[Ads-l] a "black Fellow" talking, 1737

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Oct 28 20:25:15 UTC 2015

            This morning I heard my Landlord's black Fellow very busy at
tuning of his Banger, as he call'd it, and playing some of his Tunes; I who
am always delighted with Music, be it never so rustic, under a Pretence of
Washing came into the Kitchen, and at last asked, what the Meaning was of
his being so merry?  He started up and with a blithsom Countenance
answered, *Massa, to day Holiday; Backerah no work; Ningar no work; me no
savy play Banger; go yonder, you see Ningar play Banger for true, dance
too; you see Sport to day for true*. --- He continued, *Massa, you savy the
Field, little Way out a Town, no Houses there, grandy Room for dance there*.
--- Upon this I drest and went to the Place, for I had several Times
diverted myself with walking there.

            It was no small Amusement to me, to see the Plain partly
covered with Booths, and well crouded with Whites, the Negroes divided into
Companies, I suppose according to their different Nations, some dancing  to
the hollow Sound of a Drum, made of the Trunk of a hollow Tree, othersome
[sic] to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles [sic] or Shells in a small
Basket, others plied the Banger, and some knew how to joyn the Voice to it.
-- The Warriors were not idle, for I saw several Companies of the Blacks,
some exercising the Cudgel, and some of them small Sticks in imitation of
the short Pike; and some who had been unlucky enough to get a Dram too
much, as I suppose, were got to Loggerheads; all cursing and swearing, and
that in a Christian Dialect, enough to raise one's Hair on end.  --  I
leave it to you to judge whether all these confused Noises so near to one
another didn't make a ----- cord.  [sic]

            New-York Weekly Journal, March 7, 1736/37, p.1, cols. 1-2, p.
2, col. 1

These are the first two paragraphs from a very interesting essay, signed
"The Spy"; it is the first of three, in successive weeks, all very
interesting, giving glimpses of New Yorkers talking.  Although the sign-off
to the third promises more, there doesn't seem to have been a fourth.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in these two paragraphs -- the remarks
on the drum and rattles, the statement that the Negroes organized
themselves " according to their different Nations", even the fact that they
could enjoy the day along with the whites, even though most must have been
slaves.  But I particularly note several words.

"Ningar" is evidently "nigger", misheard or misremembered by the white man
who wrote down the conversation.  (Which shows that at least one white New
Yorker wasn't familiar with the word.)  The entry in the OED, revised
relatively recently, distinguishes between A.I.1.a. "*Used by people who
are not black as a relatively neutral (or occasionally positive) term, with
no specifically hostile intent.*" and A.I.1.b. "*Used by people who are not
black as a hostile term of abuse or contempt*."

For the first sense, the OED has seven citations that predate this, going
back to 1577, and including one from an American source, Samuel Sewall,
1676.  But this example is being used by a "black Fellow".

The OED's entries on "banger" (presumably pronounced with a "soft 'g'", as
my grade-school teachers called it) and "buckra" are less recent.  (Was
1885 really 130 years ago?  It seems like just yesterday.)  The Dictionary
of Americanisms is more up-to-date, having been published only 70 years
ago.  It doesn't recognize "banger" and has a quotation for "buckra", under
the spelling "bockarau" that just nips this one at the wire (from 1736).

DARE doesn't offer anything on the remote history of "banger" or "buckra"

Beyond that, the presentation of the black Fellow's speech seems to me to
be plausible, anyway, and must be a very early attempt.


George A. Thompson
The Guy Who Still Looks Stuff Up in Books.
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998..

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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