“Niggerhead”: We Asked For It


The Dish's collective mind shows off a bit:

When I was  growing up in southern Mississippi in the 1950s, most grocery stores carried Niggerhead brand shrimp, which was canned in southern Louisiana. The label featured a drawing of a old black man with a lined face and nappy hair.

Another writes:

Growing up in South Florida and the Florida Keys in the '60s and '70s, I learned that large brain coral specimens were commonly called "niggerheads."


I heard this term from people in Kentucky and they were referring to geodes, which are common there.  The racist joke was that a geode is a hollow rock. Ahh, the casual racism of the American South.


I heard this once just a couple months ago and took it to mean a large rock outcropping or boulder. The idea behind it is that a black person's head is as hard as a rock, or that he's as dumb as a rock. There was no mistaking this derivation when I heard it from the older man in his late 70s.


Growing up in a family of stonemasons, the term niggerhead referred to a stone that couldn't be cleanly split due to a lack of veins.


Here in the deep South, I have heard the term many times, mainly by my stepfather.  It is used to describe a state of extreme laziness, such as after eating a big meal and wanting to take a nap.  For example, "Those chicken and dumplings were good, but now I have the niggerhead."


Growing up in Memphis in the '60s and '70s, my family called Brazil nuts "Nigger Toes." That is just what they were, it never was discussed.  You just asked for a Nigger Toe if you wanted one.  It wasn't until college that I learned the real name.  Needless to say, as the older generation has aged and been replaced, and as times have changed, no one in my family calls them that now.

It's not just the South:

I spent many of my 3592Brazil_nuts childhood summers in the middle of rural Michigan, near the Howell/Pinckney area. This area is famous for being the home of the KKK Grand Dragon (or whatever silly title they give their leader), as well as for housing several training areas for the Michigan Militia. It wasn't uncommon, on a warm autumn night, to see large crosses burning in the center of a Klan gathering as we drove to Grandma's house for visits. 

My family isn't particularly racist. I have Vietnamese aunts, mixed-race African-American/white second cousins, and now adopted black nephews and nieces. But one thing I have always remembered is – during numerous holiday gatherings – everyone referring to Brazil nuts as "Nigger Toes".


Back in 1971, some folks objected to two location names, one Niggerhead Pond, and the other Niggerhead Ledge, both in the same small town of Marshfield, Vermont. Details here.


I grew up in southern New Jersey, and I remember back in the '60s that people used the term for eggplants.

No region is spared:

In my twenties, while living in the Pacific NW in the early '90s, I worked as a deckhand on a tugboat, a salmon tender (off the coast of BC) and an intercoastal freighter in the north Pacific and Bering Sea. The term "niggerhead" was used frequently by some of the older salmon fishermen to refer to the main hydraulic windlasses on the decks of fishing vessels, which were often coated in a thick black marine-grade paint. I cringed when I heard the term. It seemed such a discordant and stupid thing to hear on lonely pitching waters or in the fog or rain or in the unusual light found only at sea – far from the mainland of the US, which I took to be the unhappy home of that term. But nautical terminology changes very slowly, and I realize now how intrinsic maritime trade was to the history of racial othering.

Speaking of older salmon fishermen:

I have been a commercial fisherman in Alaska since 1975.  My first year I worked on two Screen shot 2011-10-04 at 1.40.38 AM boats, purse seining for salmon in Southeast Alaska. The winch that the purse line was tightened up with was called the "niggerhead". Everyone used the term to reference the seine winch. This link is to a picture of the winch on the Kolstrand Marine Equipment website. The term "niggerhead" specifically referred to the two black spools on either side of the stand.

Another reader:

After working in the natural resource world across much of the western US for the last 15 years, I’ve seen the term "nigger fill-in-the-blank" referring to a multitude of geographic locations.  Spend some time looking on older USGS topo maps and you can find it all over the place.  The Bureau of Land Management or any other federal land agency and their recreation folks have had to deal with the legacy of local place or landmark names when they make trail maps.  One of my favorite canyons to hike in southwest Utah is called Negro Bill Canyon and we all know that that’s not what the locals called it 40 or 50 years ago…


In rural western Alaska, old timers call tussocks – firm mounds of grass growing out of tundra – "niggerheads."  In fact, it's still a name you see on a US Geological Survey map to mark a certain hill outside of Bethel, AK.


There used to be a racist common name of a California cactus: "Niggerheads" (now "Cottontops") for the multi-headed barrel cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus.

One more:

Upon moving to California after grad school, I got interested in the local flora and a particular pine tree with some of the heaviest pine cones in the world, Pinus sabiniana. This pine tree is commonly called a "digger pine". And yes, it shares more than two g's and an 'er' with the term nigger; "digger" was the racist term settlers applied to Californian Indians whose non-agricultural society exploited native tubers and bulbs (as well as pine nuts) for food. Just as the term "black-eyed susan" has thankfully come to replace "niggerhead", I hear "digger pines" more frequently called "grey pines" these days.

Now, what I'd really like to hear from your readers are the racist colloquialisms in minorities' vocabularies. I know they exist but have never figured-out how to politely discover them.

(Photo by Photobucket user miamimax)