A brief history of the world’s greatest taboo.
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? A brief history of the world’s greatest taboo.
Nigger. There it is in print. Those six letters, arranged in vulgar order and spoken in our minds as we would not dare to speak them from our mouths, have brought us into the etymological valley of the shadow of death. We stand as tourists before this word, neck deep in the darkness of its history, choking on the stench of its legacy, so that we might understand it a bit better, the last great taboo in the English language. Even if it is rarely spoken now, it still wields terrible power.
We tread a well-worn path. Many a critical eye has been cast on this word for over a century. Most recently and bombastically, it has become the property of rap artists, who employ it in the most nuanced of ways, like Nas’ untitled album – which he wanted to simply call Nigger. It is difficult to remain un-piqued by such a provocative term, and at times it seems that there are few people in the public sphere who have not added their two cents to the ongoing debate over its use. But that’s not where this is going. No, we are going to reach back, behind the word and before the word to examine its history, its complicated connotations, and the libraries of racist discourse upon which it is based.
So let’s start with its power. Power, wrote Michel Foucault, our Virgil for this little journey, is “exercised rather than possessed”. Although it requires a medium, its existence is metaphysical; it exists everywhere, and pervades everything.
“It is not the ‘privilege,’ acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions, an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated. Furthermore, this power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them; it exerts pressure on them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them.”
Language is power. It is a manifestation of knowledge, and knowledge cannot be separated from the P-word. That’s Foucault again. Scary isn’t he? Words can never harm you, they say, but what about the concepts behind them? Nigger, the word, is just six letters derived from Latin for the color black that has only lived as a slur for two hundred years. But Nigger the concept; now, that’s a weapon of mass destruction, the shorthand for a field of knowledge that, for over 500 years, across every continent, has dedicated itself to the elevation of the light skinned and the denigration of the dark skinned. It is the crudest, but in some ways most honest example of what used to be called ‘race theory’, but what we now might call ‘scientific racism’ in what should be a more enlightened, liberal age.
Race is a figment of the modern imagination. In Antiquity, as Nell Irvin Painter tells us in The History of White People, mankind believed in Celts, Saxons, Visigoths, Gauls, Scythians, Circassians and many others, but did not believe in Whites, Blacks, Arabs, Latinos or Asians. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, when the European powers began mixing science and empire, that they ‘discovered’ the supremacy of light skin and inferiority of dark. This union brought race into the world, constructed it, you might say, like Shelley’s monsters, from euro-centric assumptions and theories based on flawed experiments and corrupt hypotheses.
Inequality and oppression needed a rationale and it found it in race. “Innate qualities (related to race) are needed to prove the justice – the naturalness and inalterability – of the status quo,” writes Painter. “Again and again, racial hierarchies set the poor and powerless at the bottom and the rich and powerful at the top.”
White was deemed beautiful in the Eighteenth Century by Johann Joachim Winckelman, the father of European art history, and a guy with a fetish for the Mediterranean facial features of white marble Roman sculptures. Black, meanwhile, became the natural antithesis of beauty. White was given a scientific name and a historical lineage in 1795 when another Johann (Friedrich Blumenbach) called it ‘Caucasian’. Black was denominated ‘Negro’ (literally: black), unworthy of either history or lineage. White was made superior by the Eighteenth Century anthropologists who collected human skulls and made charts comparing facial angles and features, with African skulls placed on one side, near the monkeys, and European skulls safely on the other.
Manichaeism. That’s what the scholars call this. White and Black, Good and Bad, Master and Slave: a relationship that sets one thing as the opposite and antagonist of the other.
The Manichaeism of race was not simply established, it was etched into the very framework of history by people who should have known better: Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Morton Stanley… and those are just the names you might recognise. Beneath them lurks a dark legion of learned men with crisp suits and white beards whose studies, measurements, theories, stories, fictions, and human taxonomies created and maintained that perverse archive of knowledge-power which formed the basis for a machine of oppression that was and continues to be one of the widest ranging and most systematic in human history. Millions upon millions of dark-skinned people murdered, enslaved, and tortured to death and all of it done in good conscious, based on solid facts. From the genocide of Aborigines in Australia to South African Apartheid, to the slave ports of Lisbon and Liverpool, The Middle Passage, the mines of Minas Gerais, the Three Fifths compromise – the rationalisation, indeed, the empirical necessity, for all of it is printed neatly inside tome after dusty tome sitting quietly in the archives of the world’s libraries: hundreds of thousands of pages that define the Nigger.
Harry Truman used that word. So did Lyndon B. Johnson. Richard Nixon used it as well as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. It was sung in songs, and included in nursery rhymes, most famously as the thing you were supposed to catch by its toe in ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo’. Though not considered polite, it remained an ‘acceptable’ insult among white people till well into the Twentieth Century and became the calling card of Jim Crow in the Southern United States. In fact, it spent much longer as an acceptable insult than it has as a taboo.
But remember your Foucault; power is ambivalent, and can be co-opted by those who it oppresses. “The power of the N-word comes not only from it’s historical usage but from Black folk reclaiming the word and trying to divest it of its racialised power and reinvest it with Black vernacular power,” says James Braxton Peterson, the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. “The premise that you would use language directed against you and turn it around and use it for yourself is a very powerful and subversive tool.”
Peterson advocates the free use of the word in private conversations among black people, but insists that it needs to be addressed with caution in the public sphere. “The way Black folks use the N-word in our own private speech communities, it is very easily divorced from its negative past. But once it enters the public sphere – once you tell a joke or record it onto a rap record – you can’t fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t attach itself to its white supremacist history,” he says. “The kind of power we are talking about is like nuclear power. It needs to be managed very closely because, when unleashed, it can be very detrimental to the public.”
He cites the chorus from the song ‘Audubon Ballroom’ by the rapper Lupe Fiasco:
‘Now White people, you can’t say nigga
sorry gotta take it back
now Black people, we’re not niggas
cuz God made us better than that.’
Note that Fiasco insists both in reclaiming the word in his vernacular while simultaneously claiming that it’s not an apt description. It’s this ambiguity, writes Randall Kennedy in his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and the willingness to embrace it that makes artists like Fiasco so attractive.
“(Their) attitude (is) effectively expressed by the remark, ‘I don’t give a fuck,’” he writes. “They don’t care whether whites find nigger upsetting. They don’t care whether whites are confused by blacks’ use of the term. And they don’t care whether whites who hear blacks using the N-word think that African Americans lack self-respect. The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy nigger care principally, perhaps exclusively, about what they themselves think, desire, and enjoy… They eschew boring conventions, including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can only mean one thing.”
‘When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises?’ writes Jean Paul Sartre in his essay, Black Orpheus. ‘Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the shock of being seen.’
Sartre, of course, wasn’t talking about rappers, but the Black, French Colonial poets – men like Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, Léopold and Sédar Senghor – who made up the Negritude movement in the 1930s. The black poet, he said, was the only true revolutionary poet of the age, because ‘he must oblige those who have vainly tried throughout the centuries to reduce him to the status of a beast, to recognise him as a man… Thus he has his back up against the wall of authenticity: having been insulted and formerly enslaved, he picks up the word ‘nigger’ which was thrown at him like a stone, he draws himself erect and proudly proclaims himself a black man, face to face with white men.’
Césaire, Senghor and the rest had their own word to reclaim, the French ‘negre’. How successful they were is a matter of debate, but Sartre’s definition of the person of letters, the Black revolutionary (nearly one and the same), remains with us in modern day rappers, poets, writers, and black artists of every persuasion. He calls them ‘Orphic’ after the Greek legend of Orpheus who descended into Hades to search for his lover Eurydice. In a similar way, according to Sartre, black artists must descend into themselves, armed only with the words that oppression has foisted on them in an unending search to re-define blackness: ‘Since the oppressor is present in the very language that they speak, they will speak this language in order to destroy it.’
Of course, no one is arguing that Soulja Boy or Waka Flocka Flame are speaking truth to power. Peterson, among others, critiques the casual, sometimes ugly use of the N-word by rap artists or comedians. The important thing, he says, is recognising who is using the N-word in a productive way, and not lumping them in with the rest. “When Nas wanted to release an album with the N-word as the title, he was censored by people in the black community. People also complained about Randall Kennedy’s book that used the same title. The fundamental problem with censorship is that by the time it catches up with what is happening it ends up censoring those texts and those people that actually provide us with the complex critiques (of the N-word) we need.”
Kennedy’s book doesn’t address his personal feelings on non-blacks using the N-word but Peterson says he would prefer them to avoid it out of a certain respect for history and for the ongoing struggle of the black community in dealing with it. “It was used so systematically, so overtly for so long throughout history, it’s important to understand how, when black folks use it, they were and still are engaged in very complex socio-linguistic process of reclamation,” he says. “And I don’t see an end-game for this process. I don’t see a ‘post-race’ America happening in our lifetime, nor do I think that should be the goal. I think the goal is an equitable celebration of various cultures: cultural competency. We are not going to be living in a colour-blind, post-race world; it’s going to be a multiracial world.”
That brings us back to power: to a world where the myth of ‘whiteness’ is weakening; where Asia is ascending; where the president of the US is half black; but where black men still fill America’s jails; where black children still starve in Somalia and live on the streets of Rio De Janeiro; where Africa is a synonym for poverty. This is a world where nigger the word no longer readily spews from mouths, but nigger the concept still lurks in the dark corners of minds.
Power develops, adapts, reorganises, evolves. The type that oppresses has learned that if it wants to survive it must launder itself, put on a suit, clean up its language and mold neatly to the arbitrary demands of political correctness. Power does not know the word ‘slum’, only ‘informal city’; it has never ‘invaded’, only ‘occupied’. If the citizen of Peterson’s multiracial world has but one responsibility with regards to nigger it is to recognise when it is being invoked by those who would use it to do harm, even when they do not utter a sound.
 Foucault’s term, not mine.