Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Continuing with the Halloween theme, I turn to the word spook. This word played a central role in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, when spoken in an off-the-cuff manner by a college professor who was annoyed with the many absences in his classes, students who rarely if ever showed up. "What are they? Spooks?" he asked, setting off charges of racism and on and on. Before reading this scene in Roth's novel, I had never before heard the word as a racial epithet (Coleman Silk, Roth's character, by the by, did not intend it that way, or not consciously anyway). Anyway, just having passed another Halloween (socially layered holiday that it is for me; see previous post), the term came to me as one worthy of consideration. Phil Herbst's definition indicates that it has been used by blacks for whites, and by whites for blacks--thus, an all-purpose term. I chose the image at the top (spooks in snow) as I have always found winter landscapes to be rich sources for seeing all kinds of shapes and visions and creatures. Here's what Phil says about spooks.

spook. Twentieth-century derogatory name for a black person in white use, and for a white person in black use. Partridge (1984) notes the use of spook also for a West Indian. Wentworth and Flexner (1975) give spookerican--spook plus Rican--as an epithet for a person of mixed black and Puerto Rican descent (New York City usage around the 1950s).
     Various origins for the white use for black people have been suggested, including white people’s—especially young children who have never seen a black person before--supposed fear of black people; an ironic reference to the skin color of black people, that is, as opposed to that of ghosts (Thorne 1990); and also black people's "haunting" of certain locations (Thorne 1990). Possibly reinforcing the term is the notion of the invisibility of black people in the con­text of the dominant white society. Gor­don Allport (1958, 144) says of black people who call themselves "spooks" as "protective clowning": "A spook can't be hurt .... He will come right through doors and walls whatever you do; he has a sassy if silent invulnerability." 

     Black use for white people is likely to derive from the pale, deathlike skin quality of white people as seen by black people. A more or less jocular variant for a white person is Casper, from the name of the cartoon ghost.


Lucas said...

Hello there! I'm several months late to reply but I just stumbled upon this blog now - interesting stuff!

Do you expect this term may still cause offense today? I had no idea of the derogatory meaning of "spook" until about 15 minutes ago.

I'm concerned because I'm in a silly folk duo called Spook & Squash. Spook being me... We're not very well-known, we only play locally, but our local music scene has faced accusations of racism somewhat recently and it's a controversy I'd like to avoid reviving.

I'm not white or black. I don't know whether that helps or hinders my cause :)

(For your interest, the etymology of the nickname: a reduction from "spookas", itself from "spooky Lucas". Inspired by a haunted-looking photo of me taken by a friend.)

Susan Messer said...

Thanks for stopping by. I like that you say you're neither white nor black. We'd probably all benefit from thinking that way. Re: your concern about the name and its potential offensiveness . . . I'm not an advice columnist (I know you didn't think I was), so I wouldn't know what to say in the way of advice. These things are tricky. Some people might retain the name (1) because they like it, (2) because they like the fact that it has the potential to provoke, (3) because of multiple other reasons I can't think of right now. I knew of a dance group called "hijack." After 9/11 people gave them weirdness because of the name, but they'd had the name before 9/11, and they certainly didn't intend anything evil by it. I think they kept the name, despite some negative responses. Some things begin in a completely neutral way (as did the name of your group) and then the world around them changes (as with hijacks), or they become aware of some new twist (Coleman Silk, you). Crazy world, eh?