Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor was awarded the 2017 Ralph D. Gray Prize for Best Original Article
The Ralph D. Gray Prize, named after the founding editor of the Journal of the Early Republic, is awarded annually for the best original article published in the previous year of the Journal. This year’s recipient takes a sensitive and complex subject and handles it with care, directness, and nuance. It is rare that we find a journal article that manages to be as timely and surprising, let alone one that so convincingly makes the case that sustained attention to nineteenth-century problems can help us make sense of the present.
Despite stiff competition, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s “The Etymology of Nigger” stood out for its trenchant, thoughtful analysis of how this dehumanizing epithet arose in the antebellum North, where at least nominal freedom was supposed to prevail. But as she puts it, “As African Americans became free in the North, however, nigger latched on like a shackle. … Nigger emerged as a weapon of racial containment, a barometer against which to measure the increasingly rigid boundaries of whiteness and a mechanism used to police and cleanse public space.” Nor does she miss a discussion of how we might understand the ways that this term appeared in conversations among African Americans themselves. In doing so, she uses a variety published sources that have never been examined with this topic in mind. The essay is both remarkably supple in its close-readings and fierce in its urgency; no one can read it and miss its significance to our field as well as to our own fraught, divided America.