Nigger…The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word…


Over the past two weeks, social media and pop culture has been set ablaze by the allegations of one of America’s household doyennes, Paula Deen, being a racist and usage of the “N” word. Although many opinions were openly exchanged amongst peers, I was motivated to review a book I was exposed to a short while ago entitled “Nigger..The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” written by Randall Kennedy.  As if the title alone was not intriguing enough, I was stunned to discover the basic thesis of the book highlighted some of the same questions that I had. How should the word nigger be defined? Is the word nigger more hurtful than other racial epithets? Do blacks have a right to use nigger even if others do not?  Should the law view nigger baiting as a provocation strong enough to reduce the culpability of a person who responds violently to it? Should a person be fired from his or her job for saying nigger?  In a series of three separate entries, we will take the time to individually explore each of these questions. As Randall brilliantly state, “To be ignorant of the meaning and effects of the word, is to render oneself vulnerable to all manner of peril.”


So How should the word be defined? We all chuckled in Latin 101 when we learned the word for black was Niger, so we’re pretty much aware the original meaning of the word was not an insult but took on a derogatory tone over time.  Randall Kennedy highlights one of the first recorded uses of the word in American society was a journal recording by John Rolfe in 1689 in which he listed an African shipment to Virginia as “negars.”  Fast-forward to the first part of the early 19th century. We can all agree the term “nigger” had become a common and influential insult towards African-Americans. We can find jokes such as Q. What did God say when he made the first nigger?  A. “Oh, shit!  Q. What do niggers and sperm have in common?  A. Only two in a million works!  Kennedy additionally quotes a public statement made by Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina. “Reacting to the news that Booker T. Washington had dined at the White House, Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina predicted  the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”  I understand many of my peers will argue there’s a difference between the word nigger and nigga; and most definitely a difference between who uses the word with whom, but once again, in this segment, we are only discussing how the word is universally defined.


The term “nigger lover” has arguably become one of the most derogatory slurs affixed to non-blacks who are friendly and sympathetic to African Americans and their causes. The term nigger has become one of the best known racial insults of the American language. “It is the epithet that generates epithets.”  Which is why Arabs are called sand niggers, Irish the niggers of Europe and Palestinians the niggers of the Middle East. The writer Andre Hacker has asserted that among slurs of any sort, nigger “stands alone in its power to tear at one’s insides.”  Judge Stephen Reinhardt deems nigger “the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American Lexicon” and prosecutor Christopher Darden branded nigger “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”  So in summarizing the research, we are only led to conclude that the universal definition of the word nigger, regardless of form, relationship or context, can only be interpreted as deplorable, offensive and most disrespectful.  There is nothing admirable, honorable or respectful surrounding the definition of the word. In fact, perhaps only the lowest dwellers of society would even attempt to embrace the word.


I want to leave you with a snippet of a story published by Richard Wright that’s highlighted in Kennedy’s book.  “Richard Wright worked as a menial worker in a clothing store where Wright saw his boss & son drag and kick a Negro woman into the store:

Later the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying and holding her stomach…When Wright went to the rear of the store, the boss and his son were washing their hands in the sink. They were chuckling. The floor was bloody and strewn with wisps of hair and clothing. As Wright looked shocked, the boss slapped him reassuringly on the back and said, Boy that’s what we do to niggers when they don’t want to pay their bills.”


Article written by DeoVonte “Deo” Means, all quotes and references are courtesy of Randall Kennedy “Nigger The Strange Career of a Troublesom Word” Pantheon Books 2002


One thought on “Nigger…The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word…

  1. Pingback: The Hypocrisy of the NFL’s N-Word Ban | The Domino Theory by Jeff Winbush

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