A few years ago, I read slave narratives to lớn explore the lives of black agricultural workers after the kết thúc of the Civil War. The narratives came from the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, a program that employed researchers from 1936 khổng lồ 1938 to interview former enslaved people, producing more than 2,300 narratives that, thankfully, reside online và 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 trắng 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 sầu stigmas.

White folk indoctrinated them inkhổng lồ accepting their supposed inferiority. These narratives illustrate the success of this chiến dịch of mental terrorism, & 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 inlớn my thoughts. After years of habitual use of “nigger,” I banished it from my speech khổng lồ 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 like how their former owners regarded them. Jyên Allen, for example, dubbed himself his master’s “pet nigger boy” and a “stray” and thought himself privileged because he could sleep on the floor beside his master’s bed. That he likened himself to lớn 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 lượt thích he beat a nigger woman.”

“Nigger” also signaled antipathy toward fellow blaông xã folk. After the over of slavery, Mattie Mooreman went north to lớn Wisconsin with a Trắng family for whom she worked. Members of the family wanted her to go to lớn the circus lớn watch a black boy’s performance. She told her interviewer, “Guess they thought it would be a treat khổng lồ me 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 home page they’d find me there. ‘Why don’t you go in your bedroom and lie down?’ they’d ask me. ‘No,’ I’d tell ’em, ‘sometoàn thân might come in, và they would have sầu khổng lồ get that baby over my dead 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 to 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 & they gits so uppity.” “I’se just a poor old nigger waitin’ for Jesus khổng lồ come & take me to 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 to opt against calling a blaông chồng person a nigger. William Porter stated that “some of the Tennessee niggers was called không lấy phí 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 Trắng woman who saw blaông xã people talking khổng lồ 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 and the unspeakably racially deranged O.J.

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

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

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

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Blaông xã folk rescued the word from the smoldering debris of a virulently racist l&, reclaimed it và renovated the slur into lớn 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 to lớn trắng folk calling black folk “nigger” và more to lớn blachồng folk who thought they were niggers & said so. Black people have sầu hurled the infamous word for nearly as long as White folk have sầu. It exists within black speech now because it existed within blachồng speech then. The uncomfortable truth must be confronted: Absent the internalized oppression of those who called White men & women their masters, “nigger” would probably not be a part of blaông chồng folk’s lexibé. We black 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 lớn usher the word lớn the gallows. I harbor no aims to lớn kill it. I can still bump a Young Thug track 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 black people to lớn include it in their vocabulary, nonetheless, remains personal, and I reject the criticism of blaông xã folk who continue lớn wield it.

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