into the other aspect of the name thing.

Our Berlin/Ivor/Zuni community got telephones in 1958. We received a small book of names and numbers.

I was 13 and living with my aunt and uncle, the Sprewells. My last name, Foster, didn’t appear in the book and I was grateful. The expression, slave name, had surfaced and proceeded to trample any remaining contentment.

It was generally believed that former slaves’ names, and their descendants, came from the plantation, and were therefore vestige holdovers from slavery. But for me and my momentous telephone book: out of sight, out of mind.

Some found this intolerable. New names abounded. Like Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X, and the New Jersey poet LeRoi Jones becoming Amiri Baraka.

I got the New York job that I would retire from, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1977. I remember, it was sometime around 1980, that a supercilious co-worker approached me with a sly mischievous half-grin, asking “What is your nickname?”

I sensed the wheels turning. Ah, the backward back-woodsman concealing a funny from us. It took me years to surmount the historical retort. They call me Clarence Foster.

When I was born in 1944, 79 years after the official end of slavery, we were free to starve. A chilling bit of black progress.

Now, in the new millennium, some of us in our refusal to go to school (a hard won privilege, in time a right), our refusal to accept employment consistent with aimless credentials, we’ve finally settled for that bit of historical irony. The slave may not have been allowed to starve himself to death, but we sure can. Can’t we!

Any of us, black or white, Latino, etc., may be big and strong, but sooner or later (take it from one who walks with a cane), life will catch up to you.

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County and a 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.