I am spending the week at the University of Denver where I am presenting the second of four European history conferences. It is my goal to get some writing done every night while here in Denver. While editing and adding a few additional pages to my paper on Atlantic history, my mind conflated recent news about the death of the “N” word and Peter Gay’s depiction of the period known in the Atlantic world as the Enlightenment. Although this paper deals very little with the nature of race in North America, it would be very difficult to write about European mercantilism and colonization without touching some on the birth of neo-racism and the institution of slavery. After reading a few of my notes on capitalism and race, I thought more about the transformation of the European term niger — which was Latin for black. However, the occupants of British North America quickly realized the profit margin of free black labor as an institution designed though not intended by some scholars to replace indentured servitude.
As I stated in an earlier blog piece: In Karl Marx’s historical modes of production, he contends that neo-racism did not emerge until the rise of Atlantic market labor systems. As the need and desire for more labor increased to help expand capitalists’ notion of mercantilism, exploitation became the premise of enhancing one’s wealth. Before the rise of this paradigm, slavery had yet to be juxtaposed to racism. Ancient slavery was a product of group defeatism. Furthermore, issues of debt and family pride contributed to this institution. By the early middle ages, slavery in Europe and aspects of Asia took on a more feudal identity. I teach that the term “racism” was transformed at the same point that the term “slavery” was transformed via the 16th century Atlantic market. This market gave rise to a newly created North American state that used racial exploitation as a labor base to develop its economic market. I do realize that this attitude was one of region and geography; regardless, it fostered an American identity linked to capitalism, slavery, and racism.
By 1750 a Southern culture emerged that saw the importance of slave labor. With the enlightenment having an impact on the political, cultural, and economic direction of Europe and northern North American colonies, Southerners thanks in part to dislocation and isolation, were not impacted by the dissemination of ideas. When leaders of the United States met to address the Articles of the Confederation, the meeting continued to come to an impass over the issue of slavery. Southerners won round one as the “enlightened” document known as the U.S. Constitution failed to address the negro quetion. Furthermore, white Southerners by 1800 enhanced the notion of white supremacy by mispronouncing the term niger and deriving at what became an instrument of control: the use of nigger as a noun.
Enlightened 19th century Christians would further the justification of racism by teaching God’s curse on Adam and Eve’s son Cain, also known as the mark of Cain. Academics have affirmed this was a curse on Cain’s labor and harvest, while Christians taught this curse as the establishment of an inferior race — the nigger race. 18th century academics used reason to categorize and discuss race. Immanuel Kant in his “On the Different Races of Man (1775), aligned peoples’ characters with their physical appearance. Now, behavior and appearance ran together; one could assess peoples’ potential solely by looking at them. For the most part, however, Kant, like others at this time, used the term race loosely, without any real concern for scientific precision or exactness. Such systems provided a vocabulary for distinguishing between people based on (supposedly) natural differences that determined people’s abilities and justified differing applications of rights and liberties. Yet, the rise of natural sciences and the modern nation-state gave racism its modern, more violent and dangerous character.” The birth of the United States clearly proved Kant’s premise as absolute and correct.
Black intellectuals such as Michael Dyson looks at the history of race and the term nigger as a process of arguing against killing the “N” word. He contends that white folks have used it as an instrument of fear and inferiority for years while blacks have taken the term and transformed it into a cultural construction that should be used only by blacks. I think back to the rise of a young comedian named Richard Pryor, who inculcated the term nigger into his comedy act. Dyson argues that killing the term nigger only empowers white supremacy. I do not agree with him on this, but from a historical perspective, the term has always been used by whites to look down on blacks as seen here with these examples:
Niggerish: Acting in a lazy and irresponsible manner. Niggerlipping: wetting the end of a cigarette while smoking it.
Niggerlover: Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
Nigger luck: Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
Nigger-flicker: A small knife or razor with one side heavily taped to preserve the user’s fingers.
Nigger heaven: Designated places, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
Nigger knocker: Axe handle or weapon made from an axe handle.
Nigger rich: Deeply in debt but flamboyant.
Nigger shooter: A slingshot.
Nigger steak: A slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.
Nigger stick: Police officer’s baton.
Nigger tip: Leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant. Nigger in the woodpile: A concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.
Nigger work: Demeaning, menial tasks.
Dyson and other black folks who defend the use of the “N” word argue that black folks like Pryor and rappers like 50 cent are only defeating the power of white supremacy when they profit from its usage. A Marxist would argue that black folks are being exploited by the very white supremist that own the record albums. Oh well, some food for thought.