Bumped up because it has more stuff added to it:
A. B. Frost, 1851-1928. "Terrapin speaking to Brer Rabbit" Illustration for Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings: Folklore of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris. Image found here.
For a discussion of "signifying," go here
Lynn Westmoreland, Republican Congressman from Georgia, yesterday:
"Just from what little I've seen of her [Michelle] and Mister Obama, Senator Obama, they're a member of an elitist class individual that thinks that they're uppity," Westmoreland said.
When a reporter sought clarification on the racially loaded word, Westmoreland replied, "Uppity, yeah."
Lynn Westmoreland, today:
“I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense. It is important to note that the dictionary definition of ‘uppity’ is ‘affecting an air of inflated self-esteem —- snobbish.’ That’s what we meant by uppity when we used it in the mill village where I grew up.”
Oxford English Dictionary (whose definition for "uppity" does agree with Westmoreland's, by the way), the four examples of usage given, oldest-known first:
1880 J. C. Harris, Uncle Remus, 86 Hit wuz wunner dese yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck. 1933 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Nov. 776a Grammy is living contentedly enough with an 'uppity' young creature named Penny 1952 F. L. Allen, Big Change 11 viii 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about 'uppity niggers' on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow. 1982 B. Chatwin On the Black Hill v. 28 He had a head for figures and a method for dealing with 'uppity' tenants.
With the exception of Chatwin's novel, which is set in Wales, all these usages for "uppity" directly describe African-Americans not knowing their place, in the judgment of the speakers1 (the Times Literary Supplement passage is from a review of Roark Bradford's Kingdom Coming (hat-tip: Edge of the American West, which beat me to the OED by a day).
Call me a skeptic, but I do doubt that the citizens of the Georgia mill-town of Westmoreland's formative years had their understanding of "uppity" shaped by Bruce Chatwin novels.
All words require other words around them in order to signify. But the language of race and of social standing, especially in the South, requires context as well in order for them to fully signify. Westmoreland may not know his fellow Georgian Joel Chandler Harris introduced "uppity" into the American lexicon in precisely the way he says it does not know it meant, but here he looks like nothing so much as Harris's Brer Rabbit avoiding becoming the main course of Brer Fox's barbecue.
I expect--and hope--that he will be less successful than Brer Rabbit. Figuratively speaking, you understand.
Indeed: Haste the day when Westmoreland's more-than-a-little-disingenuous professed ignorance of this adjective's racial and racist origins indeed comes to pass and we can all indeed be ignorant enough of those origins to use it to pejoratively describe any person, regardless of color, who is in some way too big for his britches. That time may in fact be occurring among younger people, judging from some comments at other sites regarding Westmoreland's comment. In the meantime, though, even granting Westmoreland the benefit of the doubt here, his implied ignorance of his own state and region's social and cultural history is breathtaking. I of course have no direct proof that Westmoreland is lying, but as this rhyming couplet from a toasting poem that Henry Louis Gates Jr. quotes in his book The Signifying Monkey makes clear, there's another--and better--reason to be angry with Westmoreland:
[Lion] said, "Monkey, I'm not kicking your ass for lyin',
I'm kicking your hairy ass for signifyin'." (57)
1 A slight modification to my comments on the usage of "uppity" above:
The Harris story the OED usage example comes from is "The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow"; a fuller context for that passage follows:
"Lemme tell you dis," said the old man, laying down the section of horse-collar he had been plaiting, and looking hard at the little boy-"lemme tell you dis-der ain't no way fer ter make tattlers en tailb'arers turn out good. No, dey ain't. I bin mixin' up wid fokes now gwine on eighty year, en I ain't seed no tattler come ter no good een'. Dat I ain't. En ef ole man M'thoozlum wuz livin' clean twel yit, he'd up'n tell you de same. Sho ez youer settin' dar. You 'member w'at 'come er de bird w'at went tattlin' 'roun' 'bout Brer Rabbit?"Tattling, as I know I had, um, impressed upon me when I was a child, is a form of not minding one's own business, of not knowing one's place. And since the Uncle Remus tales aren't overtly racialized (by that, I mean that the different characters don't appear to stand for black or white people but just for people), neither is this first in-print usage at all "racial" but, rather, social in its immediate context.
The little boy didn't remember, but he was very anxious to know, and he also wanted to know what kind of a bird it was that so disgraced itself.
"Hit wuz wunner dese yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck," said the old man; "dey wuz allers bodder'n' longer udder fokes's bizness, en dey keeps at it down ter dis day-peckin' yer, en pickin' dar, en scratchin' out yander.
That said, I and, I suspect, most Southerners would recognize that that context becomes much blurrier when used by a white person to describe a black person. Here's an example of what I mean, using the first part of Westmoreland's statement above: "Just from what little I've seen of her and Mister Obama, Senator Obama." Note the emendation from "Mister" to "Senator." I don't think anyone would have objected to his simply having left the title as "Mister." Perhaps, as a fellow elected official, Westmoreland simply, as a matter of instinct, corrects himself in favor of the title indicating Obama's elected position, as other Congresspeople and Senators do when speaking of each other in public--in Westmoreland's defense, "Michelle's" presence in the statement complicates matters, making it harder to be automatically officious when he comes up to "Obama." But, as anyone who has seen that great scene in In the Heat of the Night between Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier knows, how whites and blacks address each other was (and for some, I suspect, remains) a vexed issue. So perhaps Westmoreland has all that in mind as well as he's speaking. But, again: if the latter is the case, then for him to plead ignorance of how "uppity" traditionally signifies when whites speak of African-Americans is disingenuous.
One last thing: Westmoreland's saying "they're a member of an elitist class individual that thinks that they're uppity." Setting aside what the word signifies, "uppity" is a judgment others place on a person. People, as the OED examples make clear, don't think that about themselves.
Of course, there is a last possibility, as suggested by the tortured grammar of the statement: that Congressman Westmoreland is, um, not terribly bright:
LAST UPDATE (I promise): The phone conversation reported between a commenter and Westmoreland's office here (scroll down a bit) demonstrates quite elegantly how two can play Westmoreland's game.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Bumped up because it has more stuff added to it: