The N-word at the time of Huck Finn

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 13 01:56:22 UTC 2009

The most extensive concise source of "n-word" information is HDAS II, where
a fair number of the OED cites first appeared.

I also recommend Randall Kennedy's _Nigger: The Strange Career of a
Troublesome Word_ (N.Y.: Vintage, 2002).

Deductive theories about 19th C. racism aside, the following exx. make it
clear that many African Americans, at least, regarded the word as
being quite opprobrious:

1837 Rev. Hosea Easton _A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil
and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States: and the
Prejudice Exercised Towards Them_ (Boston: Isaac Knapp) 40: Negro or nigger,
is an approbrious [sic] term, employed to impose contempt upon them as an
inferior race....The term in itself, would be perfectly harmless, were it
used only to distinguish one class of society from another; but it is not
used with that intent; the practical definition is quite different in
England to what it is here, for here it flows from the fountain of purpose
to injure.

1849 Herman Melville _White-Jacket_ (rpt. N.Y.: Grove Press, 1964) 264 :
May-day [a black sailor] confidentially told Rose-water [another black
sailor] that he considered him a _"nigger"_* *which, among some blacks, is
held a great term of reproach.

Easton's assumption about "Negro" seems be that it somehow "stands for" the
n-word. I am not at all sure that his objection to "Negro" itself was widely
shared in the 19th C.

The title page of Easton's book identifies him as "A Colored Man."  Herman
Melville was white.


On Thu, Mar 12, 2009 at 7:02 PM, <RonButters at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       RonButters at AOL.COM
> Subject:      The N-word at the time of Huck Finn
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I'm still not making myself clear, I fear. My apologies.
> I of course agree that what we today call "scientific racism" is "racist"
> by=
> =20
> 20th century standards. But it appears that there were no 19th standards
> for=
> =20
> what was or was not "racism"--as is evident from the absence of terms for
> th=
> e=20
> phenomenon AS A SET OF BELIEFS. The "scientific racism" movement was
> simply=20=
> an=20
> attempt at using science to confirm the ideas about race that were the
> rulin=
> g=20
> notions of the day.
> Thus, to say that "nigger" was a "racist" (or even "offensive" or=20
> "derogatory") term in HUCK FINN is pretty much meaningless because in
> genera=
> l people at=20
> the time thought of black people as by definition inferior. You can't
> have=20
> "racism" as a set of beliefs or philosophy (what I meant by "the modern
> sens=
> e") if=20
> pretty much nobody believes in the equality of races.=20
> In other words, if you want to call the 19th century "racist" OK, but,=20
> because "racism" in that sense was pretty close to a universal norm, the
> app=
> lication=20
> of the appellation to specific instances of belief, behavior, ofr language
> i=
> s=20
> not particularly illuminating, and (because "racists" are for most of us
> by=20
> definition wicked people) it can be unjust to apply the term to specific
> 19t=
> h=20
> century figures in that they were--as we all are--believers in the truisms
> o=
> f=20
> the time in which they lived.=20
> Similarly, attempting to find evidence of "racism" in HUCK FINN is
> pointless=
> =20
> as a historical exercise (which is not to say that it would not be a
> useful=20
> exercise for a high-school teacher to assign to students as a way of
> pointin=
> g=20
> out the harmful, evil effects of the some of the beliefs that we think of
> as=
> =20
> "racism" today). The amazing thing about Twain's book (and also MOBY DICK)
> i=
> s=20
> that the black characters are treated with dignity and respect (despite
> what=
>  we=20
> today would see as the assumptions). The history of 20th century
> American=20
> literature (especially cinema) demonstrates a gradual awareness and
> reificat=
> ion=20
> both of racism and the emergent contrary forces.
> =20
> In a message dated 3/12/09 3:55:31 PM, Berson at ATT.NET writes:
> > At 3/12/2009 03:01 PM, ronbutters at AOL.COM wrote:
> > >What I said was "the modern idea of racism had not been invented
> > >yet." Obviously, hatred of The Other has been around forever and
> > >theorized in various ways. Arnold's data supports my observation.
> >=20
> > That "racism" was perhaps not in the English language until the 1930s
> > has no significance for whether the racist notions of scientific
> > racism existed in the 1880s or 1839 -- The sentiment that blacks were
> > inherently inferior did exist then.=A0 And I have no idea how "the
> > modern idea of racism" might differ from the early modern idea.
> >=20
> > Joel
> >=20
> **************
> Need a job? Find employment help in your area.=20
> (
> lcntusyelp00000005)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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