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[Detail] Soldier and Two Women.

Cultural Context and Language

Many newspaper articles and other materials in this collection feature the candid use of terms such as colored, negro, and nigger. These terms may be objectionable today, but an 1897 article in the Cleveland Gazette entitled, "Offensive Term 'Nigger'" provides a starting point for discussions concerning these words:

Strange as it may seem, nigger, as [a British writer] uses it . . . is not slang at all, but is simply the ordinary English way of describing a person of color . . . It lacks the excuse of traditions of race contempt which one might find for it in a southern writer . . . And probably it is not a case of color prejudice; but only a case of not knowing when one is offensive. . . .

  • How is the meaning of a word dependent upon its cultural context? In other words, why does the author make a distinction between the use of the word nigger by American and British writers?
  • Is this a fair and logical distinction? Do you agree with it? Explain.
  • How does such a distinction play out in a comparison of authors such as Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, Nigger of Narcissus)?
  • What are the connotations of these words when African-American writers use them?
  • What are the connotations when these terms are used in contemporary culture in such media as rap music and movies? How do these contexts affect the meaning of the words?