Oct 02, 2019
This article explores the history of Shmuel Charney’s pen name; rendered as ניגער in Yiddish but transliterated as “Niger” as well as “Nigger” in various published accounts over more than a century. It argues that scholarly and pedagogical discussion of Charney should utilize his family name (Charney) and not an English transliteration of his pen name, regardless of its spelling, given the relationship between the Yiddish pseudonym and the racial slur. The article contends that the two prevalent explanations for Charney’s pen name (that it was merely the Latin translation for black, or that it represented a show of solidarity with African Americans) both serve to obscure the history of “ניגער” as a racial slur reflective of dehumanizing, racist attitudes towards African Americans in largely white Jewish American Yiddish speaking communities. Instead of asserting historical evidence for Charney’s intent, the article considers the outcomes of Charney’s choice, such as the fact that early twentieth-century English language press regularly referred to him as “Nigger,” demonstrating that the term ניגער was widely recognized as a racial slur; the nun-word, if not literally the n-word. The article concludes by examining anecdotes of mixed-company invocations of Charney’s pen-name, and juxtaposing these stories with the Chappelle Show sketch, “The Niggar Family,” revealing how the accommodation of Charney’s pen-name necessarily requires the discounting, if not outright dismissal, of African American subjectivity regarding their encounter with, and experience of, racial slurs.
Until his death in 1955, Shmuel Charney occupied a prominent place in American Jewish life as both academic and public intellectual. Charney’s genre-launching 1907 essay on Sholem Asch, and his editorships of formative Yiddish critical texts, such as Der pinkes (The Record Book, 1913) and Literarishe monatshriftn (Literary Monthly Journal, 1908), established him as a progenitor of Yiddish literary studies. Upon arrival in New York City in 1919, he was already a renowned critic. Charney continued his scholarship in the United States, but also wrote for broader audiences in Yiddish newspapers like Forverts (The Forward) and Der Tog (The Day), achieving distinction as a public lecturer for Jewish audiences. In this article, I examine the significance of his pen name, which has yet to be comprehensively addressed. Shmuel Charney went by the pseudonym ניגער, a word now commonly transliterated as “Niger,” but one that historically functioned as the American Yiddish transliteration of the racial slur, “nigger.”
Regardless of Charney’s intent, his pen name possessed a demonstrable relationship to the racial slur, especially in the American context in which he lived. Two popular explanations circulate as explanations for Charney’s choice: one claims that ניגער merely served as a Latin translation for black, and the other suggests that the choice implied a statement of solidarity with black people. Each explanation intimates that the use of the pseudonym by a non-African American was permissible in the early twentieth century, and that this historically hypothesized acceptability bequeaths a contemporary license to continue this usage. Neither of these explanations pass muster. One completely whitewashes the history of American Yiddish usage of ניגער as a pejorative, relying on an ahistorical linguistic reading, while the other contends, absent any evidence, that Charney’s pseudonym signified anti-racism. Both explanations facilitate exceptionalist, ahistorical thinking by scholars of Yiddish Studies that exempts white Jews from historic culpability in American anti-black racism. Both ask us to consider Charney’s intent as a guiding principle. 1 1 This focus on intent has also been present in family discussions surrounding the pseudonym. In the interest of full disclosure, Shmuel Charney was my great-great-uncle (his brother, Baruch Vladeck, was my great-grandfather).
Yet privileging a nonblack speaker’s intent in using an anti-black racial slur distracts us from necessary engagement with the utterance’s impact. Charney’s thinking ultimately should be secondary to parsing how his choice impacted broader discourse. 2 2 Even were scholars to discover a letter or interview directly addressing the issue, we would be naïve to automatically consider any hypothetical document in which Charney presents his intent as definitive. That said, in Charney’s vast Yiddish-language archives, or in those of his contemporaries, presumably there must be some discussion of his pseudonym that has not yet been discovered. Such documents obviously merit incorporation into this discussion. My own Yiddish competency and time have not been sufficient to perform a complete search of these archives. My archival methodology for this article has incorporated English-language Charney scholarship, his less voluminous English language papers in the YIVO archives, and some targeted engagement with Yiddish texts. As a supplement to this archival approach, I reached out to multiple scholars, descendants of Yiddishists, the H-Net Jewish Studies Network, and the Mendele mailing list inquiring about explanations, evidence, and anecdotes regarding Charney’s pseudonym. I am particularly indebted to Rob Adler Peckerar, Miriam and Didi Charney, Barbara Harshav, Jordan Kutzik, Josh Lambert, Kenneth Moss, and Eddy Portnoy, for their invaluable guidance. I am also thankful to Vladimir Alexandrov, Merle Bachman, Allison Blakely, Jonathan Boyarin, Bella Bryks-Klein, Monica Contreras, Gennady Estraikh, Josh Fogel, David Forman, Laura Flores, Leah Garrett, Sander Gilman, Eric Goldstein, Itzik Gottesman, Jack Jacobs, Ellen Kellman, Mikhail Krutikov, Julian Levinson, Itzhak Luden, John MacKay, Maxim Matusevich, David Mazower, Leo Melamed, Jeffrey Melnick, Tony Michels, Marcus Moseley, Rita Nash, Eliezer Niborski, Anita Norich, Avraham Novershtern, Mark Nowogrodzki, Dan Opatoshu, Elliott Palevsky, Dale Peterson, David Roskies, Rachel Rubin, Rachel Rubinstein, Miriam Simon, Ilan Stavans, Barry Trachtenberg, Marek Web, Christa Whitney, Gabriel Weinreich, Ruth Wisse, and the staff at the YIVO archives and the Lillian Goldman Reading Room at the Center for Jewish History for their generous assistance. Suggesting that Charney’s choice revealed racism or anti-racism plays into a white narcissistic impulse privileging Charney’s feelings (and legacy) above those of African Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish) who have had to navigate the consequences of Charney’s role in the proliferation of the slur. The psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff put it succinctly in a tweet: “When your definition of racism privileges the character of perpetrators over the harms of targets, your definition of racism is racist.” 3 3 Goff, Philip Atiba. Twitter Post. Oct. 4, 2016, 6:42 PM. https://twitter.com/drphilgoff/status/783482462001324037. However discomfiting it may be to consider Charney a “perpetrator,” a reckoning with the consequences of normalizing his pen name, and the power of the word we as educators invite into our classrooms, is long overdue.
This is not meant to label Charney as “racist.” However, I am similarly uninterested in absolving Charney as “not racist.” Because of his pseudonym, Charney has played a role in how white American Jews conceive of myths of white Jewish anti-racism and white Jewish racial formation. Today, American Jews are most likely to encounter Charney in the context of Jewish or Yiddish Studies. But Charney was a prominent public intellectual during the first half of the twentieth century, and as Barry Trachtenberg observes, his “contribution to the development of the new Yiddish culture extended well beyond his literary criticism.” 4 4 Trachtenberg, Barry. The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Yiddish, 1903-1917 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 83. Given his prominence as a lecturer and columnist, we ought to understand his pseudonym’s historical significance as extending beyond its contemporary niche within academia. The continued use of Charney’s pen name in Jewish intellectual and academic circles problematically asserts white Jews’ partial ownership of the n-word via the unexamined assertion of acceptability of the supposedly deracinated ניגער – or, were we to consider the history of white American Jewish racism honestly, what we might feel compelled to refer to as the nun-vort or nun-word. In deracinating ניגער, scholars erase Jewish interactions with blackness and black people (including those who are both black and Jewish) from the historical record, while, in claiming ניגער as a sign of solidarity, Charney’s use of a painful slur as pseudonym serves as evidence of his (and implicitly, of liberal white Jewish) anti-racism.
In suggesting “we need to talk about Shmuel Charney,” I contend that by discussing Charney as Charney, we can more easily reckon with the implications of his choice to use the pseudonym ניגער, and facilitate meaningful discussions about how white American Jews asserted whiteness by differentiating themselves from African Americans. Furthermore, by using his given surname, which he never legally changed, we help ensure that our shared classrooms remain inclusive spaces by limiting our reproduction of insensitive language. Those that suggest the nun-word did not function as the transliteration of the n-word ignore extensive evidence, and protestations that the words are pronounced differently fail to take into account expected variations in how Yiddish-accented speakers might pronounce the English racial slur. Generally, scholars recognize that we should not use one of those words in academic spaces, except when necessary to analyze the effects of racism and racist language on society (and even then, with great care and considerable risk). The nun-word requires similar care.
Organizationally, this paper considers the Latinate myth of Charney’s pen name emerging from a 1916 Forverts article; the differentiation of ניגער and נעגער in American Yiddish literature; Charney’s brother Baruch Vladeck’s early twentieth-century journalistic engagement with African Americans; Charney’s inevitable encounters with black people in European texts prior to emigrating to the United States; American English journalistic references to Charney with the n-word; and the solidarity myth. I conclude by close-reading a few revealing anecdotes illustrating Jewish community anxiety regarding Charney’s pen name, which I juxtapose with a sketch from The Chappelle Show.
The Origin of the Latinate Translation Explanation
Prior to becoming a literary critic, Charney was a political activist, and wrote articles for the Zionist Socialist Worker’s Party. Barry Trachtenberg writes that Charney’s “first major essay…was a widely distributed piece entitled ‘Vos iz der yidisher arbeter’ (What is the Jewish Worker)” which was published under his pen name in a journal entitled Der nayer veg (The New Way) in 1906. 5 5 Ibid, 87. However, according to David Passow, Charney began using the pseudonym well before then. Passow writes that
…in 1900, he abandoned rabbinic studies and turned to illegal propaganda work on behalf of the Poale Zion (Labor Zionist) group with which he had become affiliated. At that point he assumed the surname Niger. 6 6 Passow, David. The Prime of Yiddish (Jerusalem: Gefen, 1996), 6.
Charney had begun going by ניגער as early as 1900, at just seventeen, and no later than 1906.
One of the two widely circulating explanations regarding Charney’s pseudonym intimates that ניגער serves merely as the Latin translation of “black.” This appears to date back to 1916. A full-page newspaper article in Forverts, “Di kindhayt un yugent fun dem yidishn kritiker Sh. Niger” (the childhood and youth of the Yiddish critic S. Niger), introduced Charney to Yiddish American audiences. 7 7 “A. Dukorer, “Di kindhayt un yugent fun dem yidishn kritiker Sh. Niger.” Der Forverts. 13 August 1916, YIVO archives, Shmuel Charney Collection, RG 360, Box 95, Folder 2288. In the final paragraph, the author addresses Charney’s pseudonym:
Zayn psevdonim “niger” iz der latinisher vort far azeyn emeser familier-nomen: “Tsharne,” a poylish vort vos meynt: shvarts.
Trans. 1: His pseudonym “Niger” is the Latin word for his actual family-name: “Tsharne,” a Polish word meaning black.
While this is the first published account for Charney’s name choice, the anecdote appears elsewhere. Two decades later, Charney’s friend and colleague Solomon Simon published Kinder yorn fun yidisher shrayber (Childhood Stories of Yiddish Writers), in which he explains his friend’s chosen pen name using the same rationale. 8 8 Simon, Solomon. Kinder yorn fun yidishe shrayber. (New York: Matones, 1936), 182. Simon includes a bibliography, and cites the Forverts article, along with interviews with various family members. 9 9 Ibid., 157. I am indebted to Rob Adler Peckerar for directing me to Simon’s book.
The Forverts article ostensibly provides the foundational account of Charney’s choice, but reading the explanation as ruling out the association of the term ניגער with black people would be ahistorical. The digitally archived Yiddish newspapers available on the Historical Jewish Press website show that the term ניגער was in significant usage through the beginning of the twentieth century as a term for black people. נעגער (neger), a term more likely today to be translated as “negro,” was also in widespread use. ניגער has also been translated as “negro” in contexts that translators have interpreted as ostensibly unbigoted, and possibly indicative of orthographic inconsistency (I examine one specific example, by Franklin Jonas, later in this article). However, ניגער was also used purposefully, in at least some literary and journalistic venues, to signify the n-word in literature and journalism of the era. Dating to the late 1800s, Yiddish newspapers used the term ניגער in explicitly racist humor columns or “filler,” sensationalistic reporting about black criminality (which was prolific in the Yiddish press, as well as various other presses), and otherwise seemingly neutral journalism regarding lynching. 10 10 The earliest joke article using the term I encountered, “2 Kinder’she fragn” (Two children’s questions”) dates to 1888. “2 Kinder’she fragn.” Der Folksadvokat, 31 August 1888, 6. www.jpress.nli.org.il/Olive/APA/NLI/SharedView.Art… A representative article of the sort that sensationalized black crime, from 1909, bore the headline, Niger shist tsvey detektivs; “Negro/Nigger shoots two detectives.” “Niger shist tsvey detektivs.” Yidishes Tageblat, 24 May 1909, 1. www.jpress.nli.org.il/Olive/APA/NLI/SharedView.Art… Regarding many Yiddish newspapers’ reportage and criticism of lynching, see chapter two of Hasia Diner’s In the Almost Promised Land. Diner also addresses the sensationalistic reporting on black criminality in the same chapter. In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). However, the Yiddish press also used נעגער in these contexts. Inconsistencies of orthography and standardization suggest that these terms plausibly did, at times, possess some interchangeable quality.
This interchangeability did not necessarily mean ניגער read as a neutral term. Regarding English terminology for African Americans, Geneva Smitherman claims that in the colonial era, “negroes, “slaves,” and “niggers” functioned as “nearly synonymous.” 11 11 “Nearly” does important work here, as there are certainly instances of usage prior to 1900 in which the n-word functioned, quite clearly, as a specific pejorative semantic choice distinct from “negro.” (See the subsequent discussion of Asim’s The N Word.) Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 36. Asim, Jabari. The N Word (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007). But Smitherman also remarks that by the twentieth century, the n-word, used by white Americans, clearly functioned as racial epithet. 12 12 Ibid. Smitherman’s observations bear emphasis for two reasons: first, according to the Historical Jewish Press search results for Yiddish newspapers, the use of ניגער appears to peak during the first two decades of the twentieth century, at the precise juncture when she contends the term functions more exclusively as derogatory epithet. Second, Smitherman’s observation of the synonymous nature of “negro” and the n-word (and, importantly, “slave”) does not immunize the term from its racist implications. Instead, it indicates that, within a white supremacist colonial society, varied terminology could accompany the dehumanization of black persons.
By the 1920s, though, just after Charney arrived in the United States, Yiddish publications indicate that many authors (and presumably readers) understood ניגער and נעגער as distinct terms. A 1922 Forverts article uses the term נעגער five times to describe the story’s black subject, but uses the term ניגער to indicate someone calling out what reads definitively as, “lynch the nigger!” at him. 13 13 “Neger dershrekt zikh far geshrey lintsht dem neger un shtarbt.” Der Forverts, 26 August 1922, 2. www.jpress.nli.org.il/Olive/APA/NLI/SharedView.Art… FRW%2F1922%2F08%2F26&id=Ar00210&sk=A75766C0. In Joseph Opatoshu’s short story “Lintsheray” (1922), נעגער also clearly signifies “negro,” deployed by the narrator, by black characters, and by a sheriff in an official proclamation. In contrast, ניגער is used only three times, and only by members of a lynch mob before murdering a black man named Bookert. 14 14 Opatoshu, Joseph. “Lintsheray.” 1922. Trans. Jessica Kirzane. June 21, 2016. https://ingeveb.org/tags/Lintsheray In 1923, Ruven Ludvig wrote a poem titled “Who Shot the Leprous Nigger” (Ver hot tseshosn dem krekhtikn niger). Accompanying her translation, Amelia Glaser notes that “Ludvig’s use of the most marked English-language term of white supremacy in his Yiddish language title confronts his Yiddish readers with a racist American vernacular” (50). 15 15 Glaser, Amelia. “From Jewish Jesus to Black Christ: Race Violence in Leftist Yiddish Poetry.” Studies in American Jewish Literature, 34, no. 1, (2015): 50. Glaser correctly identifies Ludvig’s provocative use of language, but the frequency with which ניגער appears in Yiddish newspapers indicates that it could signify the English language slur while also functioning as a Yiddish slur. Lastly, the poem “Done a Good Job” by Y.A. Roentsch (1933) puts the word ניגער in the mouth of a racist sheriff. 16 16 Roentsch, Y.A. “Done a Good Job.” Trans. Amelia Glaser. In Proletpen, edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). These examples show the distinction Yiddish authors made between נעגער and the racial slur, but, despite being a small sample set, also reveal something of a pattern: the terminological distinction finds clear demarcation most commonly in contexts where (presumably) non-Yiddish speakers used the n-word, translated for Yiddish audiences.
This distinction bears emphasis because it contributes, subconsciously or otherwise, to a dichotomization of the term: ניגער meant the racial slur when used by non-Yiddish speakers, for whom it provided evidence of racism, but has been interpreted as plausibly neutral when used by Yiddish speakers. This approach carries some risk: it overvalues a writer or speaker’s intent, as opposed to the word’s impact. It also puts the onus on present-day translators to identify racist context, while simultaneously removing what would otherwise be considered a fairly clear indicator of racism from the equation. Translating ניגער as “negro” in texts that otherwise do not express explicit racism rules out the possibility that the word reveals something of how antiblack racism lurked even within otherwise neutral or sympathetic-seeming journalism. 17 17 Journalistic racism during this era was by no means unique to the Yiddish press. Khalil Muhammad examines the broad phenomenon of how English language media popularized racist notions of black criminality broadly in The Condemnation of Blackness. Brent Staples also observes how southern newspapers’ reportage of lynching justified racist violence under the guise of journalism, through narratives that “tied blackness inextricably to criminality.” Muhammad, Khalil. The Condemnation of Blackness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). Staples, Brent. “When Southern Newspapers Justified Lynching.” The New York Times. May 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/opinion/sunday/… Presumably, if Yiddish readers could distinguish ניגער from נעגער while reading articles, poems, or articles featuring clear expressions of racial animus, recognizing significations of the n-word in those contexts, other hypothetically neutral deployments of ניגער desensitized readers to the term and normalized it. The notion that ניגער functioned, paradoxically, as either a clear signifier of antiblack racism or a neutral inoffensive term, must have yielded some cognitive dissonance amongst readers.
Given the evidence that in the early 1920s, multiple Yiddish authors distinguished between the terms, I am skeptical that the terms were every truly interchangeable, except within a racist framework where any interchangeability reflected how pervasive racism made differentiating the terms unimportant. For instance, a 1909 column with the title, “Di nigers – zeyer lebn in der heym, un in fremd” (The Niggers – Their Lives in and Outside their Homes), refers to black people with the terms ניגער and נעגער, but also “Niger.” Underneath the title, the only English in the piece reads: “Have you ever in your life / Seen a Niger kiss his wife?”
Luis Gintsburg. “Di nigers – zeyer lebn in derheym, un in fremd.” Di Varhayt. 28 April 1909, 4.
Di Varhayt’s use of the n-word while spelling it with only one “g” may indicate that the one gimel spelling of ניגער influenced some Yiddish speakers to spell the English slur with one “g.” A certain interchangeable quality to these terms emerges here, but the nature of this article belies the notion that נעגער necessarily functioned as a non-racist signifier for black people. Instead, it reminds us that even when using the ostensibly less offensive term, journalism from this era routinely dehumanized black actors.
Furthermore, scholarship regarding the n-word suggests that any overt focus on orthographic standardization obscures how even in English, spelling was secondary to the predominance of racist attitudes. Jabari Asim observes the term rendered variously as “nigger, niger, negur, negar.” 19 19 Asim. The N Word, 11. The term was also not limited to American usage. Asim notes that an eighteenth-century Afro-British memoirist named Igatisu Sancho wrote, “I am one of those whom the vulgar and illiberal call ‘Negurs.’” Asim also reports that in a 1786 poem, the Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to Ham’s son Canaan as “a nigger.” 20 20 Ibid., 10-11. Asim notes that “By the time Burns got around to cranking out his verse, black people had no doubt become accustomed to hearing the N word as an insult – regardless of how it was spelled.” 21 21 Ibid., 11. Orthography, Asim reminds us, has always been secondary to the social context and the word’s aural component.
As such, we can modify the earlier translation from Forverts to better accommodate the contemporaneous usage of ניגער in the American Yiddish lexicon. Consider three alternative possibilities for the final paragraph of the biographical Charney article:
Trans. 2: His pseudonym, “Negro,” is the Latin word for his actual family-name: “Tsharne,” a Polish word meaning: black.
Trans. 3: His pseudonym, “Nigger,” is the Latin word for his actual family-name: “Tsharne,” a Polish word meaning: black.
Trans. 4: His pseudonym, “Negro/Nigger,” is the Latin word for his actual family-name: “Tsharne,” a Polish word meaning: black.
These translations better acknowledge the societal and linguistic contexts for contemporaneous readers and the author/editors. If we allow that ניגער and נעגער were sometimes used interchangeably, we collapse the difference between translations two and three, arriving at something akin to translation four, in which both “negro” and the slur are signified. But this renders translation number two implausible. The author’s choice to put the word in quotes would have clearly signified the racist slur as either the definitive meaning, or one of multiple meanings.
The Yiddish linguist Benjamin Harshav (a central figure in the solidarity explanation regarding Charney’s pseudonym) reinforces the importance of avoiding simplistic readings of Yiddish text. Harshav notes that each Yiddish word possesses
an aura of connotations derived from its multidirectional and codified relations not just within a semantic paradigm, as in other languages, but to parallel words in other source languages, to an active stock of proverbs and idioms, and to a typical situational cluster. 22 22 Harshav, Benjamin. The Meaning of Yiddish (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 39.
Harshav reminds us that since Yiddish has always been a language reliant on source languages, its words carry more meaning, not less:
It is precisely the small vocabulary of the language that makes the words more repetitive and more dependent on their habitual contexts, hence weightier in their impact…. It is not the range of denotations that the language covers but the emotive and semantic directions of the hearer’s empathy. In this mode of discourse, the overt clash, ironic or clever, between words of different stock languages in one sentence is a major source of meaning, impact, and delight. 23 23 Ibid., 39. My emphasis.
Harshav’s observations are applicable to the word ניגער: it necessarily carried, at the very least, connotations of the racial slur whenever it was utilized in an American context. Harshav’s observation about Yiddish invites comparison with supreme court justice Roger Traynor’s legal linguistic observations, quoted by Randall Kennedy in his essay on the slur:
The meaning of particular words…varies with the…verbal context surrounding and surrounding circumstances and purposes in view of the linguistic education and experiences of their users and their hearers or readers. 24 24 Kennedy, Randall. “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’? and Other Considerations.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 26 (Winter 1999-2000):94.
Harshav and Traynor provide entreaties to consider the “reader” and “hearer” (and their empathy). That the Yiddish word ניגער was often heard as the racial slur is something we will examine shortly.
The explanation that ניגער is a “Latin word” was consumed by readers with full knowledge that it signified both black people and the racial slur in the American Yiddish lexicon. We misread the paragraph if we interpret it as evidence that Shmuel Charney’s pseudonym had nothing to do with black people. Rather, we should read it as accounting for how a Russian, Yiddish-speaking Jew might have arrived at a pen name that was synonymous and aurally identical with a pervasive and pejorative English and Yiddish term for black people. 25 25 Presumably, some contemporaneous Forverts readers would also have been well aware of young white American Jews going by the n-word as a nickname. Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick (99) both address this phenomenon within their scholarship, reminding us that Charney was not the only white Jew in the United States going by the racial slur during this period. Rubin, Rachel. Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000). Melnick, Jeffrey. A Right to Sing the Blues. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
The paragraph also bears scrutiny given the uncertainty regarding its author. The article was signed by an A. Dukorer (א. דוקאָרער).The pseudonym translated to “a Dukorer,” or someone from Dukor, the Belorussian village where the Charney family grew up, known today as Dukora. The article may have been written by Charney and sent overseas to Forverts, but Avraham Novershtern suggests it was more plausibly authored by Charney’s brother, Baruch Vladeck. 26 26 Email from Avraham Novershtern, August 11, 2017. Just four months before the article appeared, in April, 1916, Vladeck had become city editor of the paper. 27 27 Jonas, Franklin. The Early Life and Career of B. Charney Vladeck, 1886-1921: The Emergence of an Immigrant Spokesman. New York University PhD Dissertation. February, 1972. 132. Vladeck, who immigrated to the United States in 1908, may have authored the article or appended the final paragraph about Charney’s name. While Charney’s early awareness of the Yiddish American usage of ניגער or the American usage of the n-word is uncertain, Vladeck undeniably knew these terms.
Indeed, Vladeck wrote two articles examining racism in ways germane to this investigation. The first, a 1911 article in the Forverts, reported on a riot Vladeck witnessed in Norfolk, Virginia, after the Johnson-Jeffries boxing match of 1910. The second, published in 1915 in Di Naye Velt, concerned the lynching of Leo Frank. Entitled, “Vi azoy lebn di yidn in di sauth” (How Jews Live in the South), the first article offers a critical assessment of white Jewish racism in Norfolk. 28 28 Jonas. Early Life and Career, 86-87. Vladeck’s article on the Norfolk riot indicates that he did not observe Jews assaulting black people, but he did see Jews “smile” upon the assaults that they witnessed. 29 29 Vladeck, Baruch Charney. “How do the Jews Live in the South.” Trans. Franklin Jonas, The Forward, March 22, 1911, 8; Baruch Charney Vladeck Papers; TAM.037; box 17; folder 10; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University. Vladeck’s analysis of race even comments on “‘vayse’ privilegn,” writing, as Jonas Franklin has translated:
Some deny our “white” privilege and say:
—“you are no white – you are a Jew” 30 30 Vladeck writes phonetic English in Yiddish within the quotes (“יו אר נא װהײט - יו׳ר א דזשו”). Ibid., 7; Vladeck, Baruch. “Vi azoy lebn di yiden in di sauth.” March 22, 1911.The Jewish Daily Forward. YIVO Archives, Reel #55, March-April 1911, Norman Ross Publishing Inc.
Later in the article, Vladeck remarks that, “the Jews, the greater part of whom fled from pogroms and all the other results of race hatred, don’t show any special intelligence in reference to the Negro Question.” 31 31 Ibid., 7. The Yiddish that Jonas renders as “Negro question” is, in fact, ניגער־פראגע (niger-frage). 32 32 Vladeck, “Vi azoy lebn di yiden.” Jonas’s translation obscures the existence of “nigger-question” in the English lexicon, and discounts the probability that Vladeck chose the word and phrase deliberately. 33 33 The distinction between these two phrases arises decades earlier, in John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle’s debate over slavery, in their book, “The Negro Question and the Nigger Question” (1853). Carlyle’s essay, “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question,” uses the term “negro” and even refers to the “negro question,” only highlighting the provocation of using the slur in the title. Vladeck’s assessment of American Jews and whiteness also emerges in his later 1915 essay on Leo Frank: “Now, when the white body of one of ours has been hung upon a tree, we will perhaps understand that the blacks feel every day what we have felt for only one day and become better citizens.” 34 34 Jonas, Early Life and Career, 126-127.
In drawing attention to Vladeck, my goal is to demonstrate that a close relation of Charney’s wrote about the intersection of whiteness, Jewishness, and blackness in a manner that did not exceptionalize white Jews from the contemporaneous frameworks of white supremacy. Furthermore, Vladeck also may have authored, and almost certainly had editorial discretion over, the Forverts article which has been read as propagating the Latin translation explanation. But Vladeck’s racial politics cannot simply be assumed to stand in for Charney’s.
Blackness in Nineteenth-Century Russian, German, and European Yiddish Texts
It is difficult to know, with certainty, how Charney’s pen name functioned in European Yiddish and Russian contexts. While the Yiddish American press commonly used the term ניגער to refer to black people, the term was rarely used in European Yiddish. However, while Charney may not have encountered the term ניגער as a signifier for black people or the racial slur in Yiddish texts, he most certainly encountered Russian and Yiddish textual representations of black people and blackness, many of which engaged, or espoused, antiblack racism.
Even if Charney never encountered the term ניגער in European Yiddish texts, he plausibly encountered it in American Yiddish texts circulating in Europe. Tony Michels, who notes that “Yiddish moved from west to east, not just the other way around,” has documented the shipment of “thousands of Yiddish newspapers, journals, and pamphlets” from the United States to Russia, as early as the late 1880s. 35 35 Michels, Tony. “Exporting Yiddish Socialism: New York’s Role in the Russian Jewish Worker’s Movement.” Jewish Social Studies 16, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 2, 1. However, whether Charney ever read any American articles using the term is pure speculation; I have found no evidence that he did.
Charney’s reading habits, however, guaranteed that he would have encountered discussions of race and black people in Russian literature. Melech Epstein characterizes Charney and Vladeck both as having “read eagerly the great Russian writers,” and commentary on black people and slavery appear in the work of such famous writers as Alexander Radishchev and Leo Tolstoy. 36 36 Epstein, Melech. Profiles of Eleven (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965),328. Tolstoy uses the term негр, pronounced “nyegr,” to refer to black people in Anna Karenina. The Russian version of Charney’s pen name, Нигерь, comes from the same root, but is pronounced “nee-gr.” Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. English-Russian Parallel Text Edition Volume Eight. Ed. Lane Bannon, trans. Constance Garnett. (Bilingual Library, 2012), 44-45. Google Books. Regarding Radishchev, see Blakely, Allison. Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (Washington DC: Howard University Press, 1986), 29. The poet Alexander Pushkin would not have been considered “black” according to the racial politics of his era, but his African heritage also emerged as a theme in some of his writing and was known to his audiences. 37 37 Blakely, Russia and the Negro, 19-25.
Charney also likely encountered black people across Yiddish texts, such as the Vilna based Isaac Meir Dik’s translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 38 38 Charney also read, spoke, and wrote in Polish; a similar examination of Polish literary representations of black people, and orthographic renderings of anti-black slurs, would be relevant to this investigation. Described by Eli Rosenblatt as a “staggeringly popular” Yiddish writer, Dik emphasized the connections between Jewish oppression and black oppression, recasting “slavery” (שקלאַפֿערײַ) as “serfdom” (לײַב־אײגנשאַפֿט) on the title page. 39 39 Rosenblatt, Eli. Introduction to translation of “די שקלאַפֿערײַ אָדער די לײַב־אײגנשאַפֿט Slavery or Serfdom” by Isaac Meir Dik, Nov. 17, 2015, https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/slavery-or-serfdom. Dik also altered the novel by making Uncle Tom’s Christian slave owners into Jewish ones. Rosenblatt, “Introduction.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s transnational popularitycannot be understated: there were also at least four Russian translations of Stowe’s novel circulating in Russia published between 1858 and 1874. Rachel Rubinstein’s scholarship also invaluably explores press coverage of Yiddish language theatrical adaptations of the novel, and how these performances articulated race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sixteen Volumes. Volume II (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896) 474. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=eh89AAAAIAAJ. Rubinstein, Rachel. “’Strange Rendering:’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” American Jewish History 101, no. 1 (January 2017): 35-55. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/645161. Accessed August 7, 2018. Though it is unclear why he makes the choice, Dik never uses the term ניגער, even in translating a novel that frequently employs the English language slur, instead using neger, along with shvartse menschn and moor. 40 40 Email from Eli Rosenblatt, Aug. 29, 2017. Between Russian literature, Yiddish literature, and Yiddish American newspapers, there were numerous ways that Charney would have encountered black people, or allusions to blackness as racial construct, in Yiddish and Russian literature.
But in addition to these potential avenues, we have concrete evidence that Charney discussed political texts with specific references to black people. Daniel Charney described an address at the home of a member of the “aristocracy of Minsk”:
One day Shmuel stood on the stool in the cheap kitchen and spoke for hours on end before the audience of Dr. Leon Pinsker, who was preparing the ground for a state in the land of Israel with his composition “Autoemancipation”. However the state – said my brother Shmuel – must be built upon socialist principles, according to the “Kapital” of Karl Marx. 41 41 Charney, Daniel. “With My Brothers in Minsk,” from Dukor. Trans. Judy Montel and Nachum Chinitz, 2008, 488. https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/minsk/min1_487.html.
He continues, “when we would gather in the house of Uncle Yeshaya, the uncle would start with a discussion about Zionism and about the congress in Basle, from ‘HaTzefira’ read speeches by Herzl, Dr. Max Nordau, Wolfson, and other various doctors.” 42 42 Ibid., 489. Marx’s Das Kapital discusses black people, using the German word “Neger.” 43 43 Marx, Karl. Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie: Erster Band. (Hamburg: Otto Meissner, 1872), 266, 561, 620, 796. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=xCMpAAAAYAAJ Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation uses the same term in an explicitly racist context, suggesting that Jewish suffering is worse than black suffering because, “unlike the negroes, they belong to an advanced race.” 44 44 Pinsker. Autoemanzipation. (Brünn: Kadimah, 1903), 12. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=Z40yAQAAMAAJ. Pinsker, Leon. Auto-Emancipation, English trans. (New York: Maccabaean, 1906), 4. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=CpYpAAAAYAAJ
While Charney may have never encountered the term ניגער prior to emigrating to the United States, he certainly encountered discussions of black people and racism in the literary and political contexts in which he was immersed. And this seemingly mundane point necessitates emphasis because while Charney may have only learned of ניגער’s pejorative qualities upon arriving in the United States, the existence of antiblack racism and broad societal oppression of black people was not new information to him. He previously encountered texts directly addressing and perpetrating antiblack attitudes.
As such, we might contextualize Charney’s pseudonym choice within the nineteenth-century antiblack racist ideology extant in Jewish socialist and Zionist circles. Pinsker publicly disparaged black people in Auto-Emancipation, but private discourses could be similarly disturbing. Marx’s 1862 private letters to Engels found him referring to Ferdinand Lassalle as the “judische Nigger Lassalle.” 45 45 I am unsure of the notoriety of these letters in socialist circles in the early twentieth century, but as early as 1936, a feature in “The Modern Monthly” reviewed a new publication of Marx and Engels’ correspondences, noting that it did not suppress “the notorious and almost incredible passages about the ‘juedische Nigger Lassalle.’ Modern Monthly 9, no. 9-12 (1936): 30. https://books.google.com/books?id=RoweAQAAMAAJ &printsec=frontcover. Marx’s language reflects Sander Gilman’s and John Efron’s observations about how European racial discourse, and German culture in particular, characterized Jews as akin to black people in ways that were both racist and antisemitic. 46 46 Efron, John. Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 52. Gilman, Sander. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 205-208. Marx’s language also indicates an awareness of the racial slur as distinct from the German Neger approximately four decades before Charney took on his pseudonym.
Still, I end this section acknowledging its speculative nature; I have found no evidence indicating Charney encountered the term ניגער in European Yiddish. Upon arriving in the United States, though, the interpretation of his pseudonym becomes far less contestable.
שמואל ניגער becomes “Samuel Nigger”
The New York Times covered Charney’s arrival in New York City in 1919, noting:
The critic, who is 35 years old, writes under the pen name of “Samuel Nigger.” He is a slim man of dark complexion, under the average height, clean shaven, with dark eyes. While he does not speak English, he talks fluently in French, Russian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. 47 47 “Jewish Critic Here, Tells of Pogrom.” New York Times,Oct. 19, 1919, 21. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
The Evening Telegram also announced Charney’s arrival:
Samuel Charney, who writes under the pen name of Samuel Nigger, one of the most prominent Jewish writers in the world, according to New York Jews, arrived from abroad today aboard the steamship Chicago, bringing stories of hardships, threats and pogroms that would make Poe turn over in his grave. 48 48 “Wife Robbed by Poles Who Shot 70, Says Author.” The Evening Telegram, n.d., YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 115, Folder 3067.
The Telegram article addresses Charney’s fame, and with its literary turn, links Charney’s stories of European antisemitic violence with Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic stylings. A third article on Charney’s arrival, in Boston’s The Jewish Advocate, referred to him as writing “under the pen name of ‘Samuel Nigger.’” 49 49 “Noted Yiddish Critic,” The Jewish Advocate, Oct. 23, 1919. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Each of these articles makes reference to Charney as Charney, and classifies “Nigger” as a pen name. This occurred less often in Yiddish press. While Yiddish articles occasionally note that ניגער was a pseudonym, they continue to use that pseudonym almost exclusively to refer to him. Unlike these early English articles, Yiddish publications collapsed the difference between Charney the man and ניגער the pen name. Curiously, academic writing follows the trend of the Yiddish press, referring to him as “Niger” or “Nigger,” but never as Charney, other than to establish his original family name. Coverage of Charney’s arrival by major publications signal his prominence, and as such compels us to consider the contemporaneous significance of a prominent Jewish intellectual going by a racial slur. Passow has suggested that Charney “exerted considerable intellectual influence on the burgeoning immigrant Jewish community which was in the throes of a search for identity.” 50 50 Passow, The Prime of Yiddish, 87. While Passow means this in the context of Charney’s writing and lectures, this influence undoubtedly extended to how Charney’s pen name, in Yiddish and English transliteration, signified black racial identity for a largely white immigrant Jewish community. 51 51 Cultural studies on white Jewish American navigation of blackness and black culture would be helpful for additional theorizing of Charney’s choice. See Blackface, White Noise (1996) for Michael Rogin’s assessment of Jewish entertainers and blackface, Jeffrey Melnick’s A Right to Sing the Blues (1999) for its discussion of the music industry (and its discussion of white Jewish gang members using the n-word as a nickname), and Borrowed Voices (2016) for Jennifer Glaser’s analysis of racial ventriloquism. That the pen name’s meaning today functions as something of a Rorschach test for Yiddishists seems most conspicuous because in the early twentieth century, there was nothing Rorschach-like about newspapers printing his transliterated English name as “Nigger.”
These early articles demonstrate how Charney came to be identified as the slur immediately upon arriving in the United States. Considerable English press coverage continued to refer to him this way. The New York Times again used the slur in referring to him in a 1931 article, as did The Sentinel in 1924, and the Canadian Jewish Western Bulletin in 1937. 52 52 “Writer’s Wife Seized.” New York Times, April 12, 1931. New York Times Online Archive. “The J.D.C.’s Contribution to the Jewish Colonization Experiment in Russia Criticized and Defended.” The Sentinel, Sept. 26, 1924, 30. Historical Jewish Press of the NLI & TAU. “Famed Scientist Joins ‘ORT.’” Jewish Western Bulletin, Dec. 17, 1937. Fraser Digital Library. In 1934, JWB referred to the writer as both “S. Niger” and (without an initial) “Nigger” in the very same article. 53 53 This article shows the extent of the orthographic inconsistency. “Reading Notes.” Jewish Western Bulletin, Aug. 2, 1934. Fraser Digital Library. A 1927 feature in the Canadian Jewish Review rendered Charney’s pseudonym as the slur, while placing it in quotes throughout. 54 54 “Mr. Samuel ‘Nigger’s’ Lectures.” Canadian Jewish Review, Nov. 25, 1927. Fraser Digital Library. The slur appears five times in the article, including the following sentence: “A fluid and lucid lecturer, ‘Nigger’ is able to guide his audience through the maze of currents and cross-currents which play under the surface of Jewish group life.” 55 55 Ibid. But did Charney ever try to elucidate the “maze of currents and cross-currents” beneath the surface of his use of, and his Jewish audience’s understanding of, his pen name?
I have found no evidence that he did. But the choice to spell Charney’s pseudonym as the slur confirm that Charney’s pseudonym and the slur were, in many editors’ estimations, identical. The numerous transliterations of ניגער as slur indicate that the Yiddish word Charney selected read and sounded to Jewish American audiences like the slur. This is consistent with the history of its usage in American Yiddish literature. Newspapers initially rendered ניגער as the n-word because in American Yiddish, as we have seen in newspaper and literature from the era, that is what the term ניגער commonly signified, and how it was commonly understood.
That said, “Niger” eventually became the more popular journalistic spelling, and a similar shift in spelling appeared in Charney’s correspondences. For example, the first letter he receives from Der Tog, dated February 24, 1920, was made out to “Mr. S. Charney Nigger.” 56 56 Letter from “E. Kaplowitz, for the Editor,” Feb. 24, 1920, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 33, Folder 652. That letter is followed by a fund raising appeal (perhaps a form letter) from Der Tog editor William Edlin, utilizing the alternate spelling: “Mr. S. Charney Niger.” 57 57 Letter from William Edlin, Mar. 20, 1920, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 33, Folder 652. But on November 1, 1920, a personalized letter from Edlin, about bumping an article to a later date, addresses him as “My dear Mr. Nigger.” 58 58 Letter from William Edlin, Nov. 1, 1920, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 33, Folder 652.
Generally, the earlier the letter, the more likely Charney’s pseudonym was rendered as the slur. Still, correspondents addressed him with the slur throughout his life. More than twenty English language letters in his collected YIVO papers address Charney as the slur, and some address his wife as “Mrs. Nigger.” Other less common spellings include Niguer, Neeger, Nieger, Neiger, Neager, Nigher, Nigur, and Neger.
Sets of letters reveal another discernible pattern: initial letters might address him as “Nigger,” while subsequent correspondence used “Niger.” At least one piece of evidence reveals Charney correcting someone who spelled his name as the slur. In August 1943, Bernard Weinryb, the editor of The Jewish Review apologized to Charney for the mistake of indicating, on letterhead, that “Samuel Cherney-Nigger” was on the Editorial Board of the journal. 59 59 Letter from Bernard Weinryb, Aug. 27, 1943, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 32, Folder 587. By May of 1944, the letterhead was corrected to “Samuel Charney-Niger.” 60 60 Letter from Bernard Weinryb, May 19, 1944, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 32, Folder 587.
Charney’s attempts to have his name written as “Niger” provide compelling evidence that he preferred that his pseudonym be rendered as distinct from the pejorative. Still, his name was so commonly associated with the slur that many academic works refer to Charney as “Nigger,” as we will see. To my knowledge, only two of these suggest a rationale for this choice. This brings us to the second widely circulated explanation: the solidarity gesture.
The Solidarity Myth and Its Tree
The earliest scholarly English language publication I have encountered identifying political intent in Charney’s choice is Jeffrey Melnick’s A Right to Sing the Blues (1999). Regarding the phenomenon of white American Jews using the slur as nickname, Melnick writes:
I should note here that I have encountered only one example where the nickname “Nigger” seems to have been self-chosen. The Yiddish critic Samuel Charney wrote under the pen name “Nigger.” Although his last name is the Russian word for “black,” Charney was obviously making a comment, with his choice of pseudonym, on the affiliations of Russian Jews and African Americans. 61 61 Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues,235.
Melnick interprets the nickname’s popularity among youth gangs as involving Jews’ “great uneasiness about their relationship to African Americans. One way Jews admitted, addressed, and perhaps expunged this fear was by calling one another ‘Nigger.’” 62 62 Ibid., 98. Crucially, Melnick also observes that within an American context, “the conflation of Jew and Black is less common than it has been in Europe.” 63 63 Ibid., 98. All of this helps account for Melnick’s assessment of Charney’s choice as political comment. But it also raises questions: why is there no previous record of this solidarity in scholarly writing?
Melnick mentions Rachel Rubin as having drawn his attention to Charney, and she indicated the aforementioned Benjamin Harshav, one of her mentors, as a potential resource. 64 64 Email from Jeffrey Melnick, Aug. 8, 2014. Email from Rachel Rubin, Aug. 29, 2014. While I reached out to Professor Harshav a few years ago regarding this question, he passed before I had the chance for any meaningful communication with him on this subject. Harshav authored the second book that speaks to Charney’s political motivations. In Marc Chagall and His Times (2004), Harshav includes correspondences between Chagall and Charney. Harshav writes:
Shmuel Nigger (pseudonym of Shmuel Charny, 1883-1955) was the most prominent Yiddish literary critic of his time. Although Charny in Polish does mean “black,” the choice of this name was a demonstration of solidarity with the oppressed American “Niggers.” 65 65 Harshav, Chagall, 327.
While Harshav’s published account post-dates Melnick’s, Harshav, born in 1928, utilized this explanation in his teaching. Rob Adler Peckerar, another former student of Harshav, recalls that Harshav (along with his colleague, Eli Katz) taught that Charney’s choice of “Nigger” was a statement of solidarity. 66 66 Phone interview with Rob Adler Peckerar, Aug. 4, 2017. At the same time, Adler Peckerar expressed skepticism of the solidarity claim. 67 67 Ibid.
The only other source I have found making a similar claim is Margo Glantz, the author and daughter of Yiddish poet (and Charney contemporary) Jacob Glantz. In her Spanish language memoir, Las Genalogías (1981), she writes, “el doctor Samuel Niger, quien usaba ese seudónimo con ostentación, en un país donde se discriminaba a los negros.” 68 68 Glantz, Margo. Las Genalogías. (México: Martín Casillas Editores, 1981), 145. But the English version of her memoir, translated by Susan Bassnett, reads, “Nigger deliberately used such a pseudonym in a country where there was discrimination against negroes.” 69 69 Glantz, Margo. The Family Tree. Trans. Susan Bassnett. (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1991), 107. I am grateful to Rachel Rubinstein for alerting me to this text. Notably, Glantz implies solidarity without explicitly stating it, but utilizes Charney’s preferred spelling. Bassnett conspicuously chooses to render Charney’s pseudonym as the slur, but Glantz’s original prose reminds us again of orthography’s indeterminacy regarding how the name was read or understood.
While Glantz, Harshav, and Melnick’s texts claim the pseudonym has political meaning, other authors use the slur spelling without any attempt to contextualize it. Jacob Leftwich refers to Charney with the slur in his revised 1961 anthology, The Golden Peacock. 70 70 Leftwich, Joseph, Ed. 1939. The Golden Peacock: An Anthology of Yiddish Poetry (Cambridge: Sci-Art Publishers, 1961), 25, 28. Interestingly, he refers to “Niger” in the 1939 edition. Leftwich, Joseph, Ed. The Golden Peacock: An Anthology of Yiddish Poetry (Cambridge: Sci-Art Publishers, 1939), 440, 641. In 1958, Israel Elfenbein refers to Charney with the slur in Leo Jung’s compilation, Guardians of our Heritage. 71 71 Jung, Leo, Ed. Guardians of our Heritage (1724-1953) (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1958), 606. Ilan Stavans does the same in The Inveterate Dreamer (2001). 72 72 Stavans, Ilan. The Inveterate Dreamer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), x. And Harshav identifies Charney with the slur, without explanation, in two other books: The Meaning of Yiddish (1990) and The Polyphony of Jewish Culture (2007).
Certainly, far more publications proceed with the spelling “Niger.” But the texts spelling Charney’s pseudonym as a slur constitute a rejoinder to the Latin translation explanation. Despite not engaging with Charney’s intent, rendering the pseudonym as slur indicates a rejection of the deracinated spelling, and thus also the deracinated explanation.
Significantly, even as “Niger” became the standardized spelling, the question of its pronunciation differed. A. A. Roback writes in The Story of Yiddish Literature (1940) that Niger is “pronounced Niegger.” 73 73 Roback, A. A. The Story of Yiddish Literature (Boston: Independent Press, 1940), 250. Yet the entry for “Yiddish” in the 1973 Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions “Samuel Niger,” “known by his last name, and pronounced ‘Nigger.’” 74 74Encyclopaedia Britannica: Volume 23. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1973), 894. Both respellings use a double g to distinguish them from the soft g associated with the African country and river, but Roback’s respelling distances the pen name from the slur, while Britannica does the opposite. The fact that an iconic, popular resource indicates Charney’s pseudonym was pronounced like the slur, even if spelled differently, contextualizes how widespread association of the name with the slur remained even after orthographic correction.
The Problem of Overvaluing Charney’s Intent
Turning to the Chappelle Show sketch, “The Niggar Family” (2004), can help illustrate how using Charney’s pseudonym demeans and disregards black voices and experiences. In this popular sketch from Dave Chappelle’s influential early-aughts Comedy Central television show, Chappelle plays Clifton, an African American milkman who derives immense satisfaction whenever he addresses a white client’s family by their surname, which is aurally indistinguishable from the slur. The white characters in the sketch tell their own deadpan racist jokes: the father, upon hearing his son Timmy is still asleep, refers to him as “one lazy Niggar.” 75 75Chappelle Show, episode 2, season 2, “The Niggar Family,” performance by Dave Chappelle et. al., aired Jan. 28, 2004 on Comedy Central. http://www.cc.com/video-clips/mlg0y7/chappelle-s-show-the-niggar-family—-uncensored. The sketch shows the power dynamics at play when the slur is invoked by and about a well-to-do, pre-Civil Rights era suburban white family displaying questionable obliviousness to the significance of their surname.
One scene bears particular relevance to stories involving Charney: Clifton and his wife are at a restaurant waiting for a table when the host calls out “Niggar, party of two.” Distressed, Clifton bravely stands up to the host: “Lookee here, Jack, just because we’re colored doesn’t mean we came out here to be disrespected, OK?” On cue, Timmy arrives and defuses the situation by announcing that the reservation was for him. Clifton jokes that Timmy will get “the finest table a nigger’s ever got in this restaurant,” and as everyone laughs, adds, “This racism is killing me inside.” 76 76 Ibid.
That line haunts the sketch. It reveals the vastly different consequences for Timmy and his family to be slurred in jest and for Clifton and other black people to be dehumanized by racist white society. It demonstrates that what Timmy experiences as a vaguely humorous misunderstanding is deeply painful to Clifton. Even as Clifton garners some satisfaction by making jokes at the Niggars’ expense, the joke is ultimately on him. Racism, and the slur in particular, pose a constant threat to him that it never will to a white family.
Consider a similar “joke” about Charney, courtesy of Dan Opatoshu. Opatoshu recounts childhood memories of his grandfather, Yiddish author Joseph Opatoshu, and the celebrated Yiddish speakers (Chagall and Shlomo Bickel, among others) who joined his secular shabes dinner:
The only occasion that I can recall making a contribution to the debate occurring above me was when my five-year-old ears pricked up at the repeated brandishing of what I knew to be an unacceptable epithet. I rose to my feet and angrily admonished the assembled that it was a bad word, you should never use that word, a really, really, bad word! I had interrupted a contentious discussion of the latest published musings of the critic and essayist Shmuel Niger. The memory of the laughter that greeted my declaration of righteous disapproval still causes me shame. 77 77 Opatoshu, Dan. “In New York Velder: Yosef/Joseph Opatoshu – Constructing a Multinational, 20th Century, (very) Modern Yiddish Identity.” In Joseph Opatoshu: A Yiddish Writer Between Europe and America, edited by Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, 18-34. (London: Legenda, 2013) 19.
The anecdote resembles Clifton’s, moving from indignant confrontation to laughter. But whom is the joke on here? What do we make of these revered elders laughing at Dan Opatoshu’s interjection, such that decades later, he still feels shame?
Dan Opatoshu’s response to hearing “a really, really, bad word” parleyed about by these Yiddishists was not merely an appropriate response, it was – like Clifton’s – a brave one. The story also reveals the flimsiness of various counterarguments about pronunciation and context regarding the term ניגער. The Yiddishists do not deny ניגער functioned as a pejorative; ostensibly, that generation was well aware that the term ניגער existed in Yiddish as a slur. As to the pronunciation piece? Clearly, ניגער resembles the slur sufficiently that a white Jewish child recognizes it. The lesson is a troubling one: adult Yiddish speaking Jews have ownership of the word ניגער extending to misunderstandings regarding the n-word. That ownership is asserted via shaming a young white Jewish boy observing that his elders are using inappropriate, racist language.
Anyone present at that dinner would likely have known Charney’s real name. English press often referred to him as Charney, Yiddish press occasionally mentioned his family name as Charney, and his brother Daniel being named Charney was common knowledge in this set. Every instance of referring to Charney as ניגער constituted a choice. As such, we might wonder whether any conditions rendered it preferable for Yiddish speakers to refer to Charney as Charney?
One clue surfaces in his papers. By the 1930s, Charney had joined an organization called the “American Society for Race Tolerance.” Their first letter, dated April 1937, inviting Charney to a dinner, was addressed, “Dear Mr Nigger.” 78 78 Letter from Frederick Dannick, Apr. 26, 1937, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 44, Folder 983. A year later, a different representative writes, asking for the:
privilege of using your name as one of the honorary sponsors of this luncheon. Knowing your interest in the work for better racial understanding, we assure you that your name will lend tremendous impetus to the cause and to the success of our undertaking. 79 79 Letter from Dorothy Greiner, Apr. 5, 1938, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 44, Folder 983.
This second letter, made out to “Niger” from the chair of the “Inter-racial Luncheon Committee,” was probably a form letter in search of sponsorship. 80 80 Ibid. Still, the emphasis on Charney’s “name” stands out given Charney’s pseudonym. Charney’s response to the earlier letter is not archived, but he may have indicated his orthographical preference. This switch was common with second letters in Charney’s correspondences.
What happened next was unusual: later that month, the same committee chair sent a third letter, addressed “Dear Mr. Charney,” thanking him “for the privilege to use your name as a sponsor.” 81 81 Letter from Dorothy Greiner, Apr. 29, 1938, YIVO Archives, RG 360, Box 44, Folder 983. But which name? The sequence of salutations indicates that Charney may have requested that his surname be used instead of his pseudonym. This does not happen elsewhere in his papers. No program appears in the archive materials, so which name was ultimately used to indicate sponsorship is unclear. Notably, the invitation to Charney states that the goal for the luncheon was that the “one thousand” in attendance be of diverse backgrounds. 82 82 Ibid.
Faced with a choice of names in a mixed company venue, Charney appears to have entirely abandoned the pseudonym deriving from the same root as the slur. This seems eminently understandable. A diverse collection of people committed to “race tolerance” might be less willing to agree that Charney’s pseudonym would “lend tremendous impetus to the cause and to the success of our undertaking.” Charney’s ostensible choice to abandon his pseudonym here plausibly reveals his own recognition that, even with just one “g,” his pen name possessed associative qualities he preferred to distance himself from in certain settings.
So, we have circumstantial evidence that Charney, at least once, chose to abandon his pseudonym in the (literal) context of a “Society for Race Tolerance.” Consider this against an anecdotal, possibly apocryphal story that circulates, with some variations: two Yiddish speakers discuss Charney, using his pseudonym, when they are overheard by an African American who confronts them about their use of a racial slur. A couple of Yiddishists have recounted versions of this story to me, which, in structure, bear resemblance both to Dan Opatoshu’s anecdote and the Chappelle Show sketch. One variation takes place in a home, with a black woman (a housekeeper) overhearing the conversation. Other variations occur on the subway, with black passengers intervening.
Charney died on a subway platform, returning from a YIVO meeting. The subway anecdote thereby also evokes notions of Charney’s mortality and legacy. Joshua Fogel’s translation of Charney’s entry (by Leyb Vaserman) in the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur mentions Charney’s death. Vaserman, Leyb. “Shmuel Niger.” Yiddish Leksikon. Trans. Joshua Fogel, Jan. 14, 2018. http://yleksikon.blogspot.com/2018/01/shmuel-niger.html. Accessed July 5, 2018.
Each version involves a “misunderstanding” involving what may or may not be white Jewish racism, though the differences – public vs. private space and gendered vs. ungendered black interlocutor – reveal different anxieties. But what, exactly, is being misunderstood?
What the Chappelle Show sketch illustrates so adeptly is that the n-word cannot be used by white people in a benign or neutral fashion; whether used purposefully or obliviously, it perpetuates racism. These “what happens when someone overhears ניגער” anecdotes are not so much misunderstandings as discourses on power. Are white Jewish boys, black women in the domestic economy, or black passengers in public spaces like the subway, justified in reprimanding white Jews for using the n-word? The disturbing logic of these anecdotes suggests: no, they are not.
These anecdotes reveal white Jewish social anxiety at being perceived as racist for using, or accommodating, the word ניגער. They are never told from the perspective of the offended African Americans. None of these anecdotes have any real closure; they tend to end with the Yiddish speakers explaining their use of the word on account of it being a Yiddish name distinct from the English word, and their lack of racist intent.
But this elides the history of the word ניגער as a slur for black people in the Yiddish American lexicon. In intimating that intellectually engaged white Jews might be accused of racism just for publicly discussing Yiddish literature, the anecdotes implicitly suggest that white Jews’ freedom of expression is endangered by the threat of non-Jewish black interlopers. The anonymous black person on the subway or black woman who works as a domestic laborer is made into the butt of the joke: they are told that they are wrong, uninformed, uneducated even, about a language (Yiddish) that is not theirs. The anecdotes function as an attempt at border maintenance, but they actually reveal the flawed presuppositions for imagining language as a clear border. First, ostensibly internal Yiddish discourse can still be overheard and (mis)understood by the “outside” world. Second, these anecdotes’ establishment of an inside/outside dichotomy of white Jews who are not racist, and black non-Jews who overstep the “border” in intimating white Jewish racism, obscures important realities: willfully racist white Jews exist, black Jews exist, Yiddish-speaking black people exist, and systemic antiblack racism within Jewish communities exists. Furthermore, it is the Yiddish speakers who are factually incorrect in suggesting the word ניגער has nothing to do with the slur. The racism in these anecdotes is not explicit expression of animus, but the blatant dishonesty facilitated by a cultural logic insisting that white Jewishness is immune to expressing anti-black racism, and the alarming gaslighting of black people who are told they did not hear the slur they heard.
Conclusion (What We Do in our Classrooms)
Regardless of whether those who refer to Charney by his pseudonym mean to invoke the racial slur, suggesting that those who hear it are mistaken is ahistorical and incompatible with a serious consideration of sociolinguistic theory regarding Yiddish and the n-word. Anecdotes reveal not just black people, but white Jews (such as Opatoshu) recognizing ניגער as slur. Even members of Charney’s family would struggle with the meaning and significance of his pseudonym. Didi Charney, one of Charney’s granddaughters, provides the following account of her experience with the pseudonym:
Charney is Russian for black; Niger is Latin for black. All I was ever told was that Shmuel picked a pen name that also meant black. As for personal experience or recollection about that pen name: Yeah, someone in elementary school found out about his name, and started calling ME nigger at school. Dunno how or when but I was quite young and pretty upset about it. Neither one is much of a story, I’m afraid. 84 84 Email from Didi Charney, Sept. 7, 2017.
But this actually is an important, revealing story. “All I was ever told” indicates an inkling that there was more to the story, and the memory of being called the slur and being “pretty upset about it” reminds us of the pain the word inflicts. Of course, as a white girl in elementary school, Charney’s granddaughter’s vulnerability pales in comparison to black people who must navigate persistent, pervasive racism. Note also how the language above shifts from “Niger” to the slur: when explicitly weaponized, the slur is easily recognizable.
Within Jewish and Yiddish Studies, the choice to ignore the historical role ניגער played as a slur also exists as its own implicit weaponization. We might begin rectifying this by referring to Charney, in our scholarship and in our teaching, by his given and legal name. This allows us to acknowledge that ניגער was used as a racial slur in Yiddish press and literature (and thus certainly also in spoken Yiddish) at the turn of the twentieth century. This fact may be easier to acknowledge if we refrain from putting ourselves in the position to repeatedly use the word when we discuss Charney. Charney’s “legacy” also plays a role: any honest consideration of the word ניגער was tied up, since 1919, with a public figure who held particularly iconic status in academic and intellectual American Jewish and Yiddishist circles. Moving forward, we should acknowledge Charney’s contributions to American Jewish life and Yiddish Studies while also including him in conversations about the history of the word ניגער. Avoiding this conversation implies to our students that the racist history of the Yiddish word is unimportant, unfounded, secondary. Instead, we should acknowledge the significance of the word, and not through propagating the myth that the white Jewish American most responsible for the continued use of the nun-word actually intended to champion anti-racism.
The literary scholar Koritha Mitchell has provided invaluable resources for responsibly teaching and discussing texts with the n-word. In proposing using “N” or “N’s” when reading passages aloud, Mitchell astutely observes “It doesn’t take a PhD for my students to understand that we are literary critics, not re-enactors, so we need not let the text dictate what we give life to in the classroom.” 85 85 Mitchell, Koritha. “Teaching & the N-word: Questions to Consider.” www.korithamitchell.com, Mar. 23, 2018, http://www.korithamitchell.com/teaching-and-the-n-word. Those of us teaching Jewish and Yiddish Studies also ought to be careful about what we give life to when we teach Charney by his pseudonym. The important scholarship on Yiddish authors’ engagement with blackness, by scholars like Jessica Kirzane, Marc Caplan, Eli Rosenblatt, and Rachel Rubinstein, among others, has helped contextualize how blackness and black people functioned in Yiddish literature since its advent. This emerging literary history should dovetail with an effective pedagogy regarding the consequences of Charney’s choice. Jewish and Yiddish Studies, like all disciplines, must engage with cultural legacies involving racism. Emily Bernard’s essay “Teaching the N-Word” reminds us, as scholars in a predominantly white academic field, that the slur poses as many pedagogical problems for black scholars as it does for white ones (if not more), even as the piece (like Mitchell’s) presents a range of approaches for teaching material involving the slur. 86 86 Bernard, Emily. “Teaching the N-Word.” The American Scholar, 1 Sept. 2005. https://theamericanscholar.org/teaching-the-n-word. A more honest historical assessment of the word ניגער will not make classrooms more uncomfortable. It will instead facilitate bringing that already-present discomfort some students feel to the surface, for exploration, consideration, and analysis.
Perhaps most importantly, failing to engage honestly with the term ניגער sends a message as to who is and who is not welcome within these disciplines. If the message we send our students is that they are not hearing the words they hear, we alienate those students bright enough to know when their instructors are incorrect. More disturbingly, we intimate that students of color in particular are wrong to sense racism where their professors assure them it does not exist. Across genres, journalists, scholars, and activists, including Nylah Burton, Katya Gibel Mevorach, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Helen Kim, Noah Leavitt, Rebecca Pierce, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (among others) address how Jews of color must navigate expectations that Jews are white, which take their toll in Jewish spaces as well as non-Jewish ones. 87 87 For examples, see Nylah Burton, “The Forward’s ‘Both Sides’ Approach Has Failed.” Jewish Currents, 15 May 2019. https://jewishcurrents.org/the-forward-s-both-sides-approach-has-failed; Katya Gibel Mevorach, Black, Jewish, and Interracial (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016); Rebecca Pierce, “Black Jewish Voices are Finally Being Heard. So is the Racist Backlash.” Forward, 24 Jan. 2019. https://forward.com/opinion/418143/black-jewish-voices-are-finally-being-heard-so-is-the-racist-backlash; and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century.” In On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, 31-41 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). A better strategy for teaching Shmuel Charney might help minimize the potential for micro- or macroaggressions against people of color in Jewish and Yiddish Studies. Conversations about Charney can engage what the nun-word reveals about the existence and articulation of white American Jewish racism, as well as the subsequent erasure of that word in discussions of Charney as “Niger.” Such a pedagogical approach would better instruct our students about how racism lurks, simultaneously and paradoxically at and beneath the surface, in communities predisposed to simplifying racism into a matter of intent.