Whether you like it or not, the offensive name of Rick Perry's West Texas hunting camp certainly didn't originate with Perry himself.
The political world is still abuzz at this weekend's latest Rick Perry revelation: the GOP presidential candidate and Texas governor has hosted friends and allies at his family's West Texas hunting camp, charmingly named "Niggerhead." The only black Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, called the camp's name "insensitive," a summation for which he was promptly chastised by conservatives who said he "played the race card." For his part, Perry argues that his family never named the camp, but only leased it from people who did. What's more, Perry says he made an effort to get rid of the name by painting over Niggerhead signs dotting the camp's many acres.
Whether you believe Perry actually took issue with the camp's name or not, you have to question the wisdom of a politician leasing something called Niggerhead in the first place. If you aren't even a little bit racist, and you're searching for a place to host your friends and family, do you choose the place with the racial slur featured prominently in its name? But that said, it's worth noting how prevalent the name Niggerhead has been in American history to lend a bit of context to the Perry drama.
As the photo above shows, "nigger head" was a term used in many consumer products in early America. Besides stove polish, there were nigger head oysters and nigger head soap. This website of slang terms used amongst rescue divers defines "niggerhead" as "slang for an isolated coral head, or any knob-like solitary protrusion, often semisubmerged, that's a hazard to navigation." The book Practical Guide to Natural Medicines notes that echinacea, a homeopathic favorite, is sometimes called niggerhead. Beyond all of that, there's this, from the Washington Post piece that broke the Niggerhead story: "The name 'Niggerhead' has a long and wide history. It was once applied to products such as soap and chewing tobacco, but most often to geographic features such as hills and rocks."
Though blessedly not used with frequency anymore, like it or not, "niggerhead" was once commonplace in the United States. That doesn't totally excuse Perry, but it does provide perspective on an increasingly bizarre political skirmish: Perry, who was born in 1950, was raised in a time and place in the world in which calling things "niggerhead" was normal. Understanding that as his status quo, it then makes sense that Perry didn't turn tail and run from renting a place called Niggerhead, but instead painted over a few of the signs. To him, the camp's name was politically precarious, perhaps, but not anything to be reviled or rejected.
This says two things, neither of which is "Rick Perry is an unforgivable racist": America is a place with a deeply racist history, one that's seeped into our lexicon so much that even mostly benign things like echinacea and hunting camps can have horrifically racist name associations. And Rick Perry is a normal guy who was steeped in racism from a young age and has since come to believe that the term "niggerhead" is at least somewhat acceptable.
Both of those things are unshakeable facts. The question now is whether a normal guy like Perry should be leading the United States of America.