Dropping the N Bomb

Scott McLemee explores the speculation that Donald Trump used a racial epithet through the lens of several scholarly analyses.

August 17, 2018

There is no real controversy over the possibility that tapes exist of Donald Trump using a racial epithet that Christopher Darden called “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.” The president has long since lost the benefit of the doubt in the matter -- even, as we learned this week, from his staff. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be on tape.

The proper topic for speculation now, rather, concerns what it would mean for such a recording to become available to the public. The talk-show pundits whose job it is to assess the likely political fallout for the president himself have evidently formed two camps. They expect either (1) huge consequences or (2) no consequences at all. That is, either it will be an outrage too far or the ultimate proof of Trumpian exceptionalism.

The news this week sent me back to Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy’s book on “the strange career of a troublesome word,” first published in 2002. (The “troublesome word” serves as the book’s title but will go completely unused here, even in quotations, since no good could possibly come of it.)

Kennedy called the word in question “the most socially consequential racial insult” in the American vocabulary, “evolving into the paradigmatic slur.” In a passage alluding to a gaffe from George W. Bush's campaign, he warns, "Political prudence counsels strict avoidance. We now know that a man can become president of the United States even if he is overheard calling someone an asshole, but the same is no longer true of a person who refers to another [using the racial epithet]: too many voters view such conduct as utterly disqualifying." It was a more innocent time.

Details regarding its earliest usage are ambiguous, but it was firmly established as abusive by the early 19th century. Hosea Easton’s Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837) called it “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race … The term in itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class of society from another; but it is not used with that intent … It flows from the fountain of purpose to injure.”

The abolitionist writer’s observation that the word would be “perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class of society from another” seems puzzling. Kennedy makes no comment on it. But a recent paper by Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor in Journal of the Early Republic puts the remark in an interesting light. From a close reading of texts from the period, Pryor, an associate professor of history at Smith College, finds that “the N-word” acquired a specific, peculiar and now long-forgotten connotation in the Northern states. During the early decades of the republic, “the N-word” was used by Americans of all backgrounds to refer to a slave. That included free people of color and slaves as well, which seems to have provoked some consternation among foreign visitors to the United States.

While slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and (on paper if not entirely in practice) Vermont before 1800, what Pryor calls “a series of convoluted gradual abolition laws that honored the rights of northern slaveholders and did not actually free a single slave” were passed in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. These laws “freed the children of slaves” -- though not the slaves themselves -- “but only after the child served a protracted labor contract” that “usually lasted from birth until a person’s mid-twenties.”

No longer slaves but not (yet) really free, this group occupied an ambiguous social position that seems to have elicited a kind of status anxiety among free people of color in the North. An example is the passage from Easton, a minister, quoted above. “The problem [as Easton saw it],” writes Pryor, “was that whites used the word indiscriminately to group involuntary workers” -- i.e., those compelled to “pay” for their eventual freedom with a couple of decades of work for those who had enslaved their parents -- “into a single social category along with black professionals and activists like himself.”

A generation or two earlier, people like Easton could use the word with confidence that everyone (regardless of color) understood it referred to those at the very bottom of the social pyramid. It became offensive once that distinction was blurred -- and more so, no doubt, once whites noticed how it provoked anger. And Pryor finds another source of social tension in the hostility of those still trapped by law into involuntary labor who did not appreciate the attitude of free people of color toward them: they embraced and celebrated the very term that Easton saw as a sign of contempt: “It was a word that belonged to a group of people who understood that their claims to the United States as a home were impossible, even as they were born, toiled, loved, suffered, struggled, survived, and died within its topography of slavery and violence.”

The president is not really interested in history, of course. History probably won't think much of him, either. But whatever else he leaves behind, Trump may at least add a footnote to the history of a word that -- as Oliver Wendell Holmes said in a passage that Kennedy quotes in his book -- "may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."


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