A few years ago, I read slave sầu narratives khổng lồ explore the lives of blaông chồng agricultural workers after the end of the Civil War. The narratives came from the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, a program that employed researchers from 1936 to 1938 to interview former enslaved people, producing more than 2,300 narratives that, thankfully, reside online & are fully searchable.

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Those whom the law defined as property recounted various chất lượng human experiences — their daily horrors and monotonies, how they freed themselves or learned of their emancipation, the surge of exhilaration upon securing freedom, & how they endured life on the edges of a white supremacist society in the decades thereafter.

As I pored over the narratives, I was struông chồng less by their experiences, as heartrending as they were, than by how their experiences sculpted their self-perceptions. The best explanation of what I gleaned, what social scientists called internalized oppression, describes the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas.

White folk indoctrinated them inlớn accepting their supposed inferiority. These narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than “nigger.” Now, whenever I hear the epithet, a visual and emotional representation of the heinous process by which a people — my people — were induced to think they were less than trespasses inkhổng lồ my thoughts. After years of habitual use of “nigger,” I banished it from my speech lớn honor the humanity that many never saw in themselves.


The internalized oppression revealed itself in various ways. Sometimes the former enslaved people clearly, perhaps subconsciously, considered themselves subhuman, just lượt thích how their former owners regarded them. Jlặng Allen, for example, dubbed himself his master’s “pet nigger boy” & a “stray” & thought himself privileged because he could sleep on the floor beside his master’s bed. That he likened himself khổng lồ a fortunate mangy mutt or frisky feline crushed me. The word laid bare a worldview that held blaông chồng folk as a lower order of being, as when Irene Robertson claimed her former master Mr. Sanders was mean, in part, because “he beat his wife like he beat a nigger woman.”

“Nigger” also signaled antipathy toward fellow blachồng folk. After the kết thúc of slavery, Mattie Mooreman went north to lớn Wisconsin with a white family for whom she worked. Members of the family wanted her to go to the circus lớn watch a black boy’s performance. She told her interviewer, “Guess they thought it would be a treat to me to lớn see another niggah. I told ’em, ‘Law, don’t you think I see lots, lots more than I wants, every day when I is at home?’ ” But read how she talks about the family’s baby, whom she constantly watched over, fearing, irrationally, someone would kidnap him: “No matter what time they come trang chính they’d find me there. ‘Why don’t you go in your bedroom & lie down?’ they’d ask me. ‘No,’ I’d tell ’em, ‘somebody might come in, và they would have sầu to lớn get that baby over my dead body toàn thân.” Her eyes fixated on the white baby, but she saw too many niggers.

A barrage of dispiriting uses of the word bloodied me as I combed through the narratives. “The Ku Klux kept the niggers scared.” “The Ku Klux did a whole lot lớn keep the niggers away from the polls. …” Slaves owned by “nice” masters are repeatedly called “không tính phí niggers.” “Niggers ain’t got no sense. Put ’em in authority và they gits so uppity.” “I’se just a poor old nigger waitin’ for Jesus lớn come & take me khổng lồ heaven.” Slave traders are called “nigger traders.” Defiant enslaved people required the service of a “niggerbreaker.” “Nigger dogs” aided the recapture of those who escaped.

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Perhaps more depressing, ironically, was that circumstances sometimes led them lớn opt against calling a blaông xã person a nigger. William Porter stated that “some of the Tennessee niggers was called free niggers. There was a colored man in Pulaski, Tennessee, who owned slaves.” A blaông xã man who kept others in bondage — he’s a “colored man,” yet those who were owned were “niggers.” I instantly thought of a moment from the O.J.: Made in America documentary when a White woman who saw blaông xã people talking to Simpson uttered, “Look at those niggers sitting with O.J.” Simpson delights in hearing this because she “knew I wasn’t blaông chồng. She saw me as O.J.” Porter’s outlook matched that of both the racist trắng woman & the unspeakably racially deranged O.J.

Since reading those narratives, I’ve noticed this mindphối when perusing the remarks of freed people in other contexts. For example, before the trial of Rufus Martin, a black man who stood accused of the 1903 murder of Charles Swackhammer, a woman whom the Fort Worth Star-Telegram referred to as an “old negress who occupied a front seat in the court room” bellowed:

It’s the Trắng people that is to lớn blame. They know that they got lớn make niggahs work or they ain’t no good và they know as long as they ‘low niggah men khổng lồ loaf aroun’ low down saloons they ain’t goin’ lớn work. This man come from a good niggah fam’ly — one of the best I knows of, but the p’lice ‘lowed hyên khổng lồ loaf aroun’ without workin’, and to drink & gamble, till he just got lớn be no good and thought he didn’t have sầu lớn work. The p’lice ought to raid them low down niggah saloons every day and every night till they make every blessed one of the niggah toughs go khổng lồ work or else send ’em all to lớn the county road. Them saloons is what makes bad niggahs & the trắng folks is lớn blame for it, ’cause they let ’em run.

That Martin sported a reddish mustabịt, light hair và skin so bright he could pass for trắng almost certainly colored her perception that Martin came from a “good niggah fam’ly.”

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Blachồng folk rescued the word from the smoldering debris of a virulently racist l&, reclaimed it and renovated the slur inlớn a celebration of blachồng comradery — defenders of contemporary usage of “nigger” repeat this. When this tale collides with reality, however, it shatters as a misreading of history — the current use of the word is owed less lớn white folk calling blaông xã folk “nigger” và more lớn blaông xã folk who thought they were niggers và said so. Blaông chồng people have sầu hurled the infamous word for nearly as long as trắng folk have. It exists within blaông chồng speech now because it existed within blaông xã speech then. The uncomfortable truth must be confronted: Absent the internalized oppression of those who called Trắng men and women their masters, “nigger” would probably not be a part of blaông chồng folk’s lexinhỏ. We blachồng folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted Trắng folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority.

I seek not to usher the word khổng lồ the gallows. I harbor no aims to kill it. I can still bump a Young Thug traông xã or chortle at a Dave sầu Chappelle routine. “Nigger” does not bar my enjoyment of popular culture. My soul, though, winces whenever I hear it. The decision for blaông chồng people lớn include it in their vocabulary, nonetheless, remains personal, & I reject the criticism of blaông chồng folk who continue to lớn wield it.

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I write only lớn summon the words of former enslaved people from beyond the grave sầu khổng lồ express that “nigger” is haunted by the ghosts of hate & the more spiritually chilling ghosts of self-hate.