Racist Caricature of The Day Finale: The Nigger

Over the last week or so, I’ve been highlighting racial stereotypes of African-Americans. These horrible stereotypes, largely established during the time of slavery in the United States, have become rooted in popular culture and have seeped into the consciousness of Americans everywhere.  White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Gay, Heterosexual, Rich, Middle Class, Poor, Right Wing, Left Wing, Progressive, Libertarian, Young, Middle-aged, Elderly–these racial stereotypes have been absorbed to varying degrees in people of all backgrounds.  In the protests over the death of Michael Brown, you’ll find these stereotypes.  In the righteous furor over the death of Trayvon Martin, you’ll find these stereotypes.  In the media-music, television, movies, comics-you’ll find these stereotypes. The Coon. The Nat. The Jezebel. The Brute. The Sapphire. The Tragic Mulatto. The Picaninny.  The Mammy. The Golliwog. The Tom. And there’s one more.  The one that is perhaps the most well known:  The Nigger.

In 1939, Agatha Christie, the popular fiction writer, published a novel called Ten Little Niggers. Later editions sometimes changed the name to Ten Little Indians, or And Then There Were None, but as late as 1978, copies of the book with the original title were being produced into the 1980s. It was not rare for sheet music produced in the first half of the 20th century to use the word nigger on the cover. The Howley, Haviland Company of New York, produced sheet music for the songs “Hesitate Mr. Nigger, Hesitate,” and “You’se Just A Little Nigger, Still You’se Mine, All Mine.” The latter was billed as a children’s lullaby.

Some small towns used nigger in their names, for example, Nigger Run Fork, Virginia. Nigger was a common name for darkly colored pets, especially dogs, cats, and horses. So-called “Jolly Nigger Banks,” first made in the 1800s, were widely distributed as late as the 1960s. Another common item – with many variants, produced on posters, postcards, and prints – is a picture of a dozen black children rushing for a swimming hole. The captions read, “Last One In’s A Nigger.”

The racial hierarchy, which began during slavery and extended into the Jim Crow period, has been severely eroded by a civil rights movement, landmark Supreme Court decisions, a black empowerment movement, comprehensive civil rights legislation, and a general embracing of democratic principles by many American citizens. Yet, the word nigger has not died. The relationship between the word nigger and anti-black prejudice is symbiotic: that is, they are interrelated and interconnected, yet, ironically, not automatically interdependent. In other words, a racist society created nigger and continues to feed and sustain it; however, the word no longer needs racism, at least brutal and obvious forms, to exist.Nigger now has a life of its own.

One of the most interesting and perplexing phenomena in American speech is the use ofnigger by African Americans. When used by blacks, nigger refers to the following: all blacks (“A nigger can’t even get a break.”); black men (“Sisters want niggers to work all day long.”); blacks who behave in a stereotypical, and sometimes mythical, manner (“He’s a lazy, good-for-nothing nigger.”); things (“This piece-of-shit car is such a nigger.”); foes (“I’m sick and tired of those niggersbothering me!”); and friends (“Me and my niggers are tight.”).

This final usage, as a term of endearment, is especially problematic. “Sup Niggah,” has become an almost universal greeting among young urban blacks. When pressed, blacks who use nigger or its variants claim the following: it has to be understood contextually; continual use of the word by blacks will make it less offensive; it is not really the same word because whites are saying nigger (and niggers) but blacks are saying nigh (and niggaz); and, it is just a word and blacks should not be prisoners of the past or the ugly words which originated in the past. These arguments are not convincing. Brother (Brotha) and Sister (Sistha or Sista) are terms of endearment. Nigger was and remains a term of derision. Moreover, the false dichotomy between blacks or African Americans (respectable and middle-class) and niggers (disrespectable and lower class) should be opposed. No blacks areniggers, irrespective of behavior, income, ambition, clothing, ability, morals, or skin color. Finally, if continued use of the word lessened its sting then nigger would by now have no sting. Blacks, beginning in slavery, have internalized the negative images that white society cultivated and propagated about black skin and black people. This is reflected in periods of self- and same-race loathing. The use of the word nigger by blacks reflects this loathing, even when the user is unaware of the psychological forces at play. Nigger is the ultimate expression of white racism and white superiority no matter how it is pronounced. It is a linguistic corruption, a corruption of civility. Nigger is the most infamous word in American culture. Some words carry more weight than others. At the risk of hyperbole, is genocide just another word? Pedophilia? Obviously, no: neither is nigger.

After a period of relative dormancy, the word nigger has been reborn in popular culture. It is hard-edged, streetwise, and it has crossed over into movies like Pulp Fiction (Bender & Tarantino, 1994) and Jackie Brown (Bender & Tarantino, 1997), where it became a symbol of “street authenticity” and hipness. Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day (Newmyer, Silver & Fuqua, 2001) uses nigger frequently and harshly.

Richard Pryor long ago disavowed the use of the word in his comedy act, but Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, the new black male comedy kings, use nigger regularly – and not affectionately. Justin Driver (2001), a social critic, argued persuasively that both Rock and Tucker are modern minstrels – shucking, jiving, and grinning, in the tradition of Stepin Fetchit.

Poetry by African Americans is also instructive, as one finds nigger used in black poetry over and over again. Major and minor poets alike have used it, often with startling results: Imamu Amiri Baraka, one of the most gifted of our contemporary poets, uses nigger in one of his angriest poems, “I Don’t Love You.”

. . .and what was the world to the words of slick nigger fathers too depressed to explain why they could not appear to be men. (1969, p. 55)

One wonders: how are readers supposed to understand “nigger fathers”? Baraka’s use of this imagery, regardless of his intention, reinforces the stereotype of the worthless, hedonistic Coon caricature. Ted Joans’s use of nigger in “The Nice Colored Man” makes Baraka’s comparatively harmless and innocent. Joans tells the story about how he came to write this unusual piece. He was, he says, asked to give a reading in London because he was a “nice colored man.” Infuriated by the labels “nice” and “colored”, Joans set down the quintessential truculent poem. While the poem should be read in its entirety, a few lines will suffice:

. . .Smart Black Nigger Smart Black Nigger Smart Black Nigger Smart Black Nigger Knife Carrying Nigger Gun Toting Nigger Military Nigger Clock Watching Nigger Poisoning Nigger Disgusting Nigger Black Ass Nigger. . . (Henderson, 1972, pp. 223-225)

This is the poem, with adjective upon adjective attached to the word nigger. The shocking reality is that many of these uses can be heard in contemporary American society. Herein lies part of the problem: the word nigger persists because it is used over and over again, even by the people it defames. Devorah Major, a poet and novelist, said, “It’s hard for me to say what someone can or can’t say, because I work with language all the time, and I don’t want to be limited.” Opal Palmer Adisa, a poet and professor, claims that the use of nigger or nigga is “the same as young people’s obsession with cursing. A lot of their use of such language is an internalization of negativity about themselves” (Allen-Taylor, 1998).

Rap musicians, themselves poets, rap about niggers before mostly white audiences, some of whom see themselves as waggers (white niggers) and refer to one another as “my nigh.” Snoop Doggy Dogg, in his single, “You Thought,” raps, “Wanna grab a skinny nigha like Snoop Dogg/Cause you like it tall/and work it baby doll.” Tupac Shakur (1991), one of the most talented and popular rap musicians, had a song called “Crooked Ass Nigga.” The song’s lyrics included, “Now I could be a crooked nigga too/When I’m rollin’ with my crew/Watch what crooked niggers do/I got a nine millimeter Glock pistol/I’m ready to get with you at the tip of a whistle/So make your move and act like you wanna flip/I fired thirteen shots and popped another clip.” Rap lyrics which debase women and glamorize violence reinforce the historical Brute caricature

Erdman Palmore (1962) researched ethnophaulisms and made the following observations: the number of ethnophaulisms used correlates positively with the amount of out-group prejudice; and ethnophaulisms express and support negative stereotypes about the most visible racial and cultural differences.

White supremacists have found the Internet an indispensable tool for spreading their message of hate. An Internet search of niggerlocates many anti-black web pages: Niggers Must Die, Hang A Nigger For America, Nigger Joke Central, and literally thousands of others. Visitors to these sites know, like most blacks know experientially, thatnigger is an expression of anti-black antipathy. Is it surprising that nigger is the most commonly used racist slur during hate crimes?

No American minority group has been caricatured as often, in as many ways, as have blacks. These caricatures combined distorted physical descriptions and negative cultural and behavior stereotypes. The Coon caricature, for example, was a tall, skinny, loose-jointed, dark-skinned male, often bald, with oversized, ruby-red lips. His clothing was either ragged and dirty or outlandishly gaudy. His slow, exaggerated gait suggested laziness. He was a pauper, lacking ambition and the skills necessary for upward social mobility. He was a buffoon. When frightened, the Coon’s eyes bulged and darted. His speech was slurred, halted, and replete with malapropisms. His shrill, high-pitched voice made whites laugh. The Coon caricature dehumanized blacks, and served as a justification for social, economic, and political discrimination.

Nigger may be viewed as an umbrella term – a way of saying that blacks have the negative characteristics of the Coon, Buck, Tom, Mammy, Sambo, Picaninny, and other anti-black caricatures. Nigger, like the caricatures it encompasses and implies, belittles blacks, and rationalizes their mistreatment. The use of the word or its variants by blacks has not significantly lessened its sting. This is not surprising. The historical relationship between European Americans and African Americans was shaped by a racial hierarchy which spanned three centuries. Anti-black attitudes, values, and behavior were normative. Historically, nigger more than any word captured the personal antipathy and institutionalized racism directed toward blacks. It still does.

(The rest of this article by Doctors David Pilgrim and Phillip Middleton can be found here)

* * * *

I had originally thought that this series about racism in the US would end with the last of the caricatures. Turns out, not so much.  Keep an eye out for future posts (possibly not tomorrow, but within the next week for sure).

I’d like to thank Doctors David Pilgrim and Phillip Middleton of Ferris State University for all their hard word in researching the history of the offensive, racist caricatures.

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Racist Caricature of The Day Finale: The Nigger
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4 thoughts on “Racist Caricature of The Day Finale: The Nigger

  1. 1

    Thanks, Tony, for sharing this series.

    As a white southerner, I am very familiar with most of them (golliwog was new to me), but this one is the one that draws out the most visceral reaction of disgust from me.

    I can’t even imagine being on the recieving end of such a horrible word.

    Again, thanks. I learned a great deal from this series.

  2. 2

    Glad you were able to learn something from this series. I know I learned a lot. For all that I’ve lived in the South virtually all my life (born in NYC, moved to LA, then TX, then AL, and then FL), other than nigger, I’d not encountered any of these terms before. I learned a great deal myself.
    And yes, that visceral reaction is one I share.

  3. 3

    I grew up way out in the country in central Texas. Time moves very slowly out there. And I spent a lot of time around my Grandparents and their generation.

    Which is why I’m in the big city now. Still Texas, but shrug

  4. 4

    I lived in TX for a while myself, though it was as a child. Lived in San Antonio and El Paso. I don’t have any memories of anything in particular there and I’ve only been back once, back in 09 for a concert.

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