"nigger" is a key term in American culture. It is a
profoundly hurtful racial slur meant to stigmatize African
Americans; on occasion, it also has been used against
members of other racial or ethnic groups, including Chinese,
other Asians, East Indians, Arabs and darker-skinned people.
It has been an important feature of many of the worst
episodes of bigotry in American history. It has accompanied
innumerable lynchings, beatings, acts of arson, and other
racially motivated attacks upon blacks. It has also been
featured in countless jokes and cartoons that both reflect
and encourage the disparagement of blacks. It is the
signature phrase of racial prejudice.
To understand fully, however, the depths and intensities, quirks and
complexities of American race relations, it is necessary to know in detail
the many ways in which racist bigotry has manifested itself, been appealed
to, and been resisted. The term "nigger" is in most contexts, a cultural
obscenity. But, so, too are the opinions of the United States Supreme Court
in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled that African Americans were
permanently ineligible for federal citizenship, and Plessy v. Ferguson,
which ruled that state-mandated, "equal but separate" racial segregation
entailed no violation of the federal constitution. These decisions embodied
racial insult and oppression as national policy and are, for many, painful
to read. But teachers rightly assign these opinions to hundreds of thousands
of students, from elementary grades to professional schools, because,
tragically, they are part of the American cultural inheritance. Cultural
literacy requires detailed knowledge about the oppression of racial
minorities. A clear understanding of "nigger" is part of this knowledge. To
paper over that term or to constantly obscure it by euphemism is to flinch
from coming to grips with racial prejudice that continues to haunt the
American social landscape.
Leading etymologists believe that "nigger" was derived from an English
word "neger" that was itself derived from "Negro", the Spanish word for
black. Precisely when the term became a slur is unknown. We do know,
however, that by early in the 19th century "nigger" had already
become a familiar insult. In 1837, in The Condition of the Colored People
of the United States; and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them, Hosea
Easton observed that "nigger" "is an opprobrious term, employed to impose
contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race…The term itself would be
perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another;
but it is not used with that intent…it flows from the fountain of purpose to
The term has been put to other uses. Some blacks, for instance, use
"nigger" among themselves as a term of endearment. But that is typically
done with a sense of irony that is predicated upon an understanding of the
term’s racist origins and a close relationship with the person to whom the
term is uttered. As Clarence Major observed in his Dictionary of
Afro-American Slang (1970), "used by black people among themselves, [nigger]
is a racial term with undertones of warmth and goodwill – reflecting…a
tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history." Many blacks object,
however, to using the term even in that context for fear that such usage
will be misunderstood and imitated by persons insufficiently attuned to the
volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.
Some observers object even to reproducing historical artifacts, such as
books or cartoons, that contain the term "nigger." This total, unbending
objection to printing the word under any circumstance is by no means new.
Writing in 1940 in his memoir The Big Sea, Langston Hughes remarked
that "[t]he word nigger to colored people is like a red rag to a bull. Used
rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of
realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter. Negroes do
not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so
sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though
the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word
nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of
insult and struggle in America."
Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a
context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood.
It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see
for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the
ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of
American democracy and those that mirror America’s most depressing failings.
For these reasons, I have advised the management of HarpWeek to present
the offensive text, cartoons, caricatures and illustrations from the pages
of Harper's Weekly, as well as other politically sensitive
nineteenth-century material, as they appeared in their historical context.
This same advice holds for slurs relating to Irish, Chinese, Germans, Native
Americans, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and other ethnic and religious groups.