HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher is shaping up to be a sort of Drunk Black History, with the host blithely explaining, last week, why black people love their Cadillacs, and this week, delving into the shockingly recent origin of the slur "nigra." While Maher was dead wrong to the letter of history, he did somewhat manage to capture the spirit of it.
During the online "Overtime" segment, Bill Maher asked World War Z author Max Brooks (also son of comic legend Mel Brooks) if the reaction to President Obama is similar to that of the returning Harlem Hellfighters, a group of black World War I soldiers who are the subject of Brooks' latest graphic novel.
"Of course," Brooks said. 'It's a tremendous backlash whenever we take two or three steps forward as a country, there's always going to be a backlash. That's why we call them reactionaries, because they react."
He added that political correctness has forced them to use other terms, but "when you see bumper stickers that say 'An African lion in the zoo, and a lyin' African in the White House,' it's pretty clear there's a backlash."
Maher brought up rocker and Senior Fellow at the DefeCato Institute Ted Nugent's "subhuman mongrel" remarks, and panelist Joy Ann Reid reminisced about the ugliness at McCain/Palin rallies, where attendees routinely likened then-Senator Obama to a monkey. Not to digress too much, but these people were not "caught on camera" at some dusty backwater barbecue, they were performing for the camera at McCain/Palin rallies in places like Colorado and Pennsylvania:
Note the acute absence of anyone not laughing hysterically along with them and joining in. Shockingly, the monkey theme reappeared with the emergence of the tea party, and was cheered on as enthusiastically as the Confederate flag was when it flew in front of the White House.
Maher then noted that "There's one word that sticks in their throat, the n-word, they want to say it so bad," and added "Remember in the sixties, they used to say 'nigra?' That was a word they invented, they were so anxious and desperate to say, and they couldn't publicly, so they kinda just changed one, uhh, the nigra!"
As Joy Reid correctly noted, this term was used by Sen. James Eastland (D-MS) in an interview with Mike Wallace, but it certainly wasn't invented in the 1960s, since even that Wallace interview took place in 1957. It's an eerie window back to a time when a towering historical figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. could be a guest on last week's show, and a racist segregationist was just the other side of the story. Here's a taste (courtesy of Philip Morris, don't you know):
Eastland was also the same guy who later told President Lyndon Johnson that the three missing civil rights workers who were later found to have been murdered were simply engaged in a "publicity stunt." He retired from the Senate in 1978, and was succeeded by Thad Cochran (R-MS), who still holds that seat, and recently fended off a tea party challenge by reaching out to black voters in Mississippi. Cochran's opponent, Chris McDaniel, had numerous ties to white supremacist/neo-Confederate groups. The band members may change, but the song remains the same.
Cliven Bundy came up later in the segment, which is fitting, because it was probably "nigra," and not "negro," that Bundy said in his infamous racist rant, although there are some who heard him use the full Monty n-word. As I noted at the time, the term was used repeatedly in Richard Hooker's novel MASH, and with less frequency in the film, but its use dates back even before the 1960s, or even that 1957 Chris Wallace interview. According to Bill Bryson’s linguistic history Made in America, it actually predates the n-word, and was something of a racism bridge fuel between "negro" and "nigger."
However, there is also evidence that "nigra" was later used in the Jim Crow South in the way that Maher suggests, as a fig-leafed version of the n-word, for use in "polite" racist company. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates examples of that usage to 1944, but its use likely goes back much further. It also notes the disrespect inherent in the subterfuge:
Nigra (1944), on the other hand, in certain uses reflects a pronunciation of negro meant to suggest nigger, and is thus deemed (according to a 1960 slang dictionary) "even more derog[atory] than 'nigger.' "
So, while Maher is way off base that "nigra" was invented in the 1960s, he is essentially correct about its use as a surrogate for the n-word. The major difference between people who say "nigra" and people who say "I'm going to sue Obama" is that the former aren't actually trying to hide their true motivation and meaning. Tune in next week when Maher explains what's up with the Newports.