OED- week 5 (Racially sensitive content)

For this week’s blog post I chose to analyze the word ‘nigger’ from part 4, section XI(11) page 65, within the part of the story where Laura speaks about how her school psychologist had given her the spiel of ‘women should be happy with their lot in life’: “I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t move. I felt deathly sick. He really expected me to live like that— he looked at me and that’s what he saw, after eleven months. He expected me to start singing ‘I’m So Glad I’m A Girl” right there in his Goddamned office. And a little buck-and-wing. And a little nigger shuffle.” I chose this because the word choice just seems odd, what exactly kind of shuffle is that? Is it an excited one, an odd one? And if so, why not just use those words? I initially thought it to mean that it was a sort of odd little dance that she would do, but that didn’t seem to match up too well.

My research led me to believe that the word stems form the Latin word niger, which was a kind of black stone, and from there it was altered to its more modern meaning.

Upon doing research on the word I found a few things that surprised me- the word exists in adjective, noun and verb form. As a noun and adjective, it was especially interesting to find that from around the 1570’s to the 1990’s the word could have been used by non-blacks as a term to describe a dark-skinned person with no specifically hostile intent. Otherwise, most of the other definitions, which are now obviously offensive and derogatory in any context, were meant to describe someone who was of African American descent or someone who identified with urban African American culture, people who were low class or did menial jobs, someone whose behavior was considered reprehensible, and recently- around the 1830’s- the word has started to be reclaimed by a few African American groups as a term of endearment. As a verb though, the word had several meanings, one of which was ‘to behave or live supposedly in the manner of a black slave.’

The different meanings across time were interesting to learn about, but I’m not sure if that cleared up exactly what that meant in the context of the story. The word still seems, not out of place exactly, but vague in its meaning? It could very well be referring to the way that a black slave would supposedly dance, however that might have been, but was it a common thing to know how a slave would dance? I certainly don’t have any clue, so trying to figure out how exactly she would have danced is still sort of a mystery. All in all, though, I still think it was meant to mean that she was supposed to do an odd, sort of excited little shuffle at the prospect of being happy with her lot in life as a woman.

The use of this word though, could definitely say something about how she would have seemed to the school psychologist- a dumb little girl, doing her dance because she is happy as a simple woman and ignorant to the worries men have to deal with. He would have seen her as a simpleton, to be happy with such a life. By using the word as an allusion to someone who would be shown no respect, she sort of morphs that definition and places it onto herself, displaying how she would be looked down upon no matter whether she agreed with him or not.


4 responses to “OED- week 5 (Racially sensitive content)

  1. The use of that word seemed very out of place to me as well. I didn’t quite understand what she was trying to do in using such a harsh word. Honestly, I was hoping it had some deep, long-lost meaning that cleared up the entire thing, but I suppose not. What you said about it referring to a black slave made the most sense, though.
    It’s a hateful term used to demean and belittle, so perhaps by saying she was doing a “little nigger shuffle”, she was illustrating how she herself was being trivialized.
    But still. Odd usage.


  2. Okay, I know I’m supposed to be analyzing your thought process, but I just wanted to congratulate you on a tasteful and concurrently thoughtful analysis of a word others would find scary. Thanks for a good read!


  3. I read it as a reference to minstrel shows — especially after looking up the buck-and-wing, which turns out to be a tap-dancing move, since tap-dancing was a thing at minstrel shows. But the more I think about it, the more unsure of my initial read I am — minstrel shows are historically white folks in blackface caricaturing and mocking black people, so while there’s something there about people in authority expecting others to perform obedience and gratitude, who is really doing the performing in this excerpt? Laura isn’t a person in a position of power playing at being subjugated in order to shore up her own power, as was the case at minstrel shows (but maybe the shrink THINKS she is in a position of power and that Laura just can’t see it?).


  4. I found your analysis very interesting, Peter. While I don’t agree with her if this was her intention, do you think that Russ could have been making a comparison here? (African-Americans:Whites :: Women:Men) While there is a historical disparity here, I feel like it’s comparing apples to oranges; different types of oppressions, while similar, are not things that can easily be compared without inevitably belittling the other.


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