This week there was an anniversary in the history of the American anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. A minor piece by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, in his publication The Liberator, made a suggestion that at the time that seemed trivial to white Americans, yet his advice eventually worked its way into our daily language.
The September 24, 1831 edition of The Liberator — that’s 180 years ago this week — included a debate in which “A Subscriber” (thought to be Garrison) suggested the term “Afric-American” or “Africamerican” to describe “our colored fellow-citizens.”
The writer concludes, “It asserts that most important truth, that the colored citizen is as truly a citizen of the United States as a white.”
But one reader argued “the suggestion is as absurd as the sound of the name is inharmonious,” and concluded “… since we have long been distinguished by the title ‘men of color,’ why make this change, so uncouth and jargon-like? A change we do want and a change we will have. When it comes we shall be called citizens of the United States and Americans.”
The debate goes on. At the time, most whites didn’t care. Now, 180 years later, I guess you could say they sort of care. That William Lloyd Garrison was way ahead of his time.
William Lloyd Garrison wrote in 1844: “No matter where a man is born, or in what country his progenitors originated; he is none the better, none the worse, for that, but a member of the great human family, and a brother man. Down with all boastful national distinctions! Yet let our colored fellow citizens never be ashamed of being descendants of Africans!”
Yes, he says “man” and “his” and “he.” Garrison wasn’t that far ahead of his time.