The N-word at the time of Huck Finn
RonButters at AOL.COM
RonButters at AOL.COM
Sun Mar 15 22:27:15 UTC 2009
Thanks to J for sharing his extended research. I would not have expected
'nigger' in an advertisement for slaves any more than I'd have expected "hoss" or
"cayoose" in an advertisement for horses. The sellers were businessmen who
used the generic term for their product. I'm not sure that "negro" was really
more "polite" than "negro"--it was just the standard commerical term (which, in
the context of slave auctions, in itself is a term than dehumanized those so
labeled). This doesn't really speak to the valence of the informal term, or its
use in informal, everyday speech (in which, it should not be forgotten, it was
usually no more than a metathesis away from "nigger").
In a message dated 3/15/09 4:06:46 PM, wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM writes:
> Long ago I examined a zillion fugitive-slave notices and slave-sale
> advertisements from the 18th and 19th C., plus the printed first-person
> usage of educated white Southerners and Northerners. The use of "nigger" in
> these contexts was avoided almost without exception.
> The accepted polite word was (uncapitalized) "negro."
> "Nigger" appeared almost solely in dialogue and personal letters, most often
> used - by far - by crude or semi-educated persons.
> That tells me something about the status of "nigger" during this period.
> Again, see HDAS.
> On Sun, Mar 15, 2009 at 12:28 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg <
> nunberg at ischool.berkeley.edu> wrote:
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> > -----------------------
> > Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster: Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> > Subject: Re: The N-word at the time of Huck Finn
> > I think Ron’s right that Twain’s contemporary readers would have given
> > Huck a pass for using the n-word, but it isn’t quite true that
> > 'nigger' was one of the "commonplace terms used by all people, white,
> > black, enlightened, not enlightened." There’s evidence that many of
> > the “genteel” Northern whites who constituted a large part of Twain’s
> > audience considered n-word as “low” or insulting by the time of the
> > book’s publication in 1884, so that in their ears, Huck’s use of the
> > word would have underscored the irony of his remorseful repudiation of
> > racism.
> > The biographer of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips writes: "A certain
> > Univrersalist clergyman (whose name it would be cruel to give)
> > announced from his pulpit a meeting at which [the suffragist] Lucy
> > Stone was to speak in these words "To-night, at the Town Hall, a hen
> > will attempt to crow.'' This was wit in 1850, as the word " nigger'
> > was humanity!" (Wendell Phillips: the Agitator. By Carlos Martyn, c.
> > 1890, p. 237)
> > From a recollection (in Making of America) of her maternal
> > grandfather published in 1906, by a woman whose mother was born in
> > 1811: “My grandfather, whose stern, Puritan face looks down at me from
> > an old oil portrait in my home, was a Presbyterian of the strictest
> > sort, more feared than loved by his children. This was before the
> > abolition of slavery in New York state, and my grandfather owned
> > several slaves. In this connection I have heard my aunts tell a most
> > laughable story. My grandfather was much more considerate of the
> > feelings of his slaves than of those of his children, and the members
> > of the family were strictly forbidden to use the word "nigger" when
> > speaking to or of a slave. The expression "colored gentleman" was
> > sometimes substituted for the obnoxious term. My Aunt Katherine, then
> > a little maid in her high chair at the table, concluded she wanted
> > some vinegar. But she didn't want to say "vin-nigger," lest she injure
> > the feelings of the waiter. So, turning to the ebony hued attendant
> > behind her she said very politely: "Please hand me the vin-colored-
> > gentleman.”
> > Finally, recall the passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin where George Shelby
> > arrives too late to save Uncle Tom from his fatal beating by Simon
> > Legree’s overseers:
> > “But, sir, this innocent blood shall have justice. I will proclaim
> > this murder. I will go to the very first magistrate, and expose you."
> > "Do!" said Legree, snapping his fingers, scornfully. " I'd like to see
> > you doing it. Where you going to get witnesses? how you going to prove
> > it? - Come, now!" George saw, at once, the force of this defiance.
> > There was not a white person on the place; and, in all southern
> > courts, the testimony of colored blood is nothing. He felt, at that
> > moment, as if he could have rent the heavens with his heart's
> > indignant cry for justice; but in vain. "After all, what a fuss, for a
> > dead nigger!" said Legree. The word was as a spark to a powder
> > magazine. Prudence was never a cardinal virtue of the Kentucky boy.
> > George turned, and, with one indignant blow, knocked Legree flat upon
> > his face; and, as he stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance,
> > he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake
> > triumphing over the dragon.
> > George had already had ample provocation for striking Legree, but it’s
> > notable that Stowe describes “nigger” as the spark that sets him off.
> > In fact George (who speaks of the “curse of slavery”) never uses the
> > word, whereas Legree (originally a Northerner) uses it all the time.
> > Whether or not a sympathetic ante-bellum Kentuckian like George would
> > actually have refrained from using the word, it’s a fair picture of
> > how it was regarded by abolitionist New Englanders like Stowe.
> > Geoff Nunberg
> > > From: Barbara Need <bhneed at GMAIL.COM>
> > > Date: March 13, 2009 8:41:13 AM PDT
> > > Subject: Re: Re: [ADS-L] The N-word at the time of Huck Finn
> > >
> > >
> > > Ron,
> > >
> > > Thanx for this response. I recognize the difficulties inherent in
> > > responding to a 19th century story with 20th or 21st century
> > > sensibilities and it is helpful to have it articulated--and some of my
> > > students did too!
> > >
> > > Barbara
> > >
> > > Barbara Need
> > > Chicago
> > >
> > > On 12 Mar 2009, at 10:25 AM, RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
> > >
> > >> It seems to me that the question raised here is impossible to answer
> > >> because=
> > >> =20
> > >> it is premised on a late-twentieth-century view of race that simply
> > >> did not=20
> > >> exist in 19th-century America. The prevailing LIBERAL attitude was
> > >> patronizi=
> > >> ng=20
> > >> at best, and there was hardly a white person alive before 1950 who
> > >> did not h=
> > >> old=20
> > >> views of African-Americans that would not be viewed as racist today.
> > >> By=20
> > >> contemporary standards, Lincoln was a racist.
> > >>
> > >> There were no terms for black people that were not intrinsically
> > >> patronizing=
> > >> =20
> > >> at best. This is the attitude of Twain in HUCK FINN, though it is
> > >> a=20
> > >> benevolent, thoughtful attitude which does recognize Jim's intrinsic
> > >> worth a=
> > >> s a human=20
> > >> being--a kind of romantic rustic who is able to think outside the
> > >> box of=20
> > >> prevailing wisdom precisely because he is an outsider. When Twain
> > >> calls him=20=
> > >> "Nigger=20
> > >> Jim" he is simply using one of the commonplace terms used by all
> > >> people, whi=
> > >> te,=20
> > >> black, enlightened, not enlightened. His respect for the Jims of
> > >> this world=20
> > >> is clear. Given the prevailing attitudes towards black people at the
> > >> time--e=
> > >> ven=20
> > >> scientists--"nigger," "darky," etc. were just the terms that people
> > >> used.=20
> > >> There WERE no "racist" epithets, because the modern idea of racism
> > >> had not e=
> > >> ven=20
> > >> been invented yet, nor could be until people began to see that the
> > >> prevailin=
> > >> g=20
> > >> attitudes of the day towards race were wicked and evil--and until
> > >> others=20
> > >> resisted such new, enlightened attitudesl, which is what gives
> > >> racial slurs=20=
> > >> their=20
> > >> real meaning.
> > >
> > > Original question follows:
> > >
> > >>>>> At 3/11/2009 09:40 PM, Barbara Need wrote:
> > >>>>>> I am grading papers about racism in _Huck FInn_ and several
> > >>>>>> students
> > >>>>>> have said something implying that _nigger_ was offensive at
> > >>>>>> either
> > >>>>>> the
> > >>>>>> time the book is set or the time Twain was writing (or both). I
> > >>>>>> have
> > >>>>>> not found anything very useful in the archives. Do we know how
> > >>>>>> offensive the word was in the 19th century?
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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