The word appears 30 times.
This novel takes place (at least the first chapter) in 1930's Harlem. When the character John visits Manhattan he recalls how his father (a very strict christian) tells him he can't never trust white folk. That white folk hate niggers and cannot be trusted. The word is sprinkled through out the book, and usually has its derogatory meaning people of low character.
Almost every instance of the word in this book is black people, trying to use it to describe other lower class black people or criminals. The characters in this book don't think much of "niggers" and use the word with derision.
His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a nigger. He, John, was a nigger, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be.
Niggers did not live on these streets where John now walked; it was forbidden; and yet he walked here, and no one raised a hand against him. But did he dare to enter this shop out of which a woman now casually walked, carrying a great round box?
"Hush now," said his mother rising, "ain't no need for all this. What's done is done. We ought to be on our knees, thankint the Lord it weren't no worse."
"Amen to that," said Aunt Florence, "tell that foolish nigger something."
"You can tell foolish son of yours something," he said to his wife with venom, having decided, it seemed, to ignore his sister, "him standing there with them big buckeyes. You can tell him to take this like a warning fromt the Lord. This is what white folks does to niggers. I been telling you, now you see."
"Lord," said Elisha, running water into the sink, and talking, it seemed, to the water, "That sure is a sassy nigger out there. I hope he don't get hisself hurt one of these days, running his mouth thataway. Look like he just won't stop till somebody busts him in the eye."
He signed deeply, and began to lather his hands. "Here I come running all the way so he wouldn't bust a gut lifting one of them chairs, and all he got to say is 'put some water in a bucket.' Can't do nothing with a nigger nohow."
He had done, but never so heavy a burden as this she carried now -- on prayed in silence. It was indecent, the practice of common niggers to cry aloud at the foot of the alter, tears streaming for all the world to see.
While she still sat, amazed, and wondering what, on judgement day, would be the best behaviour, in rushed Bathsheba, and behind her many tumbling children and field hands and house niggers, all together, and Bathsheba shouted; "Rise up, rise up, Sister Rachel, and see the Lord's deliverance!"
Years later, Deborah and Florence had stood on Deborah's porch at night and watched a vomit-covered Gabriel stagger up the moonlit road, and Florence had cried out: "I hate him! Big, black, prancing tomcat of a nigger!" And Deborah had said, in that heavy voice of hers: "You know, honey, the World tell us to hate the sin but not the sinner."
But it was she who was right, she who knew; with Frank she had always been right; and it had not been her fault that Frank was the way he was, determined to live and die a common niger.
"The only surprise I want from you is to learn some sense! That'd be a surprise! You think I want to stay around here the rest of my life with these dirty niggers you all the time bring home?"
"Where you expect us to live, honey, where we ain't going to be with niggers?"
"You ain't got to be white to have some self-respect! You reckon I slave in this house like I do so you and them common niggers can sit here every afternoon throwing ashes all over the floor?"
"And who's common now, Florence?" he asked, quietly in the immediate and awful silence in which she recognized her error. "Who's acting like a common nigger now? What you reckon my friend is sitting there a-thinking?"
"it's a letter from my brother's wife." She stared at her face in the mirror, thinking angrily that all these skin creams were a waste of money, they never did any good.
"What's them niggers doing down home? If ain't no bad news, is it?" Still he hummed, irrepressibly, deep in his throat.
"No... well, it ain't no good news neither, but it ain't nothing to surprise me none. She says she think my brother's got a bastard living right there in the same town what he's scared to call his own."
"No? And I thought you said your brother was a preacher?"
"Being a preacher ain't never stopped a nigger from doing his dirt."
"You know," she said, watching her with more attention, "Florence ain't never thought none of these niggers around here was good enough for her."
.... the door had barely closed behind the women when one of the eldter, a heavy, cheery, sandy-haired man, whose face, testifying no doubt to the violence of his beginnings, was splashed with freckles like dried blood, laughed and said, referring to Deborah, that there was a holy woman, and right! She had been choked so early on the white men's milk and ir remained so sour in her belly yet, that she would never be able, now, to find a nigger who would let her taste his richer, sweeter substance. Everyone at the table roared....
... "well, she think it must've been one of them boys what's all time passing through here, looking for work, on their way North -- you know? them real shiftless niggers -- well, she think it must've been on of them got Esther in trouble.
Now, someone spat on the sidewalk at Gabriel's feet, and he walked on, his face not changing, and he heard it reprovingly whispered behind him that he was a good nigger, surely up to no trouble. He hoped that he would not be spoken to, that he would not have to smile into any fo these so well-known white faces.
"I know," he said abruptly, "but they ain't going to bother me. They done got their nigger for this week. I ain't going far noway."
"Yes," she said, not looking at him now, "he been living in Chicago about a year, just a-drinking and a-carrying on -- and his grandmama, she tell me that look like he got to gambling on night with some of them northern niggers and one of them got mad because he thought the boy was trying to cheat him, and took out his knife and stabbed him. Stabbed him in the throat, and she tell me he died right there on the floor in that barroom...
"Yes," she said, "I'm waiting on the Lord."
Then there was only silece, except for the rain. The rain came down in buckets; it was raining, as they said, pitchforks and nigger babies. Lighting flashed again across the sky and thunder rolled.
"Listen," said Gabriel. "God is talking."
For her father ran what her aunt called a "house" -- not the house where they lived, but another house, to which, as Elizabeth gathered, wicked people often came. And he had also, to Elizabeth's rather horrified confusion, a "stable." Low, common niggers, the lowest of the low, came from all over (and sometimes brought their women and sometimes found them there) to eat, and drink cheap moonshine, and play music all night long -- and to do worse things, her aunt's dreadful silence then suggested, which were far better left unsaid.
"Well, maybe, we to to a museum."
The first time he suggested this, she demaneded, in panic, if they would be allowed to enter.
"Sure, they let niggers in," Richard said. "Ain't we got to be educated, too -- to live with the motherfuckers?"
"I done heard it said often enough," said Florence, "but I got yet to see it. These niggers running around, talking about the Lord done changed their hearts -- ain't nothing happened to them niggers. They go the same old black hearts they was born with."
"but you ain't fixing, is you," asked Florence, "to stay single all your days? You's a right young girl, and a right pretty girl. I wouldn't be in no hurry if I was you to find a new husband. I don't believe the nigger's been born what knows how to treat a woman right. You got time, honey, so take your time."
John had heard it, too, and had responded by wriggling, and moving his hands in the air, and making noises, meant, she supposed, to be taken for a song. "You's a nigger, all right," she thought with amusement and impatience - for it was someone's gramophone, on a lower floor, filling the air with the slow, high, measured wailing of the blues.
"He ain't," said Florence, briskly, "working no harder up here than he worked down home," she said to Elizabeth, "they think New York ain't nothing but one long, Sunday drunk."
And: Is this it? John terrified soul inquired -- What is it? -- John's terrified soul inquired -- What is it? -- to no purpose, recieving no answer. Only the ironic voice insisted yet once more that he rise from that filthy floor if he did not want to become like all the other niggers.
Then the ironic voice, terrified, it seemed, of no depth, no darkness, demanded of John, scornfully, if he believed that he was cursed. All niggers had been cursed, the ironic voice reminded him, all niggers had come from this most undutiful of Noah's sons. How could John be cursed for having seen in a bathtub what another man -- if that other man had ever lived -- had seen ten thousand years ago, lying in an open tent?