Thursday, July 31, 2008

Negro… an old Italian family name Part II

When Columbus first sailed on the Santa Maria, his navigator was a black man named Pedro Alonzo Nino, also referred to as el negro; on his last journey, he sailed with one Diego el Negro. Alessandro de' Medici (1510-1537), first hereditary duke of Florence, was called il Moro, moor being a word believed to be from the Greek mauros, meaning black or dark. Thus, at the time of the European encounter with the Americas, there were people of colour living as free men and women in countries north of the Mediterranean Sea. Did they grapple with what we call 'prejudice' because of the colour of their skins? Alessandro, presumably, didn't. Moors who crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century, occupying the Iberian peninsula for hundreds of years, are no doubt responsible for folks in this heavily Portuguese neighbourhood who sport afros and who certainly consider themselves ‘white’. Moor, like Negro and Prieto, is a surname, and one quite common in the Caribbean where, I wager, most people don't associate it with colour. Wikipedia explains that the word “remains associated with the Morrocan immigrants in Spain, and is considered a pejorative word,” as in fsjl’s ‘blackamoor’ . The Wikipedia entry further explains that “the word remains associated with the Morrocan immigrants in Spain, and is considered a pejorative word.” One must wonder, is that the rub? Does the prejudice, and the pejorative usage of the word, follow from migration, voluntary or forced? Is skin colour an easy identifying marker when a people move place to place in large numbers? Might there have been a time when white immigrants who entered communities of brown and black, were so marked – when blanco, along with its cognates, was used as a pejorative? Wikipedia tells us that “in Spanish, the cognate moro is considered a racist and derogative term.” And in an instructive comment, the head entry concludes: “But the Spanish still use it and even think of it as a neutral word in local sayings such as no hay moros en la costa (lit. "there are no Moors on the coast," meaning "the coast is clear"). That this usage could be advanced as neutral, without equivocation, goes to show that one man’s pejorative is another man’s positive. Professor Mervyn Alleyne has done important research speaking to this topic. We look at it in a upcoming post.

Monday, July 28, 2008

An old Italian family name...

It seems that the word 'Negro' as a name goes back a long way – to tenth century Europe, in fact. According to online sources, the name is first found in Ferrara, Italy, "a Renaissance gem close to Venice," where Carlo Negri di Pietra Santa was a Bishop in 929. There are many variations of the name, including Negri, Nigri, Nigris, Nigra, Negris, Negrelli, Negrotto, Negrello, Negroni, de Negro, dal Negro, del Negro. This shouldn't really be surprising, of course. The triangular Atlantic slave trade being the seminal event for diasporic black people, it is easy to forget that for geographical ages, Africa and Europe have in fact been very close, the Mediterranean being a comparatively small body of water, crossed and recrossed by visitors, traders and migrants from the North and South for millenia. Who knows why the family Negro were so called? Was there perhaps an African contribution to the family? At any rate it appears that the word and the name may well have had no pejoration attached to them when they were first used in Italy, whether it was or was not with Bishop Carlo Negri di Pietra Santa. I've been dipping into Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence 500 Years of Western Cultural Life now and then, and thought I'd do a quick tour of the Index to see what I could find. Africa turns up twice: on pages 49 (epic) and 542 (railways in). The following words do not appear in the Index at all: black(s); sugar; plantation; rum; settler; Atlantic; south, negro. (This doesn't mean they don't appear in the book – just not in the Index.) 'Slave(s)(ry)' gets short shrift. In fairness I should say that the word 'Moors' figures on seven pages. Not much help to be had there, but a lesson learned nonetheless. So Negro, and its French versions, Negrier, etc., may be with us to stay, at least as family names. The fact that they are family names, and therefore, one would like to think, names that are proudly held, does seem to have some bearing on one question: Can any one group of speakers dictate to other groups the attitude they should have to a word, or their right to use it? Your thoughts welcome, sistren and bredren. I've done one and two things in my life, but I've been neither a student of history or sociolinguistics. BTW, if you have a copy, or access to a copy of Jamaica Woman (ed. Pamela Mordecai and Mervyn Morris; 1980; 1985) have a look at the short preface, in particular, the first paragraph. We're going to talk about it soon.