Names and Titles in Gloria Naylor's novel, Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean

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Names and Titles in Gloria Naylor's novel, Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean

"Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power." (Naylor 344)

A name is a mark of classification, a basis for self identity. Able to elevate or annihilate a persons' perception of herself and the surrounding society, these designations can uplift, joke, chide, mock, insult, degrade. "Society" implies the people and the atmosphere encompassing an individual in her daily life. "Culture" is closely tied to the society of a person--it is the aspects of her life which are directly influenced by such issues as race, color, nationality, religion, sexuality, and any other number of things that mark a person as distinct.
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Naylor was called a "nigger" not because she was being particularly obnoxious or because of something she had chosen to do--she was degraded because of the color of the skin with which she was born and the legacy it left her to bear, issues she'd never before contemplated. Similarly, in an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "'What's in a Name?' Some Meanings of Blackness," Gates tells of the first time he was aware of the "other world that we could not affect but that affected us" (426). While walking with his father, "the" prominent African American man in town, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. witnessed another important, but white, man calling his dad "George" (425). Although not an explicitly racist epithet, "George" is still a degrading name in this context, when forced as a unifier upon otherwise dissimilar, African American men. In the simple act of considering all black men as the same, indistinguishable and unworthy of the effort it would take to decipher individual faces, this man unleashed a slur as powerful and pointed as any expressly racist comment. The insult was more subtle than in Gloria Naylor's situation, but equally abject and carrying the same message--in our society, African Americans are seen as different and separate from "Americans."

Gloria Naylor later realizes that, "...there must have been dozens of times that the word 'nigger' was spoken in front of me before I reached the third

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