The role of the historian is to report things as they were found, not as the historian or the rest of modernity wish they had been. In the last post, we discussed using racial descriptions as names to search for African-Americans. We were successful using “slave,” “colored,” and “Negro” to find records that if combined with othe records could resolve long-standing problems and perhaps crumble some pre-1870 brickwalls.
It occurred to me that if the recordkeepers were using “colored” and “Negro,” whatever would keep them from using “nigger”? [I know that it is fashionable these days not to say that word aloud, but too refer to it euphemistically as “the N-word.” However, in context, it is fair and even imperative to use the word itself. In the heading of this post, I thought it would be too shocking, having not laid the premise yet. Those who are offended may go read something else].
Indeed, recordkeepers and census takers did use this slur of slurs as a first name and as a last name for black people (and, inexplicably, for a few whites as well). Thus, for example, in the 1860 census in Clermont County, Ohio, we find “Nigger Dave,” age 90, and “Nigger Jim,” age 80, residing with the Bone family of Williamsburg. The researcher cannot let his or her umbrage get in the way–this is valuable information that’s likely not to be had any other way. We also learn that “Red Nigger Mills” died in Rusk County, Texas, in 1932; and that “Lucy Nigger,” a black woman, resided in Loudon County, Virginia, in 1850.
But the use of such disparagements was not limited to African-Americans. The 1860 census, for example, identifies nearly every male Chinese immigrant in California and Oregon simply as “Chinaman” or “John Chinaman.” (There’s a “Sam” or two thrown in as well).
Now that we live in a more enlightened age, shouldn’t we go through and “correct” these errant and offensive records? My answer is no.
What do you think?
June 14, 2008 Saturday at 1:49 am