Only a Nigger

By Mark Twain

Buffalo Express (Aug. 26, 1869).



This short satirical essay was published in the Buffalo Express while Mark Twain was co-owner and editor of that newspaper. It appeared unsigned but has been attributed to Mark Twain in Philip S. Foner's Mark Twain: Social Critic (New York: International Publishers, 1958), and is included in Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express, ed. Joseph B. McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999), which is the source of the text presented here.

"Only a Nigger" is important within Mark Twain's writings as an early protest against lynching, a subject he addressed most powerfully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and "The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901), and for its self-conscious use of the word "nigger." Objections to the repeated use of that word in Huckleberry Finn are commonly raised by those who would like to see the book removed from school reading lists today. In this essay, written seven years before he began work on Huckleberry Finn, Twain clearly uses the word to signify the racist dehumanization of African Americans by Southern whites. Twain's satirical use of the word here provides a background for understanding his similar use of the word in chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn, when Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in a steamboat accident. Huck replies, "No'm. Killed a nigger." In the novel, Mark Twain let Huck speak as a young boy raised in a slaveholding community. In "Only a Nigger," he uses the words negroes and negro, and consistently puts "nigger" in quotes to indicate that it is the dehumanizing word used by the Southerners whose mob law he is criticizing in the essay.

A dispatch from Memphis mentions that, of two negroes lately sentenced to death for murder in that vicinity, one named Woods has just confessed to having ravished a young lady during the war, for which deed another negro was hung at the time by an avenging mob, the evidence that doomed the guiltless wretch being a hat which Woods now relates that he stole from its owner and left behind, for the purpose of misleading. Ah, well! Too bad, to be sure! A little blunder in the administration of justice by Southern mob-law; but nothing to speak of. Only "a nigger" killed by mistake -- that is all. Of course, every high toned gentleman whose chivalric impulses were so unfortunately misled in this affair, by the cunning of the miscreant Woods, is as sorry about it as a high toned gentleman can be expected to be sorry about the unlucky fate of "a nigger." But mistakes will happen, even in the conduct of the best regulated and most high toned mobs, and surely there is no good reason why Southern gentlemen should worry themselves with useless regrets, so long as only an innocent "nigger" is hanged, or roasted or knouted to death, now and then. What if the blunder of lynching the wrong man does happen once in four or five cases! Is that any fair argument against the cultivation and indulgence of those fine chivalric passions and that noble Southern spirit which will not brook the slow and cold formalities of regular law, when outraged white womanhood appeals for vengeance? Perish the thought so unworthy of a Southern soul! Leave it to the sentimentalism and humanitarianism of a cold-blooded Yankee civilization! What are the lives of a few "niggers" in comparison with the preservation of the impetuous instincts of a proud and fiery race? Keep ready the halter, therefore, oh chivalry of Memphis! Keep the lash knotted; keep the brand and the faggots in waiting, for prompt work with the next "nigger" who may be suspected of any damnable crime! Wreak a swift vengeance upon him, for the satisfaction of the noble impulses that animate knightly hearts, and then leave time and accident to discover, if they will, whether he was guilty or no.