When first brought here from Africa in the 1600s, they were naturally called Africans, an ancient word in English that came ultimately from the Romans. The African slaves were also called Negroes, a word borrowed from the slave trading Portuguese in the 1500s and known in North America by the mid 1600s. This led to a variant pronunciation spelled Niger or nigger, at first neutral in connotation but gradually becoming more derogatory. Also in use before the end of the seventeenth century was the simple descriptive black.
By the end of the eighteenth century, with the emergence of a small but growing community of freed slaves and the start of the Abolition (1787) movement, black Americans began to seek new ways of referring to themselves--ways that would shake off the oppression of the past and command respect. African was the early preference, reflected in the name of the Sons of the African Society founded in Boston in 1798. But colored people also began to be used then, a term that met with such favor that it was the choice of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when it was founded more than a century later.
In the year 1890, Afro-American was the term of choice in the African-American publication Advance, which advocated "obtaining for the Afro-American an equal chance."
The twentieth century saw a succession of preferred terms, from colored to Negro to Black and then, with increasing emphasis on heritage rather than color, to Afro-American and African American, the latter widely adopted after a speech by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1988. In the 1960s and 1970s, Afro-American was prominent along with related terms such as Afro-American studies (1970), Afroism (1971), the hair style known as the Afro (1968), and music known as Afro-beat (1974) and Afro-rock (1977).
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