The N-Word. Is It Ever OK to Say?
Without question, this is the most loaded word in the English language. Six letters. Say it three times and you've got the number of the beast. Forged white-hot in the fires of hell, that word has, for half a millennia, been seared into the collective psyche of black people in America. N-I-G-G-E-R. Though buried under layers of keloidal scars, those letters still ache and throb like a recent burn, a painful, disfiguring memento of our past -- an unhealed wound on the souls of black folk.
This is "hate speech" -- an entirely different category from your garden-variety cuss words. When you get down to it, there's very little inherent rationale for the taboo status of words like "shit" and "fuck." They're just combinations of letters, rarely used literally, that we've learned to be offended by. Nonetheless, I try not to piss people off without a good reason, and so, heretical linguistic leanings aside, I tailor my speech to the sensibilities of the reader/listener.
What makes me really uncomfortable, though, is "nigger" and its cousin, "nigga." I generally don't F wit' the N-word(s). I'm quick to playfully deride those who euphemize regular curse words (saying "Darn" when we and they know damn well they meant "Damn"). But I'm so self-conscious about ni**er that even when writing it, I generally self-censor, adding asterisks. As if that makes a bit of darned difference.
The reason for my discomfort? Words like nigger, and hate speech, in general, have an added dimension of meaning, a historical intent to cause harm, communicate a threat or symbolize a power dynamic. There's a saying that goes, "It ain't what you call me, it's what I answer to." In the not-too-distant past, black folks had no control over what others called us, and reflexively, we co-opted the N-word, fashioning myriad alternative meanings and usages of it in an attempt to take the sting out of it. That's why the N-word is so unique among hate speech -- it's now used most frequently by the very people it was meant to oppress.
The word now simultaneously connotes a subhuman, inferior species worthy of scorn and death, and yet it is also used synonymously with friend, or, depending on inflection, best friend. Which is problematic.
"Nigger," I can talk about easily enough -- it's a mirror held up against the sins of white folk, a case study of pathology and human deprivation.
"Nigga," on the other hand, is like chitlins. I understand where it came from and why it exists, but damn, can't we do better by now? "Nigga" is dirty laundry. "Nigga" is a window on the conflictedness of our people. Not that we don't have a right to be conflicted. Shit. We reserve that right.
I first heard the term as a child. I'm not sure exactly where I was, it may have been the playground, but I recall hearing it in a "black on black" context, as in don't "act like a nigger." I grew up in a small, mixed, but mostly African-American town in South Jersey. I remember using it my first time and being chided by my uncle, Gregory, who told me it was a bad word. "Why?" I remember asking. He told me, using a definition he'd no doubt gotten from Grammom Wilson (my maternal great-grandmother), that a nigger is an "ignorant person."
Hmm ... I didn't know a whole lot about niggers, but I'd heard that they looked like me, so I needed clarification. "Can white people be niggers?" I asked. "Yep," he said. "White people can be niggers." Made sense to me. I didn't say the word again, and my curiosity was satisfied.
My father had a, shall we say, more pragmatic approach to the N-word. By the time I was in junior high, he added to my knowledge of the N-word. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a black neighborhood, but attended an almost all-white Catholic high school. He played several sports, and often found himself to be only one of two or three black people in the gym or stadium, let alone the court or field. He'd hear the word thrown at him by opposing fans and players, and would take out his frustrations using the game, itself, affirming his right to exist via a stiff elbow, a crushing block or punishing tackle.
My dad grew up in the late '50s and early '60s, and white folks was bold. A few made the mistake of calling him a nigger to his face, on the street. His response to the challenge was direct: "You see a nigger? Then kick his ass," he'd tell them, fists clenched and ready to connect with someone's jaw. Whether the confrontation led to a fight or not, it always ended with the offending party rethinking his terminology.
Growing up in the '70s and '80s, in a black neighborhood, I never had to deal with that type of situation. My experiences with the word were as different from my father's, as his were from my wife's maternal grandfather, who grew up in Southern Virginia. As a young woman, when she'd walk with him through downtown Baltimore, she'd be furious at the unconscious deference that he, a proud black man and a war veteran, paid to white people. He'd avert his eyes, look down, or move out of the way, when they'd approach from the opposite direction on the sidewalk.
One day she brought up the subject. He told her that he did not do it consciously, but his parents and environment had conditioned him to do so during his formative years -- lynching was still very much in vogue in Virginia when he was growing up. His unconscious avoidance of conflict with people that no doubt saw him as a nigger, was a very necessary survival skill for a black man growing up in the South.
As times changed, the word remained the same, but the context in which it was used (or implied) changed tremendously. An old Richard Pryor skit from Saturday Night Live, during the late 1970s, provided a vivid and hilarious depiction of that changing context. While interviewing for a job with a white man (I think it was Chevy Chase), Pryor is asked to play a word association game, which starts off innocuously, but soon takes a racial twist.
Interviewer: "Jungle Bunny."
Interviewer: "Spear Chucker."
Pryor: "Ofay." (By the way, what the hell is an ofay? Pig Latin for "foe"? Swahili for blue-eyed devil?)
They continue like this for a couple of words, until it becomes clear that white folks have a whole lot more words for us than we have for them. The interviewer says another slur to which Pryor responds with "Honky."
Another slur. "Honky Honky."
Pryor's eyes widen, he cocks his head sideways, pauses for effect, then leans across the desk and says: "Deeeeeaad Honky."
Clearly, "nigger," in our modern context, represents the line that you do not cross. In the skit, Pryor's implied physical threat turns the existing power dynamic on its head, providing the humor in the situation. He is not doing the hiring, so he lacks institutional or economic power. However, his ability -- black people's ability -- to threaten white people with consequences for use of the word (much like my father's example) represents a profound and drastic improvement over decades past, when whites exerted overt and almost complete physical power over black people, as manifested by thousands of lynchings, and untold millions of beatings, rapes and other privations.
At the height of his standup comedy career, (which was at a peak from the time of that SNL send-up of the word as a racial slur) and on into the early 1980s, the N-word was just one of many, many colorful words in Pryor's repertoire. He'd previously released numerous comedy albums, including one titled That Nigga's Crazy.
Richard was Miles, Bird and Coltrane combined when it came to "blue" language, he could bend and twist and extract meaning from words like a muthafucka, and "nigga" was no exception. But in the early '80s, he took a trip to Africa and had an epiphany of sorts. Although he grew up in a home and environment where "nigga" was as much a part of common speech as "man" or "friend," when he went to Africa, he came back changed, and thought of the word differently.
"I realized that there are no niggas in Africa. Only African people," he said in his Live On Sunset Strip standup comedy movie. Pryor came to the realization that, even if it meant sacrificing laughs, the time for that word had passed. He's always been ahead of his time.
If "nigger" is one of the most provocative words in the English language, then "nigga" is certainly one of the most confusing and confounding. In one sense, it's merely the ebonicized, or African American Vernacular English equivalent of nigg-er. (I mean that scientifically, not derisively, ask any linguistics professor if you don't know.) In nigg-a, the vestigial trailing consonant sound is dropped, replaced with the more organic "uh" ending, making the word more suitable for the rhythms of speech. Semantic inversion (i.e., bad is good, nasty is nice) is also employed here. Many African Americans use it as a term of endearment, as I've already explained. It's also commonly used as a term of disparagement (e.g., the "don't be actin' like a nigga" comment I overheard in my youth).
But do we still need a "nigga"? When we had to walk with our eyes downcast, had to answer when "massa," and later, "boss man," called us out of our names, we had a need for nigga. Its the old lemons/lemonade thang at work. Out of necessity, we added a positive dimension to niggahood. We had niggatude. Got niggacentric. But it's getting old, and it seems most of us done forgot why we still use this word. Except for us niggaologists and niggapologists.
Back in '93, on my first paid writing gig, I interviewed Tupac Shakur over the phone to get background information for a music review that I was writing for YSB Magazine. He'd just released Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.z, his second solo album. I was feeling the album a lot, but we only discussed it for about 15 minutes, spending an additional 20 minutes debating the use of the N-word.
He told me that he created the acronym to stand for: Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished. When I answered, "yeah, right," his response was, "Look, I know we shouldn't be calling ourselves that, but the fact is, they [niggas] gonna say the word anyway. Might as well put a positive spin on it." But do niggas even want to be positive?
Prolly not. Part of the appeal of nigganess is the power dynamic, exactly as illustrated by the Richard Pryor skit. "If you ain't gonna respect me, you may as well fear me," the reasoning goes.
It's the same line of thinking, I guess, that says if store detectives are always gonna follow you around and treat you like a thief anyway, regardless of how you conduct yourself, you may as well steal so you can at least get the benefits associated with their negative assumptions. But that type of "nigga" defiance, acting like you think others expect you to, out of spite, is just as fundamentally stupid as "negro" compliance, acting like you think others want you to, to gain favor with them. Forget internalizing somebody else's value systems, we need to spend more time acting like us.
Now that I've let my nappy hair down, and actually dealt with the word, I realize that I've been putting off this subject for a loooong time. I have to wonder, though, whether I should even be having this conversation in "mixed company." I s'pose I should keep it all in the fam. Fire off an internal memo ...
To: Black People, African Americans, Afrikans, Alkebulanians, Nubians, Original Men and Women
CC: Negroes, Coloreds
Re: Niggas ...
But hey, when I sit at the intersection, beside a 16-year-old-looking white kid in a brand new convertible Mustang, and I hear DMX blasting from his speakers, shouting " ... right here, my NIGGAS!!!" I shake my head at the strangeness of the world, and come to the realization that white folks need to understand niggas, too.
Any white dudes out there craving some X-game type adrenaline? Here's something better than jumping off a mountain or backflipping butt-nekkid from a moving snowmobile: Go get with your "cool" black friends, and see if you can slip the N-word into casual conversation. Feel the rush. More likely, feel the bum rush, as you catch a beatdown.
Really, though, even if every brother you come in contact with introduces you to their friends as the coolest whiteboy they know ... even if they are comfortable or stupid enough to let you flip that word in their presence ... even if you are the most sincere wigger (yes, white folks felt obligated to coin yet another term for white folks who too closely identify with black people and/or culture) to ever crip walk through the mall ... Even with all that, I can guarantee you'll find that the use of the N-word, or recognized variants thereof, will precipitate an eventual beatdown.
"But y'all use the word, too!" is the lament. I know. But like I said, we got a right to be conflicted, and y'all need to give us some space until we figure this issue out, aight?
Or maybe we can form a support group with white niggas. Yeah, white folks got niggas, too, they call 'em PWTs. And "trailer trash." They even got their own rappers now, like Eminem, repping for the trailer park, like his counterparts in the hood represent for the ghetto.
As much as I'd like to see nigger become strictly a museum piece, a hateful, dusty old word that we'd pull out now and then for history lessons, I know that that word is still very much with us. It's only been around a decade since the "heroes" of the NYPD marched with picket signs calling their mayor, David Dinkins, a nigger. A federal court has just overturned the convictions of three officers involved in the torture of Abner Louima in New York City, in which they shoved a plunger up his rectum and caused major internal injuries. I'm sure they know their way around the N-word.
What will become of "niggas"? Niggas will have to decide that for themselves. If left to the status quo, niggas will stay niggas, and in fact strive to be more niggafied. And in 20 years, maybe no one will recall the original n-word. Or, the government could decide to pay reparations to black Americans, prompting a huge surge in the amount of niggas on the census. Until then, I'll keep asking niggas to stop saying "nigga."
If any niggas are reading I hope I've made them at least think about if they really want to be "niggas." I hope so. More than likely, though, they'll just be looking at me like, "Nigga, PLEASE!"