While I wish I could tell you all that this post is being written in honor of black history month as an exploration of an age when black folks were regularly referred to as "colored" I'm afraid this will be disappointing for us all. I am writing this post because yesterday, in the year 2013, I was referred to as Colored. Yes, Colored, by a white man.
Ironically, this white man was lamenting living in a largely white suburb, being constantly bombarded with racial stereotypes that he admits infiltrate his thinking, and was ultimately disappointed that he doesn't have any black friends. The more he explored his perceptions of other ethnicities and races, the more the word "black" seemed to get stuck in his throat... and eventually he decided that Colored seemed to be a more appropriate term for me and the people of my brown-skinned hue.
I find it quite fascinating that that there are certain words that white America recognizes as "off-limits", offensive, and inappropriate, like nigger, for example. There seems to be very little confusion surrounding this word. Since "Colored" is still causing some confusion, allow me to clarify.
The word Nigger is to slavery as Colored is to Jim Crow. The word nigger is steeped in the history of slavery. It reeks of slave ships and stolen language, of heavy chains and merciless whips, of being 3/5 human and only as valuable as cattle. Though the debate over the use of this word continues within the black community, there is consensus that white people who dare to harken back to this time with its use should beware. Make no mistake, the word Colored carries with it an ugly history as well.
The word Colored simply transitioned black Americans from chains around our feet to ropes around our necks. To be colored was to be inferior, untouchable and intolerable. It was to be perpetually childlike in the eyes of whites- called "boy" or "girl" well into old age. It was to know our place. Colored is who were were before voting, before anti-discrimination laws, before black is beautiful. Colored is who we were before fire hoses washed our fear away and we marched into a new era of equality. Colored is who we were before the genius of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Harriet Beecher Stowe was studied in traditionally white only universities, and small Ruby Bridges walked through the school house doors. Colored is who we were. And now we reserve the right to self-identify ourselves- black, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Black Indian, or sometimes biracial- a beautiful combination of which black may play a role. You are welcome to ask us how we choose to be identified from a much longer list than that above, but of this I am confident, Colored will not be the answer you receive.
So, please, stop using it.