The Etymology of Nigger: Resistance, Language, and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North


Recent scholarship presumes that the word “nigger” has always been a racist epithet thrust upon African Americans to demean Black social identity in the United States. But how is it, then, that the word “nigger” emerge as a slur more virulent than other racially coded language from the post-revolutionary period such as “African,” “Black,” and “darky?” This article demonstrates that before 21st century hip hop made popular the word “nigga” with a soft “a,” “nigger” had long been two words with multiple meanings: one for Black speakers and another for white. Using evidence drawn from blackface literary and cultural productions from the 1770s to the 1840s and from the writings, speeches and memoirs of Black activists and authors from the 1820s to the 1860s, this article shows that the violence and power behind the word was based precisely on the fact that African American laborers used the word themselves. “Nigger” had once described an actual labor category. Black laborers thus adopted it into their own vocabulary as a social identity to claim a sense of national belonging, akin to a proto-pan-Africanism. Once blackface theatrical productions gained popularity in the early 1830s, in a trick of ventriloquy, white performers and later their audiences put the word “nigger” into the mouths of Black caricatures to authenticate these anti-Black portrayals. In doing so, whites blamed Black people for using language meant to subjugate them and thus accused African Americans for being self-acknowledged “niggers,” a discursive weapon in the fight for white supremacy that, in turn, buttressed white notions of national belonging. In response, Black transatlantic abolitionists denounced white usage as a great verbal symbol of American hypocrisy.