Rick Perry at ‘Niggerhead’
Crossroads of history
One of the first things you learn looking up tiny Paint Creek, Texas, Gov. Rick Perry’s home town, is that it survived the Great Depression largely because of the New Deal. Perry’s own Democratic forebears were partly responsible for naming the town after a nearby stream, one of several tributaries in the U.S. named Paint Creek. Soon after, in 1939, the Rural Electrification Association began supplying electricity, as to hundreds of other small towns.* Many of us whose grandparents and great-grandparents came from small towns in Texas and elsewhere have a family memory of that life-saving event, along with family memories of the newly instituted FDIC insurance that protected ordinary people’s wages and savings. Without the REA and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, countless more families like the Perrys would have become families like the Joads.
This is not the picture that emerges from chronicles influenced by K Street. Take the article “Rick Perry’s Roots: A world of difference from Washington,” in what is called Real Clear Politics:
“PAINT CREEK, Texas–It’s not hard to understand why Rick Perry hates Washington after driving along the farm-to-market roads where he was raised. [DANGLING]
His roots are rural: He’s a farmer-rancher by trade, and his supporters say the reason he understands the plight of small business owners is because in his younger days he ran the family’s cotton farm. He rails against centralized government because he thinks it’s too far removed from the people it governs. It’s certainly plain to see that the trappings of Washington couldn’t be any farther away from the modesty of Paint Creek, where clouds of dust still blow behind the cars that travel from farm to farm, and signs other than those pointing out the names of roads are hard to come by; billboards and political displays are non-existent.”
Set aside for the moment that that Washington-hater Perry is trying his uttermost to get to Washington, and that he left Paint Branch behind decades ago. The essential topic in 2012 is policy. The “centralized” government against which Perry rails supported his town, his school, and his home, when the party he switched to would willingly have let them collapse, but there is no mention of that here. There is no mention of the anti-regulation lobbying that enables billboards to proliferate elsewhere, no mention of the climate-change denial that will magnify those clouds of dust exponentially, no mention of the unbridled GOP lobbying and corporate giving–hardly modest–that Rick Perry signed on with. Also, Perry is not a farmer-rancher by trade; he is a political officeholder by trade.
Fortunately other reports provide a more balanced perspective on Gov. Perry in his home town and county–which did not vote him into the governor’s office–including a good New York Times article on Paint Creek, Tex., and a good Fort Worth Star-Telegram article. Again, the important topic is policy. A solid understanding of Perry’s policy in his native state is an indicator for the future. The thumbnail is that he is another bought-and-sold good-ol’-boy; further detail so far is largely colorful embellishment–interesting for local color, superficial as to individual psychology, and unnecessary for understanding future domestic or foreign policy.
It is illuminating that the way Rick Perry is currently dealing with the topic of race, in connection with his family’s property, is by not dealing with it.
By now most political publications have reported that Perry’s hunting camp, where he brings supporters for a rural retreat, is named “Niggerhead.” The account in the Washington Post is as clear as any:
“Paint Creek, Tex.—In the early years of his political career, Rick Perry began hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance.
“Niggerhead,” it read.
Ranchers who once grazed cattle on the 1,070-acre parcel on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River called it by that name well before Perry and his father, Ray, began hunting there in the early 1980s. There is no definitive account of when the rock first appeared on the property. In an earlier time, the name on the rock was often given to mountains and creeks and rock outcroppings across the country. Over the years, civil rights groups and government agencies have had some success changing those and other racially offensive names that dotted the nation’s maps.”
“But the name of this particular parcel did not change for years after it became associated with Rick Perry, first as a private citizen, then as a state official and finally as Texas governor. Some locals still call it that. As recently as this summer, the slablike rock—lying flat, the name still faintly visible beneath a coat of white paint—remained by the gated entrance to the camp.”
First, the property name itself.
What I’m seeing, with the help of Google Books, is that the offensive term ‘niggerhead’ is not of great antiquity. In the 2012 elections, undoubtedly a vibe is already circulating somewhere among resentful, envious quasi-illiterate GOPers, that Perry is somehow unfairly being pressured to change a name hallowed/disinfected by the longevity of generations if not centuries. This kind of narrative tends to take hold among people who are supportive of littering and hostile toward clean air.
Let’s head this one off at the pass: This is no hallowed-ancestors narrative. The offensive term ‘niggerhead’ was actually not current in the eighteenth century, seems not to have existed before that, and in fact proliferated most only in the later nineteenth century.** In the late nineteenth century it was a name for an outcropping rock, boulder or stump, often one that interfered with navigation in a river or creek. This meaning is probably the likeliest source for the Perry parcel of land, a landmark origin of sorts associated with Paint Creek.
The upside is that the name, offensive in itself, does not directly refer to lynching or other bloodshed. In some contexts it more resembles exotic names such as Moor’s-head, Turk’s-head, etc., given to pastries and plants.
The downside is that it is unquestionably a term of ridicule, safely after the Civil War.
Here is the genuine narrative, condensed: The name ‘niggerhead’ gets more common in the U.S. in the 19th century, much more in the later 19the century, and most of all toward the very end of the 19th century. It becomes an alternate name for a number of different things and for entirely different types of things—
- mussels and clams;
- several kinds of rock including slate and hematite;
- roughly cut tobacco, as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn;
- “a nodule of coral projecting above water” in the 1878 Sportsman’s Gazetteer;
- as of 1896 another name for Maryland’s state flower, the black-eyed Susan, which also has other names, one worse;
- a kind of cactus, the Hedgehog cactus or Echinocactus Wislizeni, also in 1893 called Turk’s-head;
- another name for echinacea, echinacea angustifolia (from the Greek word for hedgehog or sea urchin, echinos);
- a tree stump sticking out of water;
- stumps or protrusions in a swamp;
- by 1892 a kind of hoe;
- a term used in oil drilling;
- a kind of ore; and
- a kind of coal.
The Oxford English Dictionary adds a kind of fabric, also 19th century, and the nautical sense of “a bollard or winch-head,” this last from 20th century quotations. The term itself is found in fields including geology, botany, mining or quarrying, exploration and navigation, but of all the applications of the term from the 19th century, only one is directly political—it was predictably a term of disparagement for anti-slavery whites, in the middle of the century, in places like Pennsylvania and Boston.
A bit nervous, are you, gentlemen? What other people would make of this little list I don’t know. What I’m seeing is you don’t get random scattering around of a belittling name, applied indiscriminately to things trampled on or dug up, without some inner tremor going on somewhere.
Make of it what you will, even a quick check shows that the word was regarded as unsavory even in the 19th century: One botanist refers to it as “a more vulgar name” for Echinacea, as early as 1892. A description of the condition of the Cumberland Road through the state of Indiana in the 1832 Congressional Record includes this passage:
“A considerable portion of the masonry, especially on the eastern division of the road, is built of detached masses of granite, or field stones, known in that section of the country by the name of “nigger heads” . . .”
Quotation marks, italics, and an account distanced from unappealing regionalism, in 1832? Signs of hope. Too bad his kind did not prevail in time to end slavery and prevent the Civil War.
Au contraire, somebody delivering a learned geological address made a joke from the common term, preserved for us in 1878 Transactions of the annual fair, Georgia State Agricultural Society:
“And another, in this particular kind of locality, which is indicated by a red line extending from Newnan down near or beyond Talbotton, down to the Muscogee railroad, which, as indicated here on the map, is a trap rock, a kind of volcanic rock, which was very hard originally, but decomposes when exposed to the air into a very rich red clay soil. Those of you who live in this vicinity, and in a line north and south, passing by Greenville down to Talbotton, will recognize this particular character of soil. It forms frequently large, round masses, which are sometimes called “nigger- heads,” very hard—even harder than nigger-heads. [Laughter.] . . .”
Laughter in the original.
In other words, they knew what they were doing.
By the way, there is scant connection of the word with Texas in print before 1890, although the state had a ‘Niggerhead Peak’.
Speaking of nervousness, thus far the way Rick Perry is handling this detail of land ownership channels Richard Nixon in the larger matter of Martin Luther King’s jailing back in 1960. Students of history may recall that King was arrested a couple of times during the 1960 campaign. He was jailed in Georgia in October of that year—most awkwardly for Nixon, locked in a tight contest with John F. Kennedy. Nixon needed the votes of those remaining blacks who recalled the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln. (Mississippi was still sending rival GOP delegations to the national convention, as ever, during this time—the Lily Whites, and the Black-and-Tans, although the latter were never seated at the convention.) At the same time, of course, Nixon’s team was running the ‘Southern strategy’, openly using race privilege and animosity to appeal to the Dixiecrats. Nixon badly needed for King to emerge alive from the hands of the authorities, but he was unwilling to antagonize white southerners; instead, he quietly begged President Eisenhower to do something. Eisenhower, who lacked high regard for Nixon, did not intervene. John Kennedy’s brother Robert F. Kennedy telephoned the Georgia governor to appeal for King’s release, King was released, and the Kennedy-Johnson ticket reaped the political benefit in the presidential election.
Perry is in a version of the same bind today. If he unequivocally repudiates that place name, the bigots among his supporters and the Tea Party will treat him as having conceded something to African-Americans. If he does not, the Perry candidacy becomes less viable as a fig leaf for corporate establishment types.
*Vanessa J. Williams, “PAINT CREEK, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hrp79), accessed October 06, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
**The whole ‘N-word’ phenomenon is a construction more of Jim Crow than even of slavery. It came later as a tactic, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, disheartening for those of us who would have liked to relegate it to the Middle Ages. But that exceeds the scope of today’s blog.