Sometimes, when I am eminently bored, I like to scour the New York Times archives for racial slurs. This weekend, hungover and manageably nauseous in a trendy Silver Lake coffee shop, the search term was "nigger," and I came across my greatest find yet: "'Nigger Day' In a Country Town."
"Nigger Day" was originally published on November 30, 1874, nine years after the end of the Civil War, and the reporter's name is listed only as "Our Own Correspondent." In circa 4,000 words, the article depicts the pastoral charm of a day in Huntsville, Alabama, right in the middle of Reconstruction, when black sharecroppers would come in from far-flung rural areas to sell their goods and shop in the chic Huntsville boutiques.
The whites of Huntsville, still ashamed of their licking by the Yankees, were ambivalent: On the one hand, they detested the newly freed blacks; on the other, times were tough, and black money was still money. And so Saturdays became Nigger Day in Huntsville, the one day a week when the city's whites would put on their stiff upper lips and deign to open their doors to blacks.
If America's relationship with its black population is a plane crash—James Baldwin theorized in a 1966 essay that "the Negro-in-America is increasingly the central problem in American life"—"Nigger Day" should be considered a sort of black box, a reminder of how calculated and insidious the variety of attention paid to American blacks was, even as this post-slavery segregation was about to be codified into the Jim Crow laws that would blanket the South.
I love this article for many reasons—not least because I love history!—but primarily because, in a few simple, condescending paragraphs, it highlights pretty much every single problem that will burden American race relations 137 years into the future, as if the author were some snooty Nostradamus.
Black people can't think about the future.
It's useless to argue with black people, they are so devoted to their "folly."
Credit and debt.
"Country blacks" hate "city blacks."
An "amusing incident" involving a "little Jew" and his moneylending, the credit system and how all black people look alike.
A "knotty" question of fractions.
The horrible, gorgeous temptation of the much-hated mulattos (who rightfully spurn "black" men) and undoubtedly know how to "sin."
East Coast media elites have a special hatred for boorish redneck whites (who tend to lie about being able to speak French).
The white man gets over on the Negro with whiskey.
Black women just can't stop shopping.
His children will starve but he'll have a fancy ride and an expensive drink.
Black men conspire to cheat other black men.
This account ends on a very intentional down note: "…I left the saloon. Just before 12 o'clock I passed it again. Other negroes were throwing dice and playing billiards; three or four women stood among the men at the bar; the number of drunken wretches on the floor had been increased, and one unfortunate creature was lying asleep on the wet and dirty door-step." Poor creatures and wretches!