I’ve been concentrating too hard on religion with my think pieces, and have decided to take a break from that to focus some attention on race issues. I am re-posting some notes I wrote last February for Black History Month on my Facebook.
This post originally appeared on February 8th, 2010
This is the only circumstance under which you will hear me use the word “nigger”. I thought I would get it out of the way immediately, so we can dispense with the tired euphemism “the N word.” Here goes… (deep breath)
Nigger nigger nigger, nigger nigger. Nigger? Nigger nigger nigger.
There. It’s out there in black and white (pun fully intended). I make jokes, but there’s really nothing particularly funny about this word. In fact, repeating it over and over didn’t make its impact any less meaningful, like it does for other words. Nigger is perhaps the least-understood word in the common lexicon, although thankfully it is far less common than it was 20 years ago (or indeed, 60 years ago), and continues to baffle people to this day. It’s a word that cannot be fully comprehended without knowing its history.
First off, I want to dispel a myth. Nigger is not a “bad word for black person” or simply “a racial epithet.” It isn’t a naughty word, or a mean name, or something you shouldn’t say when there are black folks around but joke about in the privacy of your country club. The word “nigger” is a bastardization of the word “negro”, the original European terminology for a person with dark skin from trans-Saharan Africa. As organized slavery became the engine for the economy of the United States, “negro” became “nigger” in the same way that “you all” became “y’all”. In that respect, I suppose, it was a fairly innocuous moniker, since one could argue that “negro” is not, in and of itself, a derogatory term.
However, slavery in the United States became a much different animal from slavery as it had been practiced throughout history. Historically, slaves were people of no noble birth or who had been captured in war who were sold to citizens, and who could, eventually, buy or otherwise earn their way (or the ways of their children) into freedom. African slaves in the United States were not captured in war, they were kidnapped, poached basically, by agents of the American government. They were shipped, inspected, branded and sold in exactly the same way one would sell livestock (this, while horrible, is actually not very different from standard slavery practice… or modern-day prostitution). What made American slavery so unique, however, is that the slaves were treated, and thought of, as animals. “Nigger” was a term used to dehumanize African slaves to reduce them to the level of farm equipment. “Nigger” wasn’t a term for a black person, it was a word specifically designed to remove African slaves’ personhood. Niggers weren’t people, they weren’t even merely slaves – they were an entirely sub-human species of animal.
Nigger was actually a scientific term for a while. Because African slaves had been sufficiently dehumanized, scientists of the day felt comfortable making all kinds of wild, unfounded claims about the nature, physical characteristics, intelligence, and even moral rectitude of “the nigger”. These completely unscientific, evidenceless assertions made their way quickly into the common consciousness; the effect of them was felt centuries later when black people were being denied the vote. Black people, it was said, were not intelligent, trustworthy or hard-working enough to deserve full rights under the law. This was backed up with bogus scientific claims from racist doctors, and was the reigning official understanding for quite a while.
This is what the word “nigger” means. The meaning of some words changes over the years, as their connotation shifts due to common vulgar usage. The word “vulgar”, for example, denotes the common, everyday vernacular, but it has connotatively come to mean rude and inappropriate (obviously I meant it denotatively, not connotatively). However, since nigger dropped out of common usage before it lost its sting and association to history, its meaning has not changed. In other words, it’s inaccurate to say “well that’s not what I meant when I said it.”
More recently, the word was re-bastardized into the more commonplace “nigga.” I personally have mixed feelings about this usage. The idea was to take the word “nigger” and re-purpose it to reduce its impact and take ownership of it. However, while I might sympathize with the aim, I don’t think it has accomplished its goal. It requires general knowledge of the difference between the two words, including the full history of “nigger” to make such a re-purposing genuine. For the vast majority of people in North America, the history is not well-known, thus the difference between nigga and nigger becomes nebulous, inscrutable, and largely ignored.
So what about rappers, comedians, and other celebrities who use the word “nigga” as part of their language? Are they wrong to do so? In a rare moment for me, I am going to equivocate rather than pronouncing what the “right” thing to do is. Considering the history this word has, I myself can’t imagine why anyone would want to use it, even in its diluted form. It is a word so foul as to preclude any reasonable use except to discuss it as a literary term. Every time it is uttered, it stirs up the ghosts of 400+ years of black exploitation and systematic oppression. Without the proper forum and tools in which to discuss it, those ghosts can never be laid to rest. I think there is next to no justification for its use whatsoever.
However, the word does force discussion of the issues that I have been raising in these posts. Putting it out in the forefront of media means that the world cannot rest on its laurels, and must discuss the glaring race problem that still persists in our society. The rapper Nas composed an absolutely brilliant album, originally titledNigger (due to pressure from various groups, the album went untitled), which touches on all these topics and more. The title was intentionally designed to generate just such a discussion. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you should. That such high-minded debate is being championed by someone who is on the level of the common man (or as close as you can get to that level without drinking the Krunk Juice) suggests that maybe we are more ready to have this conversation than I thought.
It’s not my place to make decrees that govern a community that I, admittedly, am not a big part of. The sociopolitical standing of black people in the United States is very different from that of black people in Canada; and while I feel sympathy and a sense of camaraderie, I am more like a non-voting member of the community – I can take part in the discussion but don’t have any official powers. To put it plainly, I’m not going to tell Nas what he can and cannot call himself, but I will never call anyone a nigga.
Excellent post! I taught an entire course exploring this word. http://revolutionarypaideia.wordpress.com
Hi! (Still reading my way through the links on your Feb 3rd 2012 post.) Thanks so much for this. As a white Canadian liberal, my understanding of that word was that it was a “bad word for black person.” Thank you for explaining how much deeper it goes.