Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Negro is not a polite term for black people

Back in November the U.S. Army acknowledged that Negro was not an acceptable term and removed it from their regulations, leaving Black or African American as the acceptable terms. Isn’t it about time for Christian people to catch on?

Granted, it was once acceptable for black people to be called Coloured (Canadian spelling — “colored” looks like a washed-out crayon to me, my spell checker doesn’t like it either). But that always was kind of a funny label — we all have some kind of colour in our cheeks don’t we?

Negro was once considered acceptable too. But why should we use a word in English that means black in several of the Latin tongues? Why not just say black if that’s what we mean? And if the word is considered as demeaning by the people we are talking about, why would we insist on using it? This is not political correctness, Coloured and Negro were deliberately chosen as labels for people who were considered inferior.

Thirty years ago, Dorothy Shadd Shreve suggested AfriCanadian as a useful term for black people in Canada. I like it; too bad it hasn’t caught on. (She wrote a history of the black churches of Southwestern Ontario entitled The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer.)

Negro comes from the Latin word Niger, which simply means black. This Latin word also provided a name for the Niger River in Africa and the countries of Niger and Nigeria. In Acts 13:1, we read that the church in Antioch had five spiritual leaders: “Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” In plain English, Simeon was called “the Black”, no doubt because he was black.

Daniel Whedon, in his commentary, suggests that Simeon who was called Niger was the same as Simon of Cyrene who helped carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon and Simeon are the same name, one being the Greek form and the other the Jewish.) He cites several other scholars on this point and it seems quite plausible. Cyrene was a city in that area of North Africa that is now Libya and appears to have been a crossroads for people of Africa, Europe and Palestine. There were Cyrenians in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and Acts 11:19-20 says that it was men of Cyrene and Cyprus who first brought the gospel to Antioch. Whedon is also of the opinion that Lucius of Cyrene is the same as Luke the writer of the gospel of that name and of the book of Acts (saying that Lucius and Loukas appear to be Roman and Greek versions of the same name.)

Whatever one makes of all this, it is evident that one of the principal leaders of the first Gentile church was a black man. The NIV and ESV still persist in listing him as Simeon called Niger as if that was a name and not a description. Excuse me if I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to avoid using the word black, except for some slight possibly of embarrassment over revealing that there were black people in the early church.

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