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N-Word Reckonings: Wrestling With An Incendiary Word In and Out of Context

| February 19, 2011

By Pierre Tristam

In 1967, Lyndon Johnson decided to appoint a black man to the United States Supreme Court. He had a good idea who he’d choose. But he asked an aide to draw up a list. The aid mentioned A. Leon Higginbotham, whom Johnson had appointed to a district court. “The only two people who have ever heard of Judge Higginbotham are you and his momma,” Johnson told his aide. “When I appoint a nigger to the bench, I want everyone to know he’s a nigger.”

Johnson picked Thurgood Marshall, hero of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools. Was Johnson being bigoted when he used the word nigger? In some ways, yes. He had a history of it. But he was also about to make one of the most anti-bigotry appointments in the nation’s history. He knew it. He wanted the nation to know it. As he told a journalist two days later, Marshall’s appointment was signaling that “the old fences are coming down.” Johnson—crude, flawed, often bigoted—was doing the tearing down.

The story, told in Robert Dallek’s 1998 biography of Johnson and repeated in Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, reflects the varied connotations of the word, from worst to not as bad as it may seem, though there are no good connotations to the word, at least not when spoken by whites. Part of the word’s evolution in the last half century is its adoption as a term of affection among some blacks. “To proclaim oneself a nigger,” Kennedy writes, “is to identify oneself as real, authentic, uncut, unassimilated, and unassimilable—the opposite, in short, of a Negro, someone whose rejection of nigger is seen as part of an effort to blend into the white mainstream.” But even that evolution provokes debates over the word’s usage. There is no neutrality in nigger.

The “Filthiest, Dirtiest, Nastiest Word in the English Language”

For good reason. For every qualified use of the word there continues to be untold uses of it in the same context, if no longer with the same consequences, as when Sen. Benjamin Tillman declared, after Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House, that “The actions of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” Outright racially motivated killings are few anymore. But millions of Americans wake up every day not quite believing and certainly not accepting that a black man is now doing the inviting at the White House. They do not, needless to say, refer to President Obama by his title or by his name: even in 2011, nigger’s currency is far from bankrupt. It remains, as the journalist Farai Chideya described it, “the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” Or as Christopher Darden, who prosecuted O.J. Simpson, put it, it the “filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

The word evokes an American holocaust—or 350 years of state-sponsored terrorism that makes al-Qaeda’s version tame in comparison. (Toni Morrison’s dedication of Beloved, you’ll recall, is to the “Sixty Million and more.”) But it is not just a marker of things past. It’s not an artifact like Auschwitz or the Soviet gulag. No European Jew fears ending up in an oven anymore, no Russian fears ending up in Siberia, but blacks in many circumstances today still fear treading the wrong grounds, crossing the wrong paths, living in the wrong neighborhoods. Don’t look far. Ask the black citizens of Bunnell, or black drivers through that town, as the State Attorney did last year. Nigger as insult is as alive as that town’s black ghetto, as enduring as the town’s dismal, disgraceful indifference to that ghetto as anything other than a place to spy on and corral.

So to use the word in any circumstance, even in artistic, educational, or historical contexts, and hope that it not have some repercussions is naïve. At the same time, to surround the word in prohibitions is also a problem. For all its implications, nigger remains a word. It doesn’t shoot bullets. It doesn’t lynch. It doesn’t, in and of itself, wound anymore than its presence on a page affects the paper it’s printed on more than the words to its left or right. Nigger’s wound is never the word itself, but its user, its context, its intention. To not make that distinction is not only naïve. It’s dishonest. It compromises legitimate uses of the word, and so prevents the necessary reckoning with it that teachers, artists, actors, historians, journalists and many others aim for when using it by necessity. In other words, it prolongs the word’s visceral potency without diffusing it. It keeps it more relevant than it should be.

Flagler’s Own Controversy: To Kill a Mockingbird

Whites alone aren’t guilty of that. As Kennedy writes, “There is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying ‘nigger,’ just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken—the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of nigger.”

That, in essence, was the issue behind our own controversy over the use of the word in last fall’s planned stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird by the Flagler Palm Coast High School drama club. The word was fetishized by a very small minority—it could be counted on less than one hand—that turned a legitimate concern that could have been addressed simply and intelligently into a disproportionate and irrational fear that led to the cancellation of the play. Nigger itself was taken to be an obscenity within or without its context on stage, which is not only absurd but, as Kennedy points out in so many regards, inaccurate. It was feared that people in the audience might not distinguish between performers using the word nigger and actual students using it, or being its target—an insult to the intelligence of the performing students, to the prospective audiences, and to the school district.

The reasoning implied that education here is not good enough to have already prepared students and audiences to handle the use of nigger in the context of a work of art designed to unmask the prejudice of that very word and those who speak it.  Such preparation should not be necessary before or after the play if the district is doing its job in its day classes—which it is doing. The book is standard fare in the curriculum, and students aren’t fools. They know the difference between a Mayella Ewell using the word in the context of her character in To Kill a Mockingbird as opposed to Tera Cieri, the actress performing Mayella’s scene (“That nigger yonder took advantage of me an’ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin’ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you”). So do audiences voluntarily paying to see the old classic.

The district overreacted, and came to its senses. The play will go on. So will discussions, debates and battles over nigger. “Like every other significant feature of American life—including cigarettes, guns, pornography, drugs, stock trading, sex, religion, and money—nigger is thoroughly enmeshed in litigation,” Kennedy writes.

It’s a mistake to take nigger out of its context, wherever the word is spoken. It’s just as grave a mistake to presume to discuss the word’s noxious nature today outside of its evolutionary context. Kennedy’s book provides that context to some extent, though it’s not a complete history (nor does it pretend to be). It cannot be: there can never be a full accounting of the word’s meaning in all its applications when it remains the fluid devil that it is. One of nigger’s more ironic recent evolutions is that it has become a word of equal opportunity: blacks use it to smear whites just as whites once did, minus whites’ more murderous consequences.

A brief history of the word is useful.

(The next two historical sections, including one on nigger’s uses on stage and in literature, are presented here particularly as a broader context to the Mockingbird controversy. Those interested in picking up the more critical thread of the essay should skip those two sections and get straight to the one on N-word euphemisms.)

Origins and Evolution

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first documentation of the word nigger dates to 1786, but the word is believed to have been used for much longer than that. Its adaptation to various uses, often but not always pejorative, have been fertile only in the United States. To nigger (as a verb) was to fill in the details of an architectural design. Nigger was also a synonym for “century,” not the century of a hundred years, but the century of movie lingo—as in the cloth shade used to shield camera lenses. Watermelons were referred to as nigger hams. Scouring pads were referred to as nigger hair. Brazil nuts were niggertoes. A niggerhead was the steam dome atop a locomotive boiler, and a piece of scrap sticking above the surface of molten steel in a furnace. A niggerhead was also a hard-rock formation in a coal seam. It’s an ironically pejorative connotation that underscores the length to which whites would pervert language and reality to preserve their racist universe: why wouldn’t the black coal seam be the niggerhead? Because then blackness would be the color of wealth and white the color of obstruction. There was nigger-baby, the small black licorice candy cast in the likeness of a black baby.

It’s also interesting, and not at all surprising, that in the lexicon of American bigotry, no single nationality comes close to generating as many insulting ways to refer to “aliens” as do blacks in Americans’ eyes—American blacks. And none elicit appellations as demeaning as blacks. Some nationalities’ appellations are so tame that they’re held up with pride, or at least with indifference: canuck for Canadians, sandy for Scotts, limey for Englishmen. It immediately gets nastier when the nationality is more distant, less familiar. In 1962, when H.L. Mencken published the fourth edition of The American Language, he documented that Italians in the American lingo had been referred to as dago, wop, guinea and ginzo, Chinese as chink and yellow-belly, Jews as kike, sheenie, arab, goose, mockie and yid, Mexicans as greaser (that was before the undocumented-alien craze of calling Mexicans and other Latin Americans wetbacks and worse), and Poles as just polack. The list for “Negro”—the tern then mostly in use—was three times as long as for the next-longest: nigger, coon, shine, jigao, jigaboo, spade, Zulu, skunk, jig, jit, buffalo, boogie, dinge, smoke, moke, and snowball.

In a footnote to that list, Mencken writes: “The American Negroes have many words of their own to designate shades of color, e.g., brown-skin, high-brown and high-yellow.” They also used ofay for whites. In 1919, the federal commissioner of education “devised a Code of Honorable Names to be subscribed to by the Boy Scouts, whereby they agreed to avoid all opprobrious terms for immigrants. But he omitted the Negroes, and the fact brought forth a protest from them.”

Things haven’t changed much since 1962. As Kennedy reports, in federal and state cases in the LEXIS-NEXIS data base (as of July 2001), “kike appears in eighty-four cases, wetback in fifty, gook in ninety, and honky in 286. These cases reveal cruelty, terror, brutality, and heartache. Still, the frequency of these slurs is overwhelmed by that of nigger, which appears in 4,219 reported decisions.”

Not necessarily for the wrong reasons: In 1972,  the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the manslaughter conviction of John Roberts, a black handyman, after he charged—and the stenographer confirmed—that the judge, during jury selection, had used the word nigger. “I cannot understand what difference it would make if he [the juror] had any social relationship with a nigger, or if he lives within three blocks of a Negro,” the transcript read. The Supreme Court found the trial and the conviction fair. “But we are in an area of great current sensitivity,” the court concluded, “and no matter how the courts deal with the issue, there may remain a doubt that the issue was handled objectively. For this reason, and although we are satisfied justice was done, we conclude, with much reluctance, that the image of justice would be better served by a new trial.” (Roberts was acquitted in the second trial. He had killed Solomon Hutchins with a pick-ax in a dispute over a card came, and termed the killing self-defense.)

On Stage, In Books, in Movies and Newspapers

Just as it has evolved on plantations, around lynching trees, in cops’ torture chambers , in courtrooms and around kitchen tables, the word has had its own evolution in literature and in the performing arts. In the last 80 years or so, it has gone from being used indifferently and demeaningly to being used ironically, or as counter-attacking fighting word, used by blacks. The 1920s, of all periods, saw quite a switch.

In 1910, “The Nigger Wins by a Nose” was a horse-race headline as unremarkable as, say, “Tony Stewart Wins by a Nose” at a NASCAR race (where it’s still the 1910s: blacks on the circuit and in the stands are still less welcome as intimates than as tokens or props). A prominent New Yorker cabaret owner in Chinatown known in the 1910s as “Nigger Mike” on the streets was referred to as such in a New York Times headline announcing his death in 1922.

Ronald Firbank’s Prancing Nigger, a novel published in 1924, got this rave from The Times: “The very title, of course, is a triumph. It is impossible to conceive of a more insinuatingly hilarious invitation, as if to a glorious blackface minstrel show: of gorgeously supple black bodies and huge carnality fused in childlike abandon of sheer joyousness.” (Let’s not forget that even Harper Lee had her moments of odd black eroticism, as when she described Tom Robinson, the crippled black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, as “a black-velvet Negro, not shiny, but soft black velvet. […] If he had been whole, he would have been a fine specimen of a man.” The distance between that line and the lines uttered at slave auctions is not particularly comforting.)

But in 1929, playwright John McGowan changed a play he’d titled “Nigger Rich” to “The Big Shot” after black societies protested. The word had been used expressly as an insult, though in the first half of the century the word was used frequently in book titles and newspaper headlines without the qualifier of quote marks, or irony or of polemical shock.

The same year, the New York Theater Company staged a play called “The Nigger,” by Edward Sheldon, a white writer, without second thoughts, though when the play was proposed for a St. Louis stage, a committee was convened there to decide whether it would stir racial prejudice—not because of the title, but because of the play’s implications: it sympathized and humanized blacks too much while excoriating white hypocrisy. The play anticipated Mockingbird in some ways, while being more daring in others: The first part of the play centers on a black man accused of “the usual crime” (the rape of a white woman), whom a candidate for governor tries weakly to protect until the law intervenes, but not enough: he doesn’t want to jeopardize his election. The accused is lynched and murdered. In the second part of the play, the governor is revealed as a black man—a fact he himself had been unaware of.

The 1930s and 40s were too consumed by the Great Depression and World War II for racial issues to be more than subplots in the nation’s epic struggles, but the brew was set. Both the Great Migration and the civil rights movement following the war radically changed the complexion of nigger from a weapon until then exclusively wielded by whites into black insurgents’ corrective. That was especially apparent on stage and in movies, though the word still occasionally ran into obstacles.

In 1964, the comedian Dick Gregory published Nigger: an Autobiography, which he wrote with the great Robert Lipsyte (the sports journalist), and which The New York Times said was “at once as moving, and, in its way, as terrifying as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.” The book is still in print under that same title. I found this reader review at Amazon, by Daniel Mackler, particularly moving in its own way, and relevant to our cases of nigger-phobia in Flagler (Mackler’s original spelling is left as is): “I am a 13 year old cacagun male in 7th grade in St. Augustine, FL. This should be required reading for all students in middle school and high school. I recently was denied my freedom of speech when told i couldn’t do a book report on this facinating title. I was told it might offened some people. i replyed that if the message of the book was fully understood, it would fail to offend people. I was still denied. Don’t let the title of this book stiffle the message. “…..when a man calls me a nigger, he is is calling me something i am not. The nigger exists only in his mind, therfore he’s the nigger. I feel sorry for such a man.”

In 1968 a set of three short plays by Ed Bullins opened in New York under the title, “The Electronic Nigger and Others.” It was a comedy about an eccentric black snooper at an integrated night class in a community college. The title was changed to “Three Plays by Ed Bullins” a few weeks later when Bullins said the former title indicated the theme “was overtly racial” and would make ticket-buyers “feel uncomfortable.”

H. Rap Brown, who succeeded Stockley Carmichael as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee before that group joined the Black Panthers, published a book in 1969 called Die Nigger Die!, in which he argued that the United States was actively engaged in a slow genocide of blacks, though his hyperbole was evident (“I saw no sense in reading Shakespeare,” he wrote. “After I read Othello, it was obvious that Shakespeare was a racist. From reading his poetry, I gathered that he was a faggot.”)

In 1970 in Brooklyn, Gordon Porterfield staged a play called “The Universal Nigger,” where God is depicted as a black man and Christ’s crucifixion turns into an expletive-laced indictment of the audience. In 1972, at the height of the blacksploitation film craze, Paramount Pictures released the Martin Goldman movie titled “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” a weak attempt at telling the story of blacks’ influence on the old West through the eyes of three escaped slaves. The movie was renamed “The Legend of Black Charley” before airing on television. Three years later director Jack Arnold released “Boss Nigger,” a witty parody of westerns about a black bounty hunter in the old West.

The word in the late 1960s and early 1970s appeared frequently and as if with little reserve in the headlines of newspapers, even if in the context of essays or polemics or reviews about the word’s evolutions: “We Never Say Nigger In Front of Them,” went a New York Times Magazine article from January 1969 (about “The Slaves,” the Diane Warwick and Ossie Davis movie). A 1972 column about the blacksploitation films of the period is headlined “Modern Nigger-Toys.” But there was a clear line not to be crossed. In 1979, Donald Newman, a young artist, exhibited abstract works that combined photography and charcoal drawings, and called it “The Nigger Drawings,” though the works appeared to make no reference to blacks. The exhibit drew protests and the gallery was accused of racism.

As the civil rights movement died down, and with it the women’s movement and the nation’s greatest liberal age, the 1970s yielded to the Age of Reagan—and the dawn of political correctness.

N-Word Euphemisms and Sanitation

If using the word poses problems, euphemizing it as the N-word­ or sanitizing it by eliminating it altogether, or replacing it with more innocuous words creates a different set of problems.

When then-Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman took the stand in the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, CNN went through all sorts of contortions to get around Fuhrman’s slur-ridden testimony of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. CNN’s David Goodnow tried “n-word,” “racial epithets,” and “n’s.” The St. Petersburg Times, The State, in Columbia, S.C., and several other newspapers switched to “n—–.” CNN finally came to its senses. “It started sounding like a joke,” CNN Executive Producer David Bernknopf said at the time. “We were being a little paternalistic, a little protective. But it’s silly to think that we could protect people from a word that’s being used every day.” So it was back to nigger.

But there’s been no turning point. CNN using the word at that time and in that context hasn’t meant audiences are less inclined today to see the word as a fuse to objections, censorship or forced sanitation. In 2009, two weeks before Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, John Foley, an English teacher at a school in Washington State wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “I love To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. All are American classics, and my students read them as part of approved sophomore and junior units, as do millions of students across the nation. They all must go.” His objection wasn’t entirely based on the books’ use of nigger. “Even if Huck Finn didn’t contain the N-word and demeaning stereotypes,” Foley wrote, “it would remain a tough sell to students accustomed to fast-paced everything. The novel meanders along slower than the Mississippi River and uses a Southern dialect every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.” As if classics were like car models off some assembly line, he proposed alternatives, such as David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars for Mockingbird.

It gets worse. Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, has just published a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn where the 215 instances of nigger are replaced with slave. Gribben claims, disingenuously, that the switch is to prevent the book from falling off reading lists. He’s right that the book still often runs up against objections over that word. But he’s also being an opportunist and an enabler, playing into what lucrative market may exist for sanitized literature while legitimizing the adulteration of books to accommodate smaller, stupider minds.

“To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist,” Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ chief book critic, wrote in January. A sanitized Finn “ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.”

Unsettled Conclusions for an Unsettling Word

Science advances. Cures and vaccines are found for diseases. Technology improves the mechanics of communication. But it’s unsettling that, in the United States, despite the kind of advances that make access to information, history, criticism and every imaginable context possible, there has yet to be the sort of intellectual advance that makes debates over the artistic and literary use of words like nigger less necessary.

Ironically, the word itself has experienced untold evolutions. People fearing it, less so. Fear isn’t respectful. When a principal doesn’t want to hear the word used on his high school stage, or a librarian doesn’t want the word readily accessible to students through certain classics, those alleged educators aren’t protecting students. They’re protecting themselves. They’re choosing to avoid the sort of controversy that, while still current, must be part of a school’s mission if words like nigger are ultimately to be disarmed. They are, in sum, delaying precisely the sort of education and context that would disarm the word—the sort of education they claim to stand for in principle, but just as convincingly scorn when they seek to ban, censor or sanitize.

“As nigger is more widely disseminated and its complexity is more widely appreciated, censuring its use—even its use as an insult—will become more difficult,” Kennedy writes. “The more aware judges and other officials become of the ambiguity surrounding nigger, the less likely they will be to automatically condemn the actions taken by whites who voice the N-word. This tendency will doubtless, in certain circumstances, lead to unfortunate results, as decision makers show undue solicitude toward racists who use the rhetoric of complexity to cover their misconduct.” But for good or bad, Kennedy concludes, nigger is “destined to remain with us for many years to come—a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience.”

Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.

What had been an embarrassing controversy is now a celebration: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” canceled in November, will be staged four times next weekend, Feb. 24-26, 2011, by the Flagler Palm Coast High School Drama Club, at the Flagler Auditorium. FlaglerLive is a proud sponsor of the show. The above essay, written as a postscript to the controversy and an introduction to the performances, is presented in the spirit of education, discussion—and, hopefully, debate: the school district restored the play in hopes of turning both its decisions, good and bad, into teachable moments. A little perspective and history on the word at the heart of the controversy might be a good place to start. It’s not a short piece. But neither are the word’s history and killing fields.–Pierre Tristam

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3 Responses for “N-Word Reckonings: Wrestling With An Incendiary Word In and Out of Context”

  1. Liana G says:

    A beautful, moving, and well intentioned piece. Thank you.

    My kids are looking forward to seeing the play. So am I.

    The book is indeed on the tedious side for young readers, but the condensed version offered through Reader’s Digest Book Club is great for this age group.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin should be recommended reading also, and is offered in an abridged version for young readers.

  2. DLF says:

    Pierre: great job, thanks for all the research and history on this subject, new information . I don’t like the word nor do I use it,but I don’t believe anyone should tell another person he can or cannot use the word or any other word. Most of the time when someone uses the “n” word or others in the same class are showing their true feelings and education.

  3. JGD says:

    Schopenhauer once said that when a name for the same thing changes many times in order to find some less offensive name, the offensiveness is really “not in the name of the thing, but in the thing named.”

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