I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. . — Abraham Lincoln, 1858
The white man was wrong, I was not a primitive, not even a half-man. I belonged to a race that had already been working in gold and silver two thousand years ago. — Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952
The failure of the Negro race, as a race, to achieve equality cannot be blamed wholly on white oppression. This is the excuse, the crutch, the piteous and finally pathetic defense of Negrophiles unable or willing to face reality. In other times and other places, sturdy, creative, and self-reliant minorities have carved out their own destiny; they have compelled acceptance on their own merit; they have demonstrated those qualities of leadership and resourcefulness and disciplined ambition that in the end cannot ever be denied. But the Negro race, as a race, has done none of this. — James J. Kilpatrick, 1962
FAILURE OF NERVE
W.E.B. Du Bois wasn’t exactly prophetic when he famously observed that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the “Color Line.” It was 1903, after all, and the color line had been a growing problem ever since whites first confronted Native Americans centuries earlier. But Du Bois was indisputably accurate. Few were as aware of history’s long reach as he, and perhaps even fewer felt the sting of the past as acutely. By the time of his writing, the Native American threat to white dominance had been emphatically eliminated, leaving only blacks between the conquerors of the New World and the bountiful destiny they envisioned.
The slaves’ many talents — contributed under threat of death — had once made African Americans crucial to white ambitions in North America. Even then, the white ruling class imagined a day when their captives’ services would no longer be required. George Washington expressed a typical desire in a 1778 letter to his plantation manager. “To be plain,” he wrote, “I wish to get quit of Negroes.” Presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln took Washington’s wish a step further, entertaining fantasies of large-scale black exportation that ultimately went nowhere. In contrast, taking steps to ensure that the blacks in their midst would not become citizens of the Republic proved much easier. Early on, the Founding Fathers removed us from the Declaration of Independence, an act Ralph Ellison called a “failure of nerve.” The Founders committed “the sin of American racial pride,” Ellison wrote. “They designated one section of the American people to be the sacrificial victims for the benefit of the rest . . . Indeed, they [blacks] were thrust beneath the threshold of social hierarchy and expected to stay there.” How whites from all levels of society worked to keep us there — through a combination of custom, law, myth, and racial insult — is the subject of this book.
Reflecting on this potent, destructive blend in 1903, Du Bois condemned whites’ “personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil.” Nearly four decades after his “Color Line” comment, Du Bois attributed the still-yawning divide between whites and blacks to that same white hostility, a virulent contempt that “depended not simply on economic exploitation but on a racial folklore grounded on centuries of instinct, habit and thought and implemented by the conditioned reflex of visible color.” The N Word looks closely at that folklore tracing its path as it sustained the entwined ideas of white supremacy and black inferiority, supplemented the nation’s ever-growing popular culture, and influenced the scope and direction of its legal system. It explores in depth various categories of literature, science, music, theater, and film, the legislative policies and judicial decisions designed to keep blacks in their place, and the language of racial insult that runs like an electric current through them all.
A WAR OF WORDS
The decision to exclude blacks from the Declaration enabled race to emerge as “a new principle or motive in the drama of American democracy,” Ellison persuasively observed. Race, in his view, “was to radiate a qualifying influence upon all of the nation’s principles and become the source of a war of words that has continued to this day.” The battle of wills, initially between planters and their human property, has gradually and painfully evolved into an increasingly harmonious albeit fitful coexistence between white aand black Americans. At no time has it been a one-sided conflict: The N Word also takes note of the acts of defiance that I and many others regard as a form of counternarrative challenging the majority culture’s myth of conquest and superiority. That myth, in effect, attempts to erase the real history of blacks in America and replace it with a fictional tale of futility and mediocrity. Blacks who have actively campaigned against the majority narrative have been, as it were, writing themselves into existence.
Although the fusillades traded over the years have diminished considerably, language continues to convey formidable and occasionally savage force. For much of the history of our fair Republic, the N word has been at the center of our most volatile exchanges. Because no discussion of American race relations — and no consideration of white supremacy — can be complete without it, “nigger” appears early and often in these pages.
If it is true, as Henry Demarest Lloyd has noted, that “history is condensed in the catchwords of the people,” then “nigger” properly belongs in the company of such all-American terms as liberty, freedom, justice, and equality. As Randall Kennedy and others have shown, the N word is certain to provoke strong reactions whenever it is encountered. Its remarkable durability, coupled with Americans’ historical willingness to find uses for this epithet in nearly every facet of their everyday lives — from the geographical to the philosophical to the culinary — may also illustrate the extent to which racial unease continues to permeate our culture.
As part of my examination, I will heed Ellison’s observation that black American consciousness does not reflect a will to historical forgetfulness but derives instead from our memory, “sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting.” If Ellison is right, how does our attitude toward past wrongs and struggles affect our conduct in the ever- changing present? I will also attempt to show that the word “nigger” serves primarily — even in its contemporary “friendlier” usage — as a linguistic extension of white supremacy, the most potent part of a language of oppression that has changed over time from overt to coded. While “jigaboo,” “coon,” “pickaninny,” and “buck” have been largely replaced by such ostensibly innocuous terms as “inner-city,” “urban,” and “culturally disadvantaged,” “nigger” endures, helping to perpetuate and reinforce the durable, insidious taint of presumed African-American inferiority. Within this context, The N Word also discusses blacks’ adoption of the epithet to describe themselves, an increasingly...