ESSAY: The ‘N’ Word
Here in America, we typically celebrate national heroes by noting the day of their birth… sometimes with a federal holiday… or at least a “President’s Day Sale,” or some such commercial marketing opportunity.
In addition to a three-day weekend for most of us, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has always been a great chance to get cold-weather gear and apparel at deep discounts, as retailers are desperate to blow out winter stock before spring takes over their shelves…
— Forbes Magazine, January 13, 2018
We don’t, on the other hand, often celebrate the day a national hero died — which in the case of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was April 4, 1968. Celebrating an assassination is not something compassionate Americans would countenance, no matter what their political leanings.
With that in mind, I am celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. by writing briefly about the strange, often sordid history of the United States of America — something Rev. King eloquently urged us to understand, and then put behind us, in a quest for real freedom and equality for all U.S. citizens.
This essay has been knocking around in my head for several months, and today might be the right time to let it flow out to the reading public, for their (hopefully unprejudiced) consideration. The ideas began disturbing my mind last summer when Daily Post contributor Cynda Green was composing an article about Thingamajig Theatre Company’s second show of their summer season: the award-winning musical Big River, which first opened on Broadway in 1983. (You can read her full article here.)
The music for Big River was written by noted songwriter Roger Miller, and the script was written by William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
From Ms. Green’s article:
Hauptman strived to remain true to the language of Twain’s novel, and so included selective racist language, including the N-word.
However, Hauptman re-examined that language in 2010 after he saw an excellent revival of ‘Big River’.
“I felt that Twain’s lesson has now been learned so thoroughly that even my selective use of the word seems excessive. It would not do to eliminate the (N-word) entirely – I have to be true to the world of Twain’s novel or we can’t have Huck’s conversion – so I’m suggesting that half the uses of the word be eliminated or altered.” Hauptman’s suggested revision of his original [script] is reflected in Thingamajig’s ‘Big River’ production.
As Ms. Green and I discussed her pending theatre article, it became apparent that she was not going to be able to actually write the word, “nigger,” even though much of her story centered on how Thingamajig Theatre had approached the use of that controversial noun in their Big River production last summer. Instead, she carefully stuck to an alternate phrasing:
My hat is off to Mark Twain for his willingness to address the issue of slavery in his 1884 novel — twenty short years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the conclusion of the American Civil War, and at a time when ‘racism’ was not yet a word. (The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded utterance of the word racism was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902.) The word, “nigger,” however, was alive and well in 1884, and Twain used it over 200 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (You can download a copy of Twain’s book as a PDF file, here.)
In the American South, the word was typically pronounced “nigra.”
The English use of the word, ‘niger’ (spelled with one ‘g’) derives from niger, the Latin word for “black”… and first appeared in English documents in the late 1500s. By 1800, it was commonly used in a derogatory sense, rather than simply as a reference to a person’s racial identity. But the word took on a particular meaning in the U.S., due of the African slave trade that thrived between the late 1600s and 1808… when the federal government made it illegal to import slaves into the U.S. (Slaves could still be bought and sold within the U.S. until 1865.)
The nations of Africa had engaged in slavery and slave trading since Biblical times, but it was only after African slaves arrived in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 that an African slave trade began to blossom in the English colonies. By the late 1600s, Britain’s merchant fleet had become the world’s leading slave traders, and one out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbor was a slave trading ship.
By 1700, slaves were in high demand in the American South, and by 1860 as many as 4 million ‘nigras’ were working the nation’s cotton, sugar, rice and corn plantations — in many cases, under inhumane conditions.
My point in relating this (perhaps familiar) history is to highlight a lingering situation in the United States of America — a situation that Rev. King dedicated his life to resolving, through any non-violent means available.
Historically, slave trading has taken place nearly everywhere on the planet — among numerous tribal groups and nations, from coastal Alaska to the Peruvian Andes to ancient Rome to Southeast Asia. But typically, slaves came from the same “racial stock” as the slaveowners.
In America, the slaves that worked the cotton fields in the South derived from a distinct “racial group” — imported from a distant continent. In the English colonies (and also in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America) a person who was a “slave” was necessarily “a person of African descent.”
We did not have white slaves in the U.S. Our slaves were black. That is to say, the words “nigra” or “nigger” in the American South were synonymous with the word “slave.” The two words meant essentially the same thing… that the person so designated was not entitled to ordinary human respect, or to any civil rights.
Two hundred years after the last legal slave ships pulled into Mobile Bay, we continue to live in a culture that — all too often — treats African Americans as third-class citizens.
I came into adulthood shortly after the assassination of Rev. King… at a time in American history when we were coming to a nationwide agreement to stop using the word “nigger”… or even the word “Negro.” We would no longer to use the term, “colored.” The proper terms, in the late 1960s, were “Black” and “Afro-American” and “African American.” We would no longer use terms that were connected to the dismal experience of slavery.
In the 1960s, America began to create a new linguistic landscape that would allow us to move forward with respect for everyone, regardless of their family history.
How long will it take us to get there?