Negro remained the overwhelming term of choice until the mid-1960s. That decade saw a burgeoning civil-rights movement, which furthered a sense that Negro was contaminated by its long association with discrimination as well as its closeness to the disparaging and deeply offensive n-word. The emergence of the black power movement fostered the emergence of black as a primary descriptive term, as in “black pride.” By the mid-1970s black had become common within and outside the black community. But Negro has not entirely disappeared. It remains in the names of such organizations as the United Negro College Fund, people still refer to Negro spirituals, and some older people of color continue to identify with the term they have known since childhood. Negro then, while not offensive in established or historical contexts, is now looked upon in contemporary speech and writing as not only antiquated but highly likely to offend.
Black remains perhaps the single most widely used term today. It has outlived the briefly popular Afro-American and, when used as an adjective, is unlikely to cause negative reactions. As a noun, however, when referring to African Americans, it does often offend—perhaps because references to “the blacks” or “a black” lead easily to misguided generalizations. But note the newer term. The 1990s saw black leaders like Jesse Jackson promote African American, which he said had “cultural integrity,” in that it refers to ethnic origins rather than to skin color. While African American has not replaced black in common parlance, it works both as a noun and as an adjective.
This shifting from term to term has not been smooth or linear, and periods of change like the late 1960s were often marked by confusion as to which term was appropriate. The 1967 groundbreaking film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about a young interracial couple hoping that both sets of parents will accept their plans to marry, reflects the abundance of terminological choices available at the time. Various characters talk of a “colored girl,” a “colored man,” a “Negro,” and “black people.” Even the n-word appears once, used disparagingly by one black character to another. African American had not yet made it into the mix.