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The N-Words

Nigger is a word that cannot be used by Americans other than African Americans. Negro is another word generally avoided in polite society. In the 19th century both words were nouns, but more recently have become pejorative adjectives. A change in name might help short-circuit the stereotypes that undergird racism in America. Names and words determine, to a great extent, what people see and feel. In Africa the Niger river is pronounced "NYE-jur", while the country Niger is pronounced with the French-sounding "nee-ZHER," emphasizing the second syllable to rhyme with "Pierre." The word "niggardly" from an old Norse word that means "stingy", is presently un-usable because of the similarity of sound with the N-Word.

Europeans who arbitrarily branded Africans captured into slavery as "Blackamoors," "Moors," "negers," and "negros." In the early colonial period, slave masters called slaves Negroes, the Portuguese word for black. The word "Negro" seemed to perpetuates the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans.

Great Britain had a very structured primogeniture system, under which children always claimed lineage through the father, even those born without the legitimacy of marriage. Miscegenation laws, forbidding marriage between races, were prevalent in the South and Western United States. Through the years, the laws that the states passed became steadily more restrictive toward slaves, mulattoes, and freed Negroes. Under the early laws of Virginia, "‘every person, other than a negro, of whose grandfathers or grandmothers any one shall have been a negro, shall be deemed a mulatto, and so every such person who shall have one fourth part or more of negro blood; shall in like manner be deemed a mulatto." L. Virga. 1792. In Spanish America, the word mulatto more often referred to individuals of Black and American Indian admixture than to those of Black and White (Spanish) admixture.

Walter F. Willcox [The Negro Population] found that "The census of the negroes in 1900 ... indicated that between 11 and 16 per cent of the negro population have, or are believed by the enumerators to have, some degree of white blood. The proportion of mulattoes to all negroes is lowest as a rule where the proportion of whites in the total population is lowest, and highest, as a rule, where the proportion of whites in the total population is highest. The proportion of mulattoes to all negroes is usually higher in cities of the great cotton growing states than it is in the districts outside of the cities."

The word mestizo comes from late Latin, mixticius, meaning mixed, juxtaposed (mixto, mezclado). The the Diccionario de la Lengua Española defines this as a person born from parents of different races, especially a white man and an Indian woman, or an Indian man and a white woman; coming from the mixture of different cultures. Filipinos the word for people who are mixed indigenous Austronesian or other foreign ancestry. The Spanish colonial caste system had an elaborate taxonomy that included españoles, criollos, mestizos, indios, mulatos, zambos, and negros, with mestizos outnumbering all other groups added together. Distinctions were made between criollos, those born in the Americas, and peninsulares, those born in Spain. Criollos were considered inferior to those who came from the mother country.

The term "mestizo" never entered common usage in the United States, and the term "mulatto" fell out of common usage in the early 20th Century. A "high-yaller" [high yellow] was a popular term through the mid-20th Century for a light-skinned black person. Some people whose family tree had been "touched by the tar brush" would try to pass for white, or claim to be Cherokee.

Ethnic slurs derived from Negro included "nigra", "nigga" and most famously "nigger", while other offensive terms were jigaboo, coon, or spade. The term "nigra" was something of a racist bridge term between "negro" and "nigger" - in certain uses it reflected a pronunciation of negro meant to suggest nigger, or used in "polite" company. George Wallace maintained that "nigra" was the natural Southern pronunciation of Negro.

Mark Twain used dialect to indicate he cared about giving his black characters a voice of their own. His manipulation and deconstruction of stereotypes was an attempt to let the black characters become fully human. But by the mid-20th Century, Tawin was increasingly un-usable in schools, on account of his extensive use of the term “nigger” throughout many texts. Twain's book "Pudd'nhead Wilson" contains some 43 instances of the word "nigger", and even "Tom Sawyer" has 8 instances. Twain completed Huckleberry Finn in 1884, with 93 instances of "nigger" at a time when black identity in American society was undefined. Twain subverted Huck’s misconception of “nigger” Jim. Most famously, when asked about a steam boat accident “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”, Huck famously replies: “No’m. Killed a nigger.”

Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest novelists in English literature, in 1914 wrote "The Nigger of the Narcissus", an account of the voyage of a sailing ship from Bombay harbour to the Port of London that explored the psychological pressures on a group of nineteenth century seamen. The main character, James Wait, is a black man, compared with Satan by the white crew members of Narcissus. The title keeps this book off any modern American college reading list, though it showed the torment of black people at the hands of the white man.

Malcolm X recalled in 1963 that in slave times " There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field Negro.... The house Negroes lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master - in the attic or the basement.... If the master got sick, he'd say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?"... In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.... But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did. If the master got sick, they'd pray that the master died."

In March 1964, Lenny Bruce's famous stand up routine ended with "I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school."

Published in 1964, "Nigger" is the autobiography of the comedian Dick Gregory, detailing his struggles growing up a black man in America, his rise to fame and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Dick Gregory wrote "Dear Momma- Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word "nigger" again, remember, they are advertising my book."

In October 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson reminded his New Orleans dinner crowd that he would enforce the new civil rights law. LBJ spoke of the words of an old and ailing U.S. senator from Texas, : "Poor old state, they haven't heard a real Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra."

In 1972, at National Policy Conference on Education for Blacks, Preston Wilcox, President of AFRAM Associates, Inc. , stateted " the field nigger / house nigger syndrome has been perpetuated within the Black community through the patterns of public education to which Black people have been exposed. The house niggers have tended to be educated to become the System; the field niggers were educated to fit into it by the “educated” house niggers and their white counterparts. The former group — the house niggers — were educated to believe in white domination, “the talented tenth” mentality. The latter group utilized white-dominated education to seek opportunities for quality education."

The first institutions organized by Americans of African descent were designated "African," viz., The Free African Society," "the African Methodist Episcopal Church," "The African Baptist Church." When the American Colonization Society was organized to send freed slaves "back" to Africa, the community abandoned the word African in favor of the words "coloured" and/or "free persons of colour." In 1835, the fifth annual convention of the colored people of America passed a resolution which recommended "as far as possible, to our people to ... remove the title of African from their institutions..."

The term "colored" remained the dominant word in the colored community for the the nineteenth century. There were, to be sure, dissents. Frederick Douglass, the leading colored public figure, used the word "Negro" occasionally. In the 1800's, the term "colored" began gaining popularity, as it was viewed as more inclusive of mixed-race as well as full African heritage people.

The 1890 census, famously, provided four ethnic labels: black, mulatto, quadroon and octoroon, depending upon the degree of white blood in their ancestry. [tens of millions of "white" Americans have African ancestors]. The 1890 Census instructions distinguished between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word "black" was used to describe those persons who hade three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who had three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who hade one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who had one-eighth or any trace of black blood. Regarding the results of this last inquiry, the Eleventh Census said: "These figures are of little value. Indeed, as an indication of the extent to which the races have mingled, they are misleading."

For a brief time, the term "Negro" was a term of militancy, self-consciously used by men defiantly asserting their pride of race. Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first black man to serve a full term in the US Senate, refused to use the word "colored," saying: "I am a Negro, and proud of my race." Men like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington used the word "Negro" freely. The movement for adoption of the word "Negro" was given strong impetus by militants like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. That the dislike and avoidance of the word "negro" among members of the African race was disappearing by around 1900 seemed to be implied by usage as indicated in the title of such books as W.E.B. Du Bois's "The Philadelphia Negro," and Booker T. Washington's "The Future of the American Negro."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909. But in the 20th century, many black Americans shifted from colored to Negro. There was an aggressive campaign for capitalization of the word "Negro" led by the NAACP. In 1930 the New York Times announced that it would print the word "Negro" with a capital letter. Adam Clayton Powell continued to use the word "black," and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad continued to speak of "so-called Negroes."

In 1967, Ossie Davis, the playwright-actor, wrote "White folks have money. I do not. White folks have power. I do not. All of my needs -- financial, artistic, social my need for freedom -- I must depend on white folks to supply. That is what is meant by being a Negro. Malcolm X used to be a Negro, but he stopped. He no longer depended on white folks to supply his needs... "

In the late 1960s the Black Power movement successfully replaced the term "Negro" with the term "black". For Black Power advocates, the word "black" was reserved for "black brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves," and the word "Negro" was used contemptuously for Negroes "who are still in Whitey's bag and who still think of themselves and speak of themselves as Negroes."

At a news conference on 21 December 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson announced that members of their race preferred to be called "african Americans" rather than "black". Jackson said the name “African-American” had “cultural integrity” and would put black people in America in their “proper historical context”. Jackson pointed out “Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base... There are Armenian-Americans and Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans and Italian-Americans.”

Some older blacks who had lived through previous name changes resisting the latest change. Some said they didd not identify with Africa, and resented prominent blacks telling them what to be called. Others feared that the debate over a new name drew attention away from problems like unemployment and drug abuse.


The term "Negro" is retained in some places to refer to the racial group now known as African Americans. "Negro" was the most widely used term in scholarly and journalistic publications in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It appears to have been a neutral word, used objectively by speakers and writers of all races. The word adds historical authenticity to research on this time period; conversely, terms such as "black" or "African American," while logically appropriate, would be less authentic in this context. If some find it jarring, that is as it should be.

The distinguished African American historian John Hope Franklin wrote of this chronological dilemma in his preface to the Seventh Edition (1994) to his book From Slavery to Freedom. He noted that during the lifetime of the book, originally published in 1947, the racial group in question had three different preferred names and pointed out that the terms could be expected to change in the future. Cautioning that "we must take care not to impose recent designations on persons of an earlier period," he explained that he "made every attempt to use terms that seem consonant with the period under question."





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Page last modified: 11-09-2017 16:25:19 ZULU