Monday, January 24th, 2011

"The Black People, as a Class, Have No Thought For the Future" –1874, the 'Times'

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.

The introduction.

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!

Cord Jefferson writes for The Root, Wonkette and The American Prospect.

25 Comments / Post A Comment

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I don't see an e-mail link on this NY Times story.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

It's a good thing NYT doesn't have commenting enabled for this one.

KenWheaton (#401)

Shouldn't we be changing all the instances of the n-word to "slave"? Good enough for Huckleberry Finn, good enough for the Times.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Ah, but that novel was set before the Civil War. After the war, they immediately went from "slaves" to "American citizens, equal under the law." Don't you know your southern history?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I saw you tweet this the other day, got about a third of the way through, and got so mad that I had to stop. Absolutely amazing, in the worst way possible.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

It's like the Leningrad Codex of racism. It's got everything!

coryballs (#4,647)

Having grown up in Mobile, AL myself, I can attest that this is EXACTLY, and I mean E-X-A-C-T-L-Y how the majority of whites in the deep south, even today, see blacks. To most, our President is the exception that proves the rule.

Swass LikeMe (#1,317)

Sadly, you are correct. If you adjusted to 1987 inflation then this would represent the majority of my grandfather's "lessons" about race. (There'd have to be something in there about poor lawn maintenance, too.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

Cringey. Horribly, "macaca"-ishly cringey.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

It's not in the same category, but I was rather annoyed to see this passing description in a Times story on a cheap Yoga studio:

"With her black gym socks and her down-home sensibility, Ms. Stiles is not trying to appeal to the yoga elite or to the purist. She is going for the firefighter from Long Island who feels intimidated by “oms” and New Age music.

***The African-American 30-something from Brooklyn who is looking for a little diversity on the mat.***

Or the cashier from Morris, Ill. — the river town of 14,000 where she grew up — who drives to McDonald’s for dinner several times a week."

WTF? Every time an African American does something, even attend a Yoga class, there's an obligatory reference to "diversity"?

Also, I guess no blacks live in Park Slope. "Brooklyn" is being used as a code word for poor neighborhood.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

I read the first five or six excerpts. Got so depressed I had to skip the rest.

Private Hangnail (#2,576)

Falling asleep at a bar after being conned into paying for rounds of drinks is not isolated to recently freed slaves in the Deep South, I'll have you know.

Mindpowered (#948)

Jesus. Mthrfckng. Christ.

Perhaps if people read this instead of Huckleberry Finn, a real conversation about what race is in America could happen.

Was it the most emailed?

GudrunBrangwen (#9,491)

Wow. This idiot "correspondent" seems to have no idea why it is that poor people spend all their money and sell all their marketable goods as soon as they get them. By contrast, anyone who's ever been too broke to save up for the future will get it immediately. Living from hand to mouth for a few months would have done him the world of good.

Also, nice phonetic transcription of the way black people talk. You know he was so proud of his "colorful" dialect writing. In reality, no human in the history of Earth has ever talked the way that dialogue indicates.

Truth (#9,619)

Here, here, I completely think what you have said should be discussed within congress for future endowment for the betterment of all who have been laid off in THIS economy. This subject of depleting all that is gained due to lack of surplus by means of higher debt to income ratio is literally killing me, let alone thousands of others in the same boat . There is no way at all to plan for anything. If I make a plan it falls through because I have no money to support that plan. Literally hand to mouth living forces you to make bad decisions, (Not to say you can still refrain from buying to much alcohol). Inevitably, if the hole in the boat is taking on more water than you can remove, the ship will sink!

KarenUhOh (#19)

There you have it: This is the country "we" "want back."

You likely will find some fair analogs with the sad plight of the heathen Injun, as well; spendthrift savages so backward they were willing to trade everything between Oakland and Omaha for rifles and a couple quarts of rotgut.

Mat Johnson (#9,586)

Great piece. Interesting that not only does it capture all of the racist notions of the period, but also a magazine style snark voice that is still used today. Another good article along the same lines is this earlier cringefest about a Creole picnic in Mandeville, Louisiana in 1868:

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

I had a private meeting with a congressman (he is white) about a year ago, just after the health care vote in the House. When we asked him about his experience of the vote and the tea party, he went into a rant about not backing down, saying, "I mean, these people went out there and called John Lewis a nigger!"

Why does that need to be so amazing? White congressman, quoting a tea party racist, used the word "nigger." More honesty, less PC bullshit.

V L Miller (#12,521)

Interesting how you only used the excerpts that supported your little commentary. Anyone interested in reading the entire article – particularly the section that stated that "it must be said to their credit that as a class they ALWAYS PAY THEIR DEBTS THE MOMENT THEY ARE IN A POSITION TO DO SO. The country would not be so destitute if a larger number of white men followed their example in this respect." Humm . . . you seemed to have left that section out of your bad cut and paste job. Always check your sources people!

This guy was surprised that the first class education "niggers" received during the past 400 years of slavery did not prepare them to become great business men? What????? Is this real or part of a Dave Chappelle comedy skit?

thetruthisalie (#243,939)

@Thomas Holt Russell@facebook You are full of shit but then again most niggers are. Yea sure blame whites for the total failure of your people. Mexicans do more in one generation than you have in 4 generations. We don't owe you anything! I was not racist but I am now. I preach it to all whites. The more People I talk to the more we all agree that your people are full of shit.

thetruthisalie (#243,939)

You people are fools who think this is not true. Go to any getto in America and blacks still live like this. You put them on a pedestal and promote them to positions they never wanted or can handle for your own sake. You think oh I'm so good, look at me helping a black. Its all about you not them. The truth is they are as simple as you read and they are easy to predict. If that were not the case we would have had American indian slaves, but that's not the case. American Indians were free and could not be settled like blacks. We killed them but enslaved blacks. Your a fool or a self centered tool to think the race has been held back. Mexicans do more in 1 year than blacks who are given every chance for 5 generations. The jews have enslaved the black race but they are so smooth you don't believe it. Wake up white blue blood pussies!!

thetruthisalie (#243,939)

Thomas Holt Russell cut your dick off and stop breading we have enough of you free loaders in America. That baby you are holding is most likely not even yours and has no daddy. while you have 6 kids you don't take care of. You can't fool me and I am racist and white and will tell it to your face NIGGER COON! Get some mother fucker.

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