Niggerhead, U.S.A.

The scoop in Stephanie Crummen’s weekend-defining article about Rick Perry: The future governor once hosted events at a family hunting camp called “Niggerhead.” The detail that makes Perry look bad: He claims that his family painted over the rock with that name at “the first opportunity,” but people who’d been to the camp after this claim they’d seen it. (There is paint over the rock today.)

The name “Niggerhead” has a long and wide history. It was once applied to products such as soap and chewing tobacco, but most often to geographic features such as hills and rocks.

In 1962, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed more than a hundred such names, substituting “Negro.”

In this story, Perry sounds evasive and sort of lazy about why this name wasn’t changed, oddly unfamiliar (for someone steeped in local politics) with how easy it would be to make the chance official. Why not work harder to change it? The Wordnik page for “Niggerhead” informs us that the word has been used colloquially for years. It’s always meant, generally speaking, something with the black and bristly qualities of African hair. Like Kal-El escaping Krypton, the word managed to escape the obliteration of its root word as a thing that polite people could say. White people who didn’t know too many black people didn’t see the problem with it. This is why it’s relevant that Herman Cain, the most successful black presidential candidate in the GOP’s history (as long as he outpolls Alan Keyes, which I think he can), has not excused Perry.

[F]or him to leave it there as long as he did, until before, I hear, they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country.

This brings us back to a frustrating quandary for white Southern Republicans. When Haley Barbour was thinking about running for president, several Republican strategists told me that Barbour had an inherent problem making the case against Barack Obama. It was not that he was racist – no one thought that. It was two things. One: Growing up in the segregated South, but not personally seeing the effect of white racism on blacks, he had a tin ear for things that could be considered racially offensive. Two: More primally, there was a certain awkwardness in the idea of a drawling white Southerner unseating the first black president. Republicans know that many voters were spurred to vote for Obama because his election would, somehow, baptise them clean of racism. These voters had mostly given up on Obama. Give them a stark choice between The First Black President and a good old boy, though, and what would they do? It was a risk.

I hear some echoes of that discussion in the Niggerhead furor. It’s not that Republicans think the attack on Perry is fair. Boy, they really don’t. And it’s not like any of their non-Cain candidates will get a pass on the big, sub rosa issue of “unseating the First Black President.” This is cause for worry about something that might be out of their control to fix.