You can’t say that word! Part III

The N WordPart III

Previous Parts

In fact, the Carolina colonies were using the Indians as a trading commodity and were actually exporting these people to the West Indies and sources report that “between 1670 and 1715, between 24,000 and 51,000 Indian slaves were exported from South Carolina—much more than the number of Africans imported to the colonies of the future United States during the same period.”

Shift from indentured servitude to racial slavery in the British colonies is evident in the development of the colonies’ laws.

• Virginia, 1639: The first law to exclude “Negroes” from normal protections by the government was enacted.

• Maryland, 1664: The first colonial “anti-amalgamation” law is enacted (amalgamation referred to “race-mixing”). Other colonies soon followed Maryland’s example. A 1691 Virginia law declared that any white man or woman who married a “Negro, mulatto, or Indian” would be banished from the colony forever.

• Virginia, 1667: Christian baptisms would no longer affect the bondage of blacks or Indians, preventing enslaved workers from improving their legal status by changing their religion.

• Virginia, 1682: A law establishing the racial distinction between servants and slaves was enacted.

• Virginia, 1705: A law established that slaves were property and the slave owner the rights to treat his property in any manner he wished.

But the final reality, the definitive moment when African slavery was real and irrefutable, and what the future held for most Africans who were to come to the America colonies and the future USA, was established in 1705 when the Virginia General Assembly made this declaration: “All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.” Again, the words “… who were not Christians” is the primary criteria of denoting enslavement.This code, which would also serve as a model for other colonies, went even further. The law imposed harsh physical punishments for certain types of behavior which included that slaves needed written permission to leave their plantation, that slaves found guilty of murder or rape would be hanged, that for robbing or any other major offense, the slave would receive sixty lashes and be placed in stocks, where his or her ears would be cut off, and that for minor offenses, such as associating with whites, slaves would be whipped, branded, or maimed.

Prior to this pronouncement in 17th century Virginia slave disputes with a master could be brought before a court for judgment. With the slave codes of 1705, that was done away with. Now a slave owner who sought to break the most non-subservient slave to his personal will was now able to do with impunity and with whatever means he chose. Whatever action the slave owner desired to take against any slave exhibiting undesired behavior, whatever punishment he wanted to inflict, inclusive of termination of life, would not result in even the slightest reprimand from any civil or legal authority what so ever. Essentially this is the birth of the enslaving of the African people or what is known as American Slavery.negroes for sale

I have no intention of recapitulating the entire and involved historical sequence of the why, and how, of African slavery in America because that has been done by others much more able to speak on the issue and whom have done the necessary research and actually it is not germane to this discussion. Rather, I am just punctuating the beginning of what was known as slavery in the USA that led up to the Civil War which will prove to be intricate to the discussion of the usage of the word nigger and how it morphed through American history and became the word that it is today with all of its negative connotations. Now, with a line of demarcation of when slavery, as most people refer to it in the US, has now be determined, and, how it was initially legalized, I can turn my attention to the etymology of the word nigger. And for an understanding of what the word is and it of its origins one source was most revealing: Randall Kennedy who wrote “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” (Pantheon. 256 pp).

“We should never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal. It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Specifically, in chapter one, Kennedy says, “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 (emphasis added).

“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 (emphasis added). 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.”Niger

Essentially, a derivation of nigger is from the word “niger,” which means black, and its usage in reference to African people in North America dates back to the time of the colonies when these peoples were initially brought here, first, as indentured servants, and, then, as owned property. It is important to note that its usage and meaning was as a way of identifying a group of people or a specific ethnic group in very simple terms and not as a term of derogation. The word and all its negative insinuations developed over the years and became, what is now recognized as what most people see as a heinous “racial” epithet or slur, sometime in the early 19th century.

To define exactly when nigger became such an offensive word is entirely difficult, if not impossible, to nail down. Even the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has under its listing for the word nigger at least eight pages, with no less than 1246 words, of etymology, definitions, and usage. And, regardless of which reference source is used almost all state that the origin of the word is circa 1640–50 and form the French “nègre” and the Spanish “negro” both meaning “black”. What also is in all the reference sources is that the first definition of the word is as a slang word used to describe a black person and that it is an extremely disparaging and offensive word. This is usually followed by at least a variation of one, or both, of two other descriptive forms: (1) Slang that is extremely disparaging and offensive of any person of any race or origin that is regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc… and (2) as a specific victim of prejudice similar to that suffered by blacks; a person who is economically, politically, or socially disenfranchised.

This explains one part of the enigma of the word but it still does not explain why, and at least estimate when, the word became so utterly offensive and harmful in a relatively short historical context.

When Tiffany M. B. Anderson, presently an Assistant Professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio, was at Ohio University, she wrote an adroit and insightful abstract that examined these specific issues and she points out that, “The United States was a nation undergoing destruction and reconstruction in the 1860’s. Towards the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln agreed to gesture the freeing of all African slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. Even as they found themselves in a position of subordination, forced to concede their free slave labor for the Union’s promise to reconstruct their ruined lands and severed ties to the North, the former citizens of the Confederacy r to compromise their ideology of the freed slaves’ inferiority. In fact, folklore developed to further propagate the belief of black inferiority. A “comic” song titled Ten Little Niggers circulated through the United States in minstrel shows and children’s nursery rhyme books typical of the proliferation of materials focused on the degradation of the African American race.” (“ten-little-niggers”-the-making-of-a-black-man’s-consciousness/)In the second paragraph of her writing she nails what I consider is the exact rationale of why the word became so evil and despicable as well as coming as close as I think is possible to estimating a time, and if not the time, then at least the era, when the word truly transitioned from mainly being a word of description of a particular ethnicity to that of being a word of utter degradation, hate and subjugation or in today’s words: a racially discriminatory word. She states that, “While the purpose of (the song’s) widespread popularity was to refute the competency and human qualities of the black freedmen to white audiences, the ultimate legacy that the rhyme leaves behind is the mental conditioning of following generations of black males. The white population who circulated the song intended to define the black freedmen as barbaric and ignorant, yet the song also connected the white-constructed definition of ‘nigger’ to the black man’s consciousness.”I submit that this is beginning of the consciousness, that would begin to grow, that lay behind the word nigger becoming equal to ignorantly, or purposefully, saying that an African person was useless, worthless and trustless. And, that is ethnocentrism at its worst, and, its most perfect definition. It is what most of us would call racist and racism. And, I frankly concur with that assessment because it simply is exactly that… racist and racism. I am not advocating or saying the “song” “Ten Little Niggers” is the beginning of this consciousness rather I am saying, and Ms. Anderson so illustriously makes the point in her abstract, that it is an exquisite example of, as well as being a part of, how this reality of the word, and the racist associations it has, began. The “song” is both an emblematic and a specific example of how the racialization of America came to take its first embryonic steps and was to grow within the consciousness of what is called White America and how, eventually, it was used to control and manipulate black consciousness. And therein lays the real atrocity that was dealt to the African people which is that the word was being manipulated and mangled into becoming symbolic of a great lie and despicable insult and minimalization of a people’s ethnicity and heritage. All started because of economic greed and perpetrated because of hate, ignorance, fright and simple bigotry.To truly understand the diabolicalness of the song is to understand Anderson when she says that “The minstrel show was popular even before the Civil War, performed before audiences in both the North and the South. However, the shows’ materials changed once freedom was granted to the Negro slaves in the United States. Before the matter of freed slaves became a volatile issue, the typical minstrel show exhibited white men in black makeup performing song and dance exaggerated by lack of coordination and improper English, a style that became known as Jim Crow. After the Civil War, the stage opened itself up to new performers, recently freed slaves, willing to impersonate the impersonator. These performers, though already darker skinned, adhered to the minstrelsy tradition of blackface makeup. The tone of these black caricatures became less innocent and more damaging to blacks. The shows evolved from Jim Crow shows to coon shows, which focused on the wily nature of the freed slave. Black theater scholar Eric Lott notes that ‘the coon show was a mine of problematic racial representations, from razor-toting hustlers and gamblers to chicken-thieving loafers.’ It is in the midst of these popular coon shows that the minstrel song Ten Little Niggers enters the stage. This comic song married the stereotypes of violence and ignorance of blacks in order to villanize freed black males while allowing the violence to be acted upon the black players of the song. I will focus on the following version of the rhyme for my analysis (see below).


Ten little nigger boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little nigger boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little nigger boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little nigger boys playing with a hive;
A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little nigger boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were Four.

Four little nigger boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little nigger boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little nigger boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were None.

“The song acts as a fantasy for those who enjoyed performances. While whites wondered what to do with the freed slaves, the song suggested that leaving them alone to destroy themselves was the best method. The comedic intent of the song seems haunting to today’s listener and encourages one to question the humor of nine deaths in ten stanzas… The cycle of the song serves as a protest against freed black men. As demonstrated in the song, the deaths all result due to the freedom of black men, and the song only surfaced in response to the freeing of slaves. The unspoken point behind the song is that nothing in the song would happen if the institution of slavery were still legal. Black men were needed for free labor in the Antebellum South and were controlled by white masters and, therefore, protected against themselves. To word it a bit differently, black male slaves were safe from themselves as was the rest of the world, specifically, and most importantly, white men and women.”

Tiffany Anderson
Tiffany Anderson

And, as if that were not empathic enough, she further goes on to stipulate that “Ten Little Niggers” “… surfaced in two distinct genres: minstrel shows and children’s nursery rhymes. While the words usually remained the same in both genres, the audience varied greatly in age. The audience of the minstrel shows was typically white adult Americans indulging in the popular form of mainstream entertainment and, especially during this time, entertainment weighed heavily in the transmission of racial conditioning. While periodicals in Great Britain, for example, advertised the song as a comic song, the stereotypes created and spread through the largely popular genre of the minstrel show were anything but comic and in fact furthered the dehumanization of the recently freed black population. The live performances of Ten Little Niggers in minstrel shows allowed the white audience to face a living manifestation of their fears in comic form. The act of chiding the black race became an empowering act of watching black or blackface performers denounce themselves in a public forum. It is easy to read the minstrel song today and recognize the stereotypes that are evoked. Black people eat and sleep with nothing else in their day; they senselessly participate in activities such as “playing with a hive” that common sense teaches most people is not a proper pastime; they prove burdensome to the legal system; they are, at best, lesser evolved creatures, closer to animal kind than mankind. These stereotypes live in the American consciousness today, but when the song was popularized, the racialized American psyche was still in the creation process. In addition, African Americans were processing understandings of self outside of the debilitating institution of slavery that rejected self-determined identities. The song taught white Americans how to view subjects that were previously objectified in the cloak of slavery and taught blacks how to view themselves through the perspective of white Americans.”

NOTE:  (Tiffany M. B. Anderson focuses on U.S. Ethnic Literature including African American and Latino/a literatures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her presentations and forthcoming publications focus on double-consciousness as a phenomenon of ethnic literatures, on black male consciousness, and on suicide.)

But now that we know what the word was meant to be, and, what it was manipulated to be, by those who truly had sad, cruel hearts and minds it brings me to James Baldwin

Tomorrow: James Baldwin

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