20 May 2009

 

From Whence We Came

Still reading Volume 1 of Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame.

President Truman is reported to have said, "The only thing that's new is the history you don't know." And, of course, we only ever know a tiny fraction of what is or what's been, so there's always opportunity to learn more.

Something I've learned I didn't know much about is the history of the N-word. Growing up in the US South during desegregation, I heard plenty of it, from family and from friends. But by then public usage by public figures was frowned on, even as they might've been using it in private. Instead of "nigger," it was "colored" and "Negro."

It was not always so. I don't know when the public usage by public figures or usages in the press became unacceptable, but in reading Burlingame, I've learned that it certainly wasn't in the 1850s. What follows are examples, all from the source above.
The Democratic press also denounced Frémont supporters as "nigger-worshippers." An account in the Joliet Signal of a Republican rally there on October 8 sarcastically observed that it "was a wonderful day for the niggers and nigger-worshippers of this county. Our city is literally filled with enthusiastic Fremonters." [pp. 432–433]

...in the New York Herald, which referred to Lincoln as Douglas's "nigger worshipping competitor" espousing the "most repulsive disunion nigger equality principles and doctrines." [pp. 471–472]

The Little Giant [Douglas] then went into graphic and extensive detail about the indignities of "nigger equality" and race-mixing—hordes of blacks invading the state, holding office, becoming judges, and—horror of horrors, marrying with whites. "We must preserve the purity of the race not only in our politics but in our domestic relations," he thundered. (The word "nigger" appears in the account published by the Indianapolis Indiana Star Sentinel, which supported Douglas, but not in the Chicago Times. This difference lends credence to the claim that Douglas regularly used the word "nigger" instead of "negro," though the Congressional Globe and his organ, the Chicago Times sanitized his language.) [p. 474]

Douglas may have said "nigger" instead of "Negro." The Quincy Whig sarcastically noted that the Little Giant's "elegant terms" included an accusation that Lincoln espoused "the doctrine that 'niggers were equal to white men.' " The Whig asked: "Isn't this beautiful language to come from a United States Senator?" A journalist who interviewed Robert R. Hitt, the shorthand journalist who covered the debates for the Chicago Press and Tribune, wrote that during the second debate, held at Freeport, Owen Lovejoy became "thoroughly aroused by Douglas' reference to 'the nigger'—Douglas said 'nigger' not 'negro' as the Times reported on that occasion." Throughout the debate, "Douglas said 'nigger,'" though his "organ printed it 'negro.'" At Hillsboro, Douglas gave a speech in which "he uttered scarcely a sentence which had not the word 'nigger' in it," according to the Chicago Press and Tribute. In the later Alton debate, a reporter had difficulty hearing the Little Giant, but could make out some "emphatic words" like "nigger equality" and the Declaration of Independence was not made for "niggers."[p. 489]
And so it goes, as Patti Smith once sang, "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger."

This is where those of us now living in the USA have come, from 150 or so years ago. Slavery in the South and Negrophobia in the North. There are examples of just as ugly of usages from northern opponents of slavery, almost all of whom, like Lincoln, believed just as much in white superiority as did the slave-owning Southerners. White-ism is deeply entrenched in American culture: even if it retains a certain unholy vitality in the South to this day, it remains pervasive and unrepentant throughout the land.

Then comes the war, the Emancipation, the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth amendments, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, de jure and de facto segregation, desegregation of the military by Truman's presidential order, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Selma, Birmingham, Rosa Parks, Ole Miss, Dr. King, Watts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the XXIVth amendment, forced busing, redrawn legislative and House districts, etc., and finally, today, a mixed-race black President.

And there are still those who every time "the blacks" comes out of their mouths, you can still hear "those niggers," as if they were Steven Douglas trying to get re-elected to the Senate in 1858.

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