Keith Baird, Bajan Linguist Who Fought the Use of ‘Negro,’ Dies at 94


An obituary by Richard Sandomir for the New York Times.

Keith Baird, a linguist from Barbados who rose to prominence in the 1960s arguing persuasively against the use of the word Negro and in favor of the term Afro-American, died on July 13 in Atlanta. He was 94.

His daughter Marcia Baird Burris said the cause was myelodysplastic syndromes, a group of bone-marrow disorders.

Mr. Baird was a teacher and administrator in New York City’s public school system when he began writing and speaking about the fraught connotations of the term Negro as the dominant way to describe people of African descent.

He told a conference of teachers in Washington in 1966 that Negro “is used solely to describe the slaved and the enslavable,” and that the time had come to shift to Afro-American as a connotation of ethnic identity, like, for example, Irish-American.

The next year, as racial tensions ignited in American cities, he said in an Ebony magazine article, “The continuing depressed economic and social status of the African people in America, enforced and maintained by the dominant European-originated Americans, is symbolized and instrumentally promoted by the continuing use of the déclassé designation ‘Negro.’”

Mr. Baird was not the first to suggest the use of Afro-American — it caught on for a while — but he approached the debate as a linguist and historian, not as a politician or a civil rights leader.

“We say that we speak as we think,” he told Ebony. “In fact, we tend to think as we speak.”

In 1970, he called for the “semantic liberation” of African-Americans, writing in the journal Social Casework that they — not the “conquerors” who had brought their ancestors to the Americas in chains — needed to dictate the terms used to describe themselves and their community.

By then, Mr. Baird had left teaching languages at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn for positions that brought him into a growing African-American studies movement. He began as director of Afro-American history for a Queens school district in 1967 and moved two years later to Brooklyn as the associate director of the community education center at the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district.

The district was one of three in the city experimenting with decentralization of the school system, a combustible racial, political and educational issue. Mr. Baird was part of a group of educators who developed a curriculum that emphasized black and Puerto Rican history. “We aren’t concerned with putting one culture over another,” Mr. Baird said, “but with supplying the missing pages of black culture.”

In 1968, Mr. Baird advocated citywide decentralization when he ran to unseat Albert Shanker as president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union. Mr. Shanker saw little educational value in decentralization.

“The black community, and many whites as well,” Mr. Baird told The Washington Post, “are supporting decentralization precisely because it is now impossible to make any effective criticism of the system when you have a central administration far away from the community.”

Mr. Shanker easily won re-election, but that fall schools were shuttered by a series of teachers’ strikes.

In 1969, the New York State Legislature gave local school boards control over elementary and middle schools but left supervision of high schools to the centralized Board of Education.

Keith Ethelbert Baird was born on Jan. 20, 1923, in Arch Hall, St. Thomas Parish, in Barbados, then a British colony. His father, Maximin Alleyne Baird, was not part of his son’s life, Mr. Baird’s daughter said, and his mother, the former Matrena Ivanova Herbert Payne, left for the United States about 1930 to find work. Keith was raised by a family, the Shocknesses, who informally adopted him.

One day, when he was 7, he received a lesson in British colonialism. After returning from school, he told his adoptive grandfather, Edward Shockness, that the headmaster had said that Keith and his fellow students were British subjects.

“And my grandfather interrupted, ‘You mean British object,’” he recalled emphatically in a family-made video recorded last year in association with the 50th anniversary of Barbados’s independence from Britain. His grandfather advised him, “When you grow up, someone may say, `Are you English?’ and you will reply, ‘I’m not English, I’m African.’”

Mr. Baird left for the United States in 1947. He received his bachelor’s degree in romance philology and linguistics at Columbia University and a doctorate in linguistics from the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati. He spoke gently, with British inflections, and was fluent in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Swahili and Gullah, a creole language spoken on the Sea Islands off the Southeastern coast of the United States. He was conversant or literate in several other languages.

After leaving the city’s schools, Mr. Baird taught at various colleges, including Hofstra University on Long Island and Hunter College in Manhattan, and held several administrative positions, including chairman of the African and American studies department at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Molefi Asante, chairman of African-American studies at Temple University, called Mr. Baird “probably the most gifted linguist I’ve ever met” and a critical intellectual who helped make African history accessible through “Africa, Lost and Found,” a textbook of which he was an editor.

“He was one of the pillars of Pan-Africanism, with a perspective that included the Caribbean, the United States and Africa,” Professor Asante said in a telephone interview. “He saw the linkage in a real way.”

Mr. Baird also studied the influence of African culture on the lives of the Southeastern sea islanders, collaborating with his wife, Mary Twining Baird, a former director of the undergraduate and graduate humanities programs at Clark Atlanta University, where he held faculty positions.

“We had a common interest in creolized societies,” Ms. Baird said in an interview. She remembered a trip to South Carolina in which Mr. Baird met a woman who sounded like people on Barbados.

“The intonation and quality of her voice sounded like home to him,” she said. “They got along great — he spoke in Bajan and she spoke in Gullah.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Baird is survived by a second daughter, Diana Baird N’Diaye; a stepdaughter, Nana Carmen Ashhurst; a stepson, Timothy Twining; and 11 grandchildren. His marriages to Patricia Young, Margaret Ashhurst and Ameze Westcott ended in divorce.

Mr. Baird described his powerful attraction to Africa in a poem he wrote inspired by a visit in 1969 to Ghana. In a video made in 2012, he recited it:

How suddenly the evening falls at the end of the sun’s theophany.

Here, where splendor calls to splendor in the million modalities of color, shade and tone

To celebrate the wonder that is Africa.

’Tis fitting that even fall be sudden.

Sudden, like the curtain that in its ruffling closure marks the finale, sends the spectators home.

In Africa, the evening falls almost silently, like a benediction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s