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Sharon McCoy <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 14 Jan 2011 18:44:10 -0800
text/plain (159 lines)
Ben, I'll take mine with garlic, thanks.

The racial language and terminology issue is historically fascinating.  Almost 
all the racial terms that are embraced in one era were vilified or considered 
offensive in another.  One of the reasons for the power of "nigger" as a word is 
that it has maintained its offense for at least 200 years.

In a play by a white author from Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century (I 
can look up the title if anyone is interested), the word is clearly used and 
accepted by the characters as "fightin' words."  No explanation is seen as 
necessary, and the word is the only provocation for a fight.

But then the minstrel shows came along, and they were called "nigger shows" when 
the blackface actors were white.  References in the shows and in advertising to 
African American blackface actors always refers to them as "colored," and many 
African American blackface performers billed themselves as "genuine colored" 
performers.  Then later there were the "Coon shouters" (white women singing 
songs by African American composers, usually in dialect), and the general use of 
"coon" to refer to African Americans, which seems to have been seen as fairly 
benign during part of the late nineteenth century, but quickly became horrific 
as the age of lynching progressed.

(Note:  I've students today who try to explain to me that they're not really 
saying what I think they are, that the "new" word they're using is actually 
"nigga," which is somehow not insulting, is totally new, I'm assured, and 
completely different.  They are shocked when I pull out a white blackface 
minstrel songsheet from the 1870s that uses "nigga" prominently in the title.)

And partly because of the minstrel shows, there were efforts to claim the word 
as somehow empowering, or at least dangerous.  I found one song 
sheet--hand-written in about 1870--and so far as I can tell, it was performed 
but never published.  It's called "Never Give a Nigger a Gun."  The song 
essentially says:  We fought in your war, you armed us.  You want the gun back?  
Come and get it.

There was also some effort in the nineteenth century to use "Afro American" but 
there were strong objections from many who found the term inaccurate, as I 
recall, and also felt that it was tainted by the "back to Africa" sorts of 
movements, insinuating that "colored" Americans were somehow not fully American 
and should "go back where they belong," even though they had been in America for 
more generations than many of the people spouting the arguments (again, I'd need 
to look back in my notes for the precise nature of the objections).

And around the turn of the century, according to renowned blues singer and 
composer Alberta Hunter (also the creator of the dance the "Black Bottom" in the 
'20s, the word "black" itself was fighting words in 1903.  In describing a 
mortician who worked in her Beale Street neighborhood as a child, she says, "He 
was a tall black man.  If you called him black in those days, you'd have your 
head cut off.  We used to resent that.  We didn't want people to call us 

Throughout the twentieth century, there have also been many shifts back and 
forth:  "black," "colored," "Negro," etc. all were empowering or respectful at 
various times and demeaning at others.  A note, though--so far as I have been 
able to learn, the nineteenth century term "darky" (which Mary Mapes Dodge put 
in _Tom Sawyer Abroad_, raising Twain's ire) was only thought to be polite by 
white people.  It was, so far as I can tell, always seen as demeaning by African 

The problem is that so long as racism remains, so long as the racial 
classifications are not ones of cultural appreciation, any term becomes tainted 
eventually.  When people mean "the n-word" inside, no matter what term they use 
aloud, eventually the term carries the same pain.  William Dean Howells's 
introduction to Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Lyrics of Lowly Life" is a strong and 
excruciatingly painful example of this.  Dunbar's stylistic response to 
Howells's underlying racism is brilliant, but the introduction is dreadful to 
read now.  

To me, this is part of what Twain reminds us of so painfully 219 times in 
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.  And when students are hurt by reading it in a 
classroom, it isn't the racism of another era that bothers them.  It is the pain 
of what the word means individually, now.  And the fear of what it might mean to 
the people all around you. 


----- Original Message ----
From: "[log in to unmask]" <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: Fri, January 14, 2011 6:17:45 PM
Subject: Culinary equivalent?

I'm thinking of replacing the garlic in my Italian dishes with sugar, so at 
least some people who object to garlic will have an opportunity to taste real 
Italian cooking. 

Got the idea from a recent new edition of Huck Finn. 

Ben Wise 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: [log in to unmask] 
To: [log in to unmask] 
Sent: Friday, January 14, 2011 12:36:59 PM 
Subject: Re: Thank you 

And thank you so much for that link, Jerry (also forwarded to me by a friend who 
saw your post before I did!). It brought up a point about racist terminology 
that's been sleeping under the more accessible issue of the "n-" word, namely, 
the equally - indeed more reprehensible and stealthy "N-" word (which I remember 
using, with some unexpressed discomfort, all during my activist days in the 50s 
and 60s). Chabon's nine-year-old daughter is right on the money. Don't know what 
she was thinking, but my take, as a 74-year old, is that "Negro" is even more 
offensive since it gives social acceptability and pseudoscientific vocabulary to 
a profoundly racist concept, and was adopted, hook, line and sinker, by the 
victimized themselves since it seemed to be the only respectable term available. 
That is, until they discovered that Black is Beautiful and has power. I remember 
that moment, and it was glorious! RIP Stokely, et al. 

Let's never forget that "race" is a social construction and its meaning is in 
the mind of the beholder. Terminology is a powerful way to establish a concept, 
whether there is any validity to it or not. 

Ben Wise 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Jerry Bandy" <[log in to unmask]> 
To: [log in to unmask] 
Sent: Thursday, January 13, 2011 10:42:06 PM 
Subject: Thank you 

In the 14 years since I completed an undergrad course on Twain, I've 
been a steadfast lurker on this list. Only now am I finally compelled to 
post, even if it is only to post a link to yet another response to the 
Huck Finn brouhaha. 

Michael Chabon's response in the Atlantic,

affected me more directly than most other opinions I've read on the 
subject so far. Like Chabon, I am also a father of two young children 
with a hearty appetite for books. As in Chabon's anecdote, I know that 
some day in the ever-nearing future I'll be faced with a similar 
conflict of how to navigate the n-word and of how to steer my children 
into the correct contextual current. I know when that moment arrives I 
will appreciate, even more than I do now, the voices on this list. 

So in advance, I want to thank you all for your tireless, entertaining, 
and informative devotion to Twain scholarship.