The Protean N-Word
How should nigger be defined? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I wrongfully offending the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling out nigger instead of using a euphemism such as N-word? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view nigger as a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds to it violently? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying "nigger"? What methods are useful for depriving nigger of destructiveness? In the pages that follow, I will pursue these and related questions. I will put a tracer on nigger, report on its use, and assess the controversies to which it gives rise. I have invested energy in this endeavor because nigger is a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics. To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one's life.
Let's turn first to etymology. Nigger is derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and niggar. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as "negars." A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved "niggor" boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as "negers." (Currently some people insist upon distinguishing nigger--which they see as exclusively an insult--from nigga, which they view as a term capable of signaling friendly salutation.) In the 1700s niger appeared in what the dictionary describes as "dignified argumentation" such as Samuel Sewall's denunciation of slavery, The Selling of Joseph. No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.
In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Hosea Easton wrote that nigger "is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race. . . . The term in itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class of society from another; but it is not used with that intent. . . . [I]t flows from the fountain of purpose to injure." Easton averred that often the earliest instruction white adults gave to white children prominently featured the word nigger. Adults reprimanded them for being "worse than niggers," for being "ignorant as niggers," for having "no more credit than niggers"; they disciplined them by telling them that unless they behaved they would be carried off by "the old nigger" or made to sit with "niggers" or consigned to the "nigger seat," which was, of course, a place of shame.
Nigger has seeped into practically every aspect of American culture, from literature to political debates, from cartoons to song. Throughout the 1800s and for much of the 1900s as well, writers of popular music generated countless lyrics that lampooned blacks, in songs such as "Philadelphia Riots; or, I Guess It Wasn't de Niggas Dis Time," "De Nigga Gal's Dream," "Who's Dat Nigga Dar A-Peepin?," "Run, Nigger, Run," "A Nigger's Reasons," "Nigger Will Be Nigger," "I Am Fighting for the Nigger," "Ten Little Niggers," "Niggas Git on de Boat," "Nigger in a Pit," "Nigger War Bride Blues," "Nigger, Nigger, Never Die," "Li'l Black Nigger," and "He's Just a Nigger." The chorus of this last begins, "He's just a nigger, when you've said dat you've said it all."
Throughout American history, nigger has cropped up in children's rhymes, perhaps the best known of which is
Catch a nigger by the toe!
If he hollers, let him go!
But there are scores of others as well, including
Nigger, nigger, never die,
Black face and shiny eye.
And then there is:
Teacher, teacher, don't whip me!
Whip that nigger behind that tree!
He stole honey and I stole money.
Teacher, teacher, wasn't that funny?
Today, on the Internet, whole sites are devoted to nigger jokes. At KKKomedy Central-Micetrap's Nigger Joke Center, for instance, the "Nigger Ghetto Gazette" contains numerous jokes such as the following:
Q. What do you call a nigger boy riding a bike?
Q. Why do niggers wear high-heeled shoes?
A. So their knuckles won't scrape the ground!
Q. What did God say when he made the first nigger?
A. "Oh, shit!"
Q. What do niggers and sperm have in common?
A. Only one in two million works!
Q. Why do decent white folk shop at nigger yard sales?
A. To get all their stuff back, of course!
Q. What's the difference between a pothole and a nigger?
A. You'd swerve to avoid a pothole, wouldn't you?
Q. How do you make a nigger nervous?
A. Take him to an auction.
Q. How do you get a nigger to commit suicide?
A. Toss a bucket of KFC into traffic.
Q. How do you keep niggers out of your backyard?
A. Hang one in the front yard.
Q. How do you stop five niggers from raping a white woman?
A. Throw them a basketball.
Nigger has been a familiar part of the vocabularies of whites high and low. It has often been the calling card of so-called white trash--poor, disreputable, uneducated Euro-Americans. Partly to distance themselves from this ilk, some whites of higher standing have aggressively forsworn the use of nigger. Such was the case, for example, with senators Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell, both white supremacists who never used the N-word. For many whites in positions of authority, however, referring to blacks as niggers was once a safe indulgence. Reacting to news that Booker T. Washington had dined at the White House, Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina predicted, "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again." During his (ultimately successful) reelection campaign of 1912, the governor of South Carolina, Coleman Livingston Blease, declared with reference to his opponent, Ira Jones, the chief justice of the state supreme court, "You people who want social equality [with the Negro] vote for Jones. You men who have nigger children vote for Jones. You who have a nigger wife in your back yard vote for Jones."
During an early debate in the United States House of Representatives over a proposed federal antilynching bill, black people sitting in the galleries cheered when a representative from Wisconsin rebuked a colleague from Mississippi for blaming lynching on Negro criminality. In response, according to James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), white southern politicians shouted from the floor of the House, "Sit down, niggers." In 1938, when the majority leader of the United States Senate, Allen Barkley, placed antilynching legislation on the agenda, Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina (who would later become vice president and secretary of state) faulted the black NAACP official Walter White. Barkley, Byrnes declared, "can't do anything without talking to that nigger first."
Nigger was also a standard element in Senator Huey P. Long's vocabulary, though many blacks appreciated the Louisiana Democrat's notable reluctance to indulge in race baiting. Interviewing "The Kingfish" in 1935, Roy Wilkins (working as a journalist in the days before he became a leader of the NAACP) noted that Long used the terms "nigra," "colored," and "nigger" with no apparent awareness that that last word would or should be viewed as offensive. By contrast, for Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, nigger was not simply a designation he had been taught; it was also a tool of demagoguery that he self-consciously deployed. Asked by a white constituent about "Negroes attending our schools," Talmadge happily replied, "Before God, friend, the niggers will never go to a school which is white while I am governor."
As in Georgia, so in Mississippi, where white judges routinely asked Negro defendants, "Whose nigger are you?" Reporting a homicide, the Hattiesburg Progress noted: "Only another dead nigger--that's all." Three decades later, the master of ceremonies at a White Citizens Council banquet would conclude the festivities by remarking, "Throughout the pages of history there is only one third-rate race which has been treated like a second-class race and complained about it--and that race is the American nigger."
Nor was nigger confined to the language of local figures of limited influence. Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds referred to Howard University as the "nigger university." President Harry S Truman called Congressman Adam Clayton Powell "that damned nigger preacher." Nigger was also in the vocabulary of Senator, Vice President, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. "I talk everything over with [my wife]," he proclaimed on one occasion early in his political career. Continuing, he quipped, "Of course . . . I have a nigger maid, and I talk my problems over with her, too."
A complete list of prominent whites who have referred at some point or other to blacks demeaningly as niggers would be lengthy indeed. It would include such otherwise disparate figures as Richard Nixon, Edmund Wilson, and Flannery O'Connor.
Given whites' use of nigger, it should come as no surprise that for many blacks the N-word has constituted a major and menacing presence that has sometimes shifted the course of their lives. Former slaves featured it in their memoirs about bondage. Recalling her lecherous master's refusal to permit her to marry a free man of color, Harriet Jacobs related the following colloquy:
"So you want to be married do you?" he said,
"and to a free nigger."
"Well, I'll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly. If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my slaves."
Nigger figures noticeably, too, in Frederick Douglass's autobiography. Re-creating the scene in which his master objected to his being taught to read and write, the great abolitionist imagined that the man might have said, "If you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. . . . Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world."
In the years since the Civil War, no one has more searingly dramatized nigger-as-insult than Richard Wright. Anyone who wants to learn in a brief compass what lies behind African American anger and anguish when nigger is deployed as a slur by whites should read Wright's The Ethics of Living Jim Crow. In this memoir about his life in the South during the teens and twenties of the twentieth century, Wright attacked the Jim Crow regime by showing its ugly manifestations in day-to-day racial interactions. Wright's first job took him to a small optical company in Jackson, Mississippi, where things went smoothly in the beginning. Then Wright made the mistake of asking the seventeen-year-old white youth with whom he worked to tell him more about the business. The youth viewed this sign of curiosity and ambition as an unpardonable affront. Wright narrated the confrontation that followed:
"What yuh tryin' t' do, nigger, git smart?" he asked.
"Naw; I ain' tryin' t' git smart," I said.
"Well, don't, if yuh know what's good for yuh! . . . Nigger, you think you're white, don't you?"
"This is white man's work around here, and you better watch yourself."
From then on, the white youth so terrorized Wright that he ended up quitting.
At his next job, as a menial worker in a clothing store, Wright saw his boss and his son drag and kick a Negro woman into the store:
Later the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying, and holding her stomach. . . . When I went to the rear of the store, the boss and his son were washing their hands in the sink. They were chuckling. The floor was bloody and strewn with wisps of hair and clothing. No doubt I must have appeared pretty shocked, for the boss slapped me reassuringly on the back.
"Boy, that's what we do to niggers when they don't want to pay their bills," he said, laughing.
Along with intimidation, sex figured in Wright's tales of Negro life under segregationist tyranny. Describing his job as a "hall-boy" in a hotel frequented by prostitutes, the writer remembered
a huge, snowy-skinned blonde [who] took a room on my floor. I was sent to wait upon her. She was in bed with a thick-set man; both were nude and uncovered. She said she wanted some liquor and slid out of bed and waddled across the floor to get her money from a dresser drawer. I watched her.
"Nigger, what in hell you looking at?" the white man asked me, raising himself up on his elbows.
"Nothing," I answered, looking miles deep into the black wall of the room.
"Keep your eyes where they belong if you want to be healthy!" he said.
On a different evening at this same hotel, Wright was leaving to walk one of the Negro maids home. As they passed by him, the white night watchman wordlessly slapped the maid on her buttock. Astonished, Wright instinctively turned around. His doing so, however, triggered yet another confrontation:
Suddenly [the night watchman] pulled his gun and asked: "Nigger, don't you like it?"
"I asked yuh don't yuh like it?" he asked again, stepping forward.
"Yes, sir," I mumbled.
"Talk like it then!"
"Oh, yes, sir!" I said with as much heartiness as I could muster.
Outside, I walked ahead of the girl, ashamed to face her. She caught up with me and said: "Don't be a fool! Yuh couldn't help it!"
This watchman boasted of having killed two Negroes in self-defense.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Nigger by Randall Kennedy Copyright © 2002 by Randall Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.