Uppity Negress: Ebony Murphy-Root Creates Buzz with Bid for Lieutenant Governor, CT

The #TCOT brigade can really be a colossal pain when it comes to pointing out the minutiae in politics. But white, predominantly male liberal grievances can be equally as annoying and condescending; particularly when they start writing and speaking with authority, on that which they don’t fully understand… Such as, the nuances of black folks reclaiming ownership of controversial and oppressive words and using them ironically.

Connecticut native, private school teacher, community volunteer, and education reform and literacy advocate Ebony Murphy-Root, filed paperwork in anticipation of getting onto the ballot this upcoming November, as a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, reportedly as a running mate with advocate and blogger, Jonathan Pelto. When Connecticut media outlets read the tagline of Murphy-Root’s inactive blog, they immediately honed in on the fact that she jokingly self-identified as an ‘Uppity Negress’. Though Ebony, who is black, hasn’t filled the blog with any content, the ‘About’ section is pretty comprehensive and lists her academic accomplishments, teaching credentials, and all the community outreach and volunteer work she’s done in Hartford. Ebony’s tagline also lists the fact that she’s a ‘Teamster’s kid’, a ‘Literacy Visionary,’ and a ‘Big sister’, but ‘Uppity Negress’ is what local media chose to focus on and clutch their pearls over.

To my discerning black woman eyes, I was immediately able to glean that Ebony was punching up and meant ‘uppity Negress’ in a very satirical, tongue-in-cheek way. In fact, in my personal Twitter bio, I list myself as  ‘unapologetically uppity’, as a way to also be sardonic. For my fellow Southern New Englanders not in the know, uppity — first used in the 1880s in the Uncle Remus stories and songs — is a word that, when ascribed to black people, was used as a cudgel in the late 19th and 20th centuries (by white southerners) to keep black people  in line whenever there was perceived arrogance or any inclination towards social mobility. It was a way to remind black people just where we stood on the racial and socioeconomic hierarchy.

Ebony Murphy-Root
Ebony Murphy-Root

‘Uppity Negroism’ put black lives at risk and was considered an act of open defiance against Jim Crow laws. Not addressing white people by an honorific title or daring to look any of them in the eye were considered signs of arrogance and insolence. Pursuing an education or learning how to read? Definite symptoms of uppity-ism.

In today’s cult of personality, people have underhandedly figured out ways to get away with using racially-charged words of yore, without having to say the actual term. Thug has become synonymous with the N-word and arrogant or elitist have become code for uppity; and if there are any glaring examples of noted black people erroneously being called ‘arrogant’, it’s the Obamas and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. In 2008, a Georgia GOP congressman described the Obamas as being members of “an elitist class individual that thinks they’re uppity.”

And judging from a few of the comments of this CTPost.com article, there appears to be some folks here in Connecticut who think Ebony’s political aspirations, ideas on education reform, and credentials make her too ‘uppity’ for her own good, as well; and exercising autonomy over our opinions and trying to offer something productive to the political landscape as a black woman often comes with a lot of backlash, skepticism, and derailment from core issues. When I asked Ebony for her thoughts on people’s reactions to her using ‘Uppity Negress’ on her blog she said,

“I wonder if I had described myself as an East Coast WASP or a California blond, if there would have been the same pearl-clutching. Folk should be allowed to self-identify in jest, no? Even in terms the establishment finds eyebrow-raising. Let’s get back to discussing issues like Common Core, student loan debt, and teacher morale and all the quality of life issues affecting us Nutmeggers.”

Look, black Americans aren’t a monolith, but there’s a specific kind of sarcasm and humor we engage in, as a way to broach discourse about our lived experiences – See #BlackTwitter. Ebony Murphy-Root is a woman navigating the intersections of race, gender, and class as well as racial microaggressions and reflected that via an antiquated word; and I feel comfortable offering that assessment, because I navigate those same intersections and immediately pick up on the ‘Uppity Negress/Negro’ joke when I see it. I interpret a black female political hopeful, satirically referring to herself as an ‘Uppity Negress’ as her upending the lens from which people may view her ambitions and opinions. It really doesn’t merit being the cause célèbre of hot-button local media, nor does it warrant any unpacking or collective outrage.

Tsk tsking at ‘uppity Negress’ being used ironically is merely a distraction and not germane to Ebony Murphy-Root’s and Jonathan Pelto’s political platform. And so far, both seem to have an outpouring of support from Connecticut folks ready for a change.