By now we are all probably aware of the media flash-mob that has erupted over presidential candidate Rick Perry’s badly named hunting ranch leased plot near Haskell, Texas. There’s quite a story in the New York Times about it here.
Seeing the word used today, it reminded me of an odd experience in west Texas earlier this year where I heard the term used before. I had forgotten all about it until today. I hadn’t intended to write a story on this at all, but curiosity about that event led me down an interesting set of rabbit holes, so I thought I’d share what I learned about this ugly and offensive term and how surprising the wide and varied use of it is.
In the spring, I was at a conference/tradeshow in Oklahoma and Dallas where I showed some of our weather equipment. Reader may recall I blogged about the Japan earthquake and Tsunami while in a hotel room in Oklahoma City. The next week I was in Dallas. Shortly after the conference closed, I had the misfortune of driving along a stretch of lonely highway 82 between Dallas and Lubbock. I had to go through Lubbock because I needed to go to Muleshoe, TX, where there was an unsurveyed USHCN station I wanted to add to the surfacestations.org station database, and Muleshoe (only to discover later that Juan Slayton had added it already) was so that had to be my route so I could connect to Highway 388 which goes NW from Lubbock to Muleshoe, and then on to Fort Sumner NM where I wanted to verify a Google street view on an MMTS. My GPS, as GPS’s sometimes do had me going on some backroads, including Munday, TX which I thought had an odd name and I got turned around for a bit and found myself headed south on 277 to Haskell. Got that solved and headed west on 222 to connect to 82.
I found myself in a pickle when I reached Guthrie, TX because I was getting low on gas, and I hadn’t seen any gas stations. From the 82 bypass around Guthrie I spotted what looked to be a gas station, so I double back, took the exit and went into town. It was a gas station alright, long since closed and there was nothing else in town. I was afraid I’d find myself stranded in Guthrie. I was struck by the fact that I was in the middle of one of the biggest oil producing states, and there was not a drop of gasoline to be found. There was no cell service that would support web browsing on my phone either, so I couldn’t search for one.
So I drove around just a bit in Guthrie, until I spotted somebody I could ask. It was like a ghost town, but I finally found someone (actually they found me because parked and waited and he rode by on a bike) and I flagged the guy down and asked where I might find some gas. He thought a moment and said “There’s no gas here, nearest is either Ralls or Crosbyton”. I asked where those towns were and he said: “on 82 (pointing west) out past the niggerheads, and then past Dickens”. I said “What? Niggerhead? Is that a town? and he looked at me like I was from another planet (I didn’t tell him I was from California) and he said “no that’s the hills, you’ll see em, and then ya go through Dickens, and Crosbyton, and then Ralls. One of ‘em should have gas.”
I did find gas in Crosbyton, after driving west on 82 through the hills the man described which you can see here in Google maps.
The term “niggerheads” was puzzling and odd, but I figured it was just some local colloquialism, and I didn’t give it another thought…until today.
So after being bombarded with all the news stories about how offensive this term is, and noting that some of the same people doing reporting lambasting Perry over the name of a ranch called “niggerhead” have absolutely no trouble at all calling people like me and the readers of WUWT “deniers” (Think Progress, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, among others) which is also an ugly and offensive term due to the connection to “holocaust deniers”.
So, I thought I’d see what I could find on it. I figured if it was some sort of local colloquial term when I heard it in Texas last spring, I’d find it in older books and maps.
So in my first Google search, amongst all the news stories about Perry, I found my first clue as to why I heard the term, in Wikipedia:
The term was once widely used for all sorts of things, including products such as soap and chewing tobacco, but most often for geographic features such as hills and rocks. In the U.S., more than hundred “Niggerheads” and other place names now considered racially offensive were changed in 1962 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, but many local names remained unchanged.
So that explained why the fellow I asked directions from used the term for the hills I’d drive through. The NYT article I cited above also mentions this.
I can understand how it is offensive, and I can certainly see removing it. But I think removing it is going to be a much bigger job than the bloodhounds in the mainstream media thinks. Just look at all the references to the word in science and engineering and geography:
Nigger Head, an island in North Queensland, Australia
NIGGERHEAD GROUP. The shells of the niggerhead group distinguish themselves from all others of the Quadrula class by combining a … In buying mussels for button manufacture the price is often based upon the percentage of niggerheads.
One chamber casting (acting as a nigger head), is bolted centrally to the dry pipe in such a manner as to have the fingers … As the throttle is opened, steam is admitted through the dry pipe to the header which acts as a nigger head.
books.google.com Leonard Cockayne – 1921 – 456 pages – Free Google eBook – Read
3- Niggerhead (Carex secta)-association. Here shock-headed masses of C. secta are dominant raised above the water on … Niggerhead -swamp contains many of the ordinary swamp-plants and many transitions occur between it and Phormium-
NIGGERHEAD ROAD The squeaky, old doors have closed forever on a school, a drug store and train station with a telegraph office where matrimonial ads and baseball games were transmitted as well as business on the stock exchange and a …
International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers – 1905 – Free Google eBook – Read
THE MAN ON THE NIGGER HEAD. His legs are poor, he can’t go aloft, In the “bull” gang he is dead; But should the boss throw a line across He is first to the ” nigger head.” He keeps the line coiled neat and trim, But I have often heard it…
books.google.com/books?id=BHUtAAAAYAAJ…George Byron Gordon – 1917 – Alaska – 247 pages
This is what is called nigger- head and muskeg in the language of the North. … on any map of Alaska), and prepared to do all the portaging ourselves. …
books.google.com Herbert Charles Lanks – 1944 – 200 pages – Snippet view
16 Niggerhead and Horse Camp Lakes The next day I decided to explore ahead on foot, for there was no one in camp who seemed to know the condition of the road. They said that the last vehicle had got through way back in April, …
The development of the nigger head in central Pennsylvania was examined under ” Tying Joints and Bent Raisings” (see … The emergence of the nigger head may also result from a simplification of the double tie beam, which is commonly …
books.google.com Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland – 1906 – Free Google eBook – Read
Moreover the growth of the shells is very slow, the time required for a “nigger- head” to reach a size of three … The standard is the “niggerhead.” In 1897 the market value of this species in Muscatine ranged from 40 to 62 cents per …
There is another peculiar form common on the field, known as a nigger head. These nigger heads are usually oval or spherical masses of more or less opal- impregnated, fine grained silica ; they are of all sizes from 1 lb. to 1 cwt.,
and Niggerhead Mountain [Los Angeles Co. ] (which probably reflect the now obsolete term “niggerhead” in the sense of … Note that the term “Niggerhead” in place names may refer not to the head of a Negro, but rather to a flanged drum …
So clearly, the offensive term is well established in literature and placenames. It will take time and effort to remove it.
Remember the photo at the top of this story? Guess what the name of it was up until about a year ago.
Even politically correct California suffered (until recently) from a place called “Niggerhead Mountain” of which you can get an interactive map of right here at this link: http://californiamaps.org/place.php?county=Los+Angeles&feature=Niggerhead+Mountain
And while it still shows up in map databases, it too has recently been renamed:
Thanks to the work of a Moorpark College history professor, a Southern California mountain will be renamed to honor the man who first settled in the area and erase the original racial slur.
Good for him, it is the right thing to do. But it just goes to demonstrate that the current inhabitants of a place often get stuck with unfortunate names of the past, and that doesn’t necessarily make somebody who lives by that mountain in Los Angeles county a racist.
It also doesn’t make the people of Queensland, Australia, who have an island named “niggerhead”, racist. Wikipedia says:
Nigger Head is a small island in the Northern part of Shelburne Bay in far north Queensland, Australia about 30km North of Cape Grenville, Cape York Peninsula in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Queensland, Australia. It is so named because it is an isolated coral outcrop; such outcrops were previously known as Niggerheads by British sailors.
And here it is, currently in the Australian Government Geoscience page:
I wonder if any Australian political candidates ever go fishing or diving near that island? Wow, wouldn’t that be a bombshell?
So clearly, with all the citations of “niggerhead” I found in books, maps, placenames, and professional journals, there’s a lot of work to do to erase the ugly and insensitive term. There’s also a lot of places where the term is used and there’s no outrage (yet).
In light of this, I think we all should cut Rick Perry some slack, because the one presidential candidate who would be the most offended by the term, Herman Cain, isn’t. From CBS News:
Cain said he is “done with that issue,” making the following comment in response to reporters’ questions: “Was I satisfied with Governor Perry’s explanation about the name of the ranch where he went hunting? And I said, ‘Yes I am. Next question.”
I suspect Perry told him some of the same things I learned about placenames and geography.
Now if we can just get those same reporters in the MSM to stop labeling skeptics with another ugly and offensive term “deniers” like Andy Revkin’s recent NYT story where he even goes so far as to promote a map, “A Map of Organized Climate Change Denial“, I and many others will feel far less offended.
Note to commenters and moderators – I will NOT tolerate anything offensive related to this story in comments. All such responses will be deleted. – Anthony