Friday, October 07, 2005

The "N" Word

Nigger. Many of you cringed just seeing the word written out. It is a powerful word. It is a word that in our culture is quite arguably charged with as much emotional significance as "America" or even the word "God". I will probably not change anyone's mind with anything I am about to say. This word holds too much power for a few brief paragraphs to alter its popular perception. This is simply my brief history of the word.

I have no idea when I first heard the word nigger. All I know is that it was spoken from Black lips. I remember the first time I used it. I was five years old. I had heard it so often by then that I was unaware that it was a derogatory term. I got a spanking for using bad words and had no idea which word my mother was referring to. As I got older I used the word and heard it used dozens of times a day. The word had no more significance to me than any other word. Its meaning varied. At times it was used to mean less cultured, less civilized, ignorant, and "trifling" Black people. At times it was used to refer to anyone with Black skin. At times it simply meant a Black Man. At times it meant any man of any color. At times it was used as a term of endearment and friendship. At times it was used as an inclusive term, a term of unity and community. The tone of voice, the inflection, the context, and the attitude and skin complexion of the speaker could all change its meaning from something hateful to something reassuring.

I remember the first time I went to a predominantly White school. I was fourteen years old. The freedom with which I used the word nigger was extremely confusing to those around me. It was the first time I was forced to confront my usage of the term. I remember talking to a white person and the word slipping out as casually as it had all of my life. I remember how offended I was when he looked at me with confusion on his face and replied, "I'm not a nigger. I'm White." I recall being shocked by the implication that the term could only be used in reference to Black people. I told him, "You don't have to be Black to be a nigger." But I wasn't so sure. I had never thought about the word before. It had always just been there. I just knew that him saying he could not be a nigger because he was white somehow felt as if he was implying that conversely I must have been a nigger because I was Black. After that I called him a nigger whenever I saw him and he took it with that same uncomfortable look on his face.

When I was fifteen I fell in love with a fourteen year old Italian girl. It was the first time I'd ever been in love and the first time I'd ever dated anyone outside my race. When the school year was nearing its end she told me that she couldn't see me anymore because her parents were prejudice and we lived so far away and her parents were prejudice and I was going to a new school and her parents were prejudice. That was my first real experience with racism. I went home and cried in my mother's arms and she told me that if I loved her we would find a way even though she lived way on the other side of town and was as broke as we were. She said she'd give me money to go see her. I went back to school the next day and we worked it out. The next few years were hell. She broke up with me twice before our relationship finally ended. I had never hurt so much in my entire life. I have never hurt like that again. To cheer me up my friend Rick would take me across town into the neighborhood where my girlfriend lived and we would just walk around this predominantly White neighborhood until someone yelled nigger and then we would kick their asses. It always made me feel a little better. I remember the first time it happened almost by accident. Going up to the North east had been Rick's suggestion. I had been starting a lot of fights in the neighborhood and just generally losing my mind. So he suggested that we just go up to The North East and hang out. Maybe being near her would help. I think he knew what he was doing though.

We had been walking around for hours and nothing. Everything I saw reminded me of her and every memory was painful. I was getting more and more depressed. Then we walked past a park where teenagers were known to go and smoke pot and meth and drink themselves silly. It was so dark the night had formed impenetrable walls around it. From behind that opaque curtain of night we heard someone yell nigger! The violence and hatred in the voice was unmistakable. A whole chorus of voices joined in screaming at us as we walked past. I felt absolutely nothing. Even knowing that the speaker was white, even hearing it yelled at me in anger with all the hatred in those young white voices it meant nothing to me. I had heard the word all my life. It was as comfortable and familiar as my own name. I was going to just let it go. Rick on the other hand grabbed a broken hockey stick out of the gutter and jumped across the fence surrounding the park and ran off into the dark after whoever had said it. I followed him not knowing how many kids there were in there. I still don't know how many there were. All I know is that we kicked a whole lot of ass that night. We started going back every weekend. Beating up racists made me feel better somehow, though I wished that one of them had been my girlfriend's father even though I knew that it wouldn't have changed anything. Kicking his ass definitely wasn't going to change his mind about Black people anymore than kicking those kids asses made them any more open-minded. All it did was provide an outlet for my rage.

Eventually my girlfriend and I got back together and she was kicked out of her house and forced to live in a group home. I worked every day after school to support her. I bought her school supplies, her clothes, her make up, her toiletries, her shoes, her winter coats, her jewelry. Anything I could to make her happy though she never was. Every time she cried I died a little inside. I dealt with the stares from Black and White people who disapproved of our relationship and I struggled to understand how a parent could abandon their child because of the skin color of who she was dating. The day we broke up she told me that her parents were right, "You are a nigger!" That word had never hurt so much before.

At eighteen I went to college at Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was a small liberal arts college with a history of liberal politics. It, along with its sister college Oberlin, was the first college in America to except women and Blacks. It was the college where Rod Serling graduated from and his framed picture sat right outside the Dean's office in the trophy case. I was one of a handful of Black kids attending the college. My best friend at the school was Felicia Chappelle (Dave Chappelle's older sister). She was my sanity, the only person there who sort of understood me. I remember my third or fourth day on campus walking around town with Felicia and Dave and asking where the Black community was in town. Dave looked at me with a straight face and replied, "Wherever we go."

When classes started I noticed that there were other Black kids on campus who were forming groups with names like M.A.D. (Men of African Descent) and the Third World Alliance. There was also the Women's Coalition, The Gay Rights Coalition, and every other conceivable group. I didn't get it. I didn't want to separate myself from people. I wanted to get rid of all the barriers. It was not a popular opinion. I made enemies as quickly as I made friends. I was from the ghetto. I had a lot of rough edges. Just before I had left for college I had spent the summer living on the street, squatting in an abandoned house with a bunch of punk rockers, runaways, and criminals, and fighting almost everyday. I had used words like nigger, bitch, faggot, dyke, and pussy all of my life as part of my everyday speech and had never meant anything derogatory by any of them. Now those words could get me kicked off campus. I understood that these words could be hurtful to some so I let them all go except one. I defended my right to use the word nigger.

I argued that using the word sapped it of its power. By using it we were reclaiming it from those who had used it against us. I quoted Richard Pryor who had said that before the White Man took us from Africa we were Watusi and Mau Mau and Nuba and Masai and hundreds of other tribes and we were all at war. Then we came to America and were united under one common name "Nigger" and we all became brothers. They quoted back later Richard Pryor when he went to Africa and realized that he didn't see any niggers there, only beautiful Black people and that he had to stop thinking of himself in those terms and how he had promised to stop using that word. I pointed out that he may have said that but he never actually did stop using it. I was at odds with almost everyone else on campus, especially the other Black kids who I could not relate to. They were idealistic, which I read as unrealistic. They were angry, which I read as unreasonable. And they were largely Middle Class, which I read as out of touch. I left after one semester and took my ghetto ass home, but now the word was on my mind as never before.

At twenty one I moved to the Bay Area. There I met lots of "Afrocentric" Black folks who convinced me little by little that there was something wrong with my free usage of this word. I began my own course of Black studies reading Bobby Seal and Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton and Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. At that time I also met a lot of gangsters and gangster rappers and found myself so appalled by the image they were portraying about our people that I resolved to never use the word again. Of course I did use it, many times. It was too much a part of me. Still, I cringed whenever I heard a Black person use it around White people and I reacted violently when I began to hear White people using the term. I was amazed the first time I saw a Black person allow a White person to call him a nigger with the same familiarity and camaraderie with which Black people used the term. I didn't like it. It wasn't right. They had not earned the right.

My partner and I were promoting a hip-hop concert at the night club I use to run in San Francisco. In keeping with our formula of putting on local acts with our headliners we had hired so kids we knew from around the way who had recently gotten a lot of exposure in a local club magazine. One of the rappers went by the name of "White Mike" and just like the name implies he was Caucasian. While I was explaining to him why the band could not have their underaged friends and relatives in the club without endangering our liquor license, he starts rambling on in the most exaggerated slang I'd heard since leaving Philly, punctuated quite liberally with "My nigga this...And my niggaz that..." I was shocked and appalled. I stepped closer to him and growled in his ear, "If you ever use that word in front of me again I will beat you within an inch of your life."

"Ay that's just how we talk. These my niggaz right here. We grew up together."

One of the Black members of the band proceeded to walk up to me and tell me that Mike was cool and that he was down and that they didn't mind him saying it. I didn't care.

"You don't have the right to give a White boy permission to use that word. Were you ever a slave? Did you spend months in the belly of a slave ship after being snatched from your home only to be whipped and beaten, sold away from your family and forced to work in the fields like animals? Did you ever have to use a colored toilet or ride in the back of a bus? Were you ever denied the right to vote? Did you ever have police dogs and clubs and fire hoses put on you while you were marching for your rights? No? Then you don't have the fucking right to let a White boy use that word after our ancestors suffered through all that shit just so one day you wouldn't have to hear it any more."

Yeah. It surprised me too. I didn't know I had all of that inside me. I guess the word had more meaning to me than I had ever admitted to myself.

Years later I moved to Las Vegas and worked as a bouncer at a local nightclub. I was throwing out a drunk one night when he shouted the word in my face as I tossed him to the curb. I went after him with the intent of causing as much bodily harm as humanly possible without actually killing him. One of the other bouncers grabbed me to keep me from hurting him. After the drunk had run off the other bouncer released me and said, "Aren't you glad I stopped you from hurting that guy? It's just a word. You can't let it get to you." He was White. He didn't get it. I was still angry. Rage was vibrating through my muscles still looking for a place to vent itself.

"You ever grab me like that again and I'll fucking kill you."

It was a matter of dignity, a matter of pride. Some things are worth losing a job over. Some things are worth spending a night or two in jail for. Some things you do not let slide. While I worked at that club I heard more White people use that word in anger than ever before in my life. I hurt every last one of them that said it within my hearing range. The night I got fired from that job a guy said it to me three times. I knocked him unconscious three times. He kept reviving and saying it again. The last time I knocked him out I stomped him in his face until he was finally quiet. I was fired for excessive force. I got a better job. Never worked in a nightclub again and never regretted how I handled that situation. I have knocked out people on three continents for using that word in anger.

This entire topic came to me while watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey the other day. The episode featured the cast of the movie "Crash" discussing race and prejudice. Eventually the "N" word came up. Don Cheadle, Ludacris, and one of the other actors defended their right to use the word with all of the same arguments I had used before. "It is a term of endearment between Black people. It is a term of brotherhood and community." They even went on to try to clarify how "nigga" was the inoffensive term and "nigger" was the racial slur. I had used that once myself too, in my younger days. Oprah answered that this was all too confusing and the word should just not be used at all by anyone. She recounted a story about one of her security guards being called a nigger innocently by a South African security guard who thought "What's up my nigga?" was the appropriate way to greet Black people because he'd seen it in American rap videos. I too have only recently realized how difficult it is for White people to come to grips with this word. It confuses them even more than it confuses us. So, I agree with both Don and Oprah to a degree.

I agree with Don that this term has a meaning within our community that has transcended its original meaning. As Richard Pryor said years ago the word has united the tribes under one banner. Yet the negative connotations of the word cannot be ignored. It connotes generations and generations of slavery and oppression. It was the word used by our oppressors to identify someone who was in his opinion a mere possession, little more than three fifths of a man, just a notch above cattle. It should never come out of a White person's lips. When my mother was growing up a Black person would get his ass kicked for calling another Black person a nigger in mixed company. It was a term that was used only between ourselves and not shared with the public. Using the term out of community was the highest insult. It was considered belittling. Black people using it between one another when we are alone is one thing but we should never use it in public. We should certainly never put it on a record and play it on the radio. Reclaiming the word is one thing, but loaning it out to other races and selling it for profit is another thing entirely.

10 comments:

Maurice Broaddus said...

i've been on a similar journey myself with the word. quite frankly, these days, how i take the word depends on what mood i'm in at the moment. idealistically, i'd like the word extinguished from our common usage. to me, it falls under the banner of profanity, and using gary braunbeck's definition, is violence without action. but, depending on my mood, it practically is an action.

for the most part, i've quit using it. one, because it did confuse my white friends (i got sick of hearing "if you can use it ..." and got tired of using the "i can call my brother something, but if someone outside the family says the same thing ..." argument). two, because reclaiming an insult is buying into the insult and giving it validity. it's misguided empowerment. and i don't need empowering that bad. three, it confuses our black youth, at least judging from how brainwashed they appear in rap videos.

Anonymous said...

i have a rather holistic view, so i think word-viruses like that always have a detrimental effect in their perpetuation of original pathologies in the world, despite whatever alleged localized appropriation they might have in a limited number of users... so i eradicate such words from my working vocabulary and always point out their pathologies to others, demanding their awareness/consideration.

that is, words like that can never be entirely appropriated (only on a rather limited, self-serving level--one person says innocently "that's gay/bad" while a homosexual flinches, or a white guy feels included when he calls his black friend n---- while wrath prepares to bash his head in) and even if they were fully co-opted, would that be a deprivation of power of the oppressors, or purposefully forgetting/hiding from history, with the circular mistakes that will come from such amnesia?

this is a great post--you given a view from 'the inside' of such a word that captures the ambiguity and elusiveness of its use.. or something.

saul williams uses that word in a way that draws attention to its ambivalence as well, which i suppose is the only way it can fully 'be', a four-dimensional object morphing in 3-dimensions, like that cube thing from the hit new series Threshold, which airs Fridays at 9pm.

-erik/hypo

Anonymous said...

sorry for spamming your board wrath, but i did some googling and found this saul williams comment from his msg board (http://snipurl.com/iabt)

i guess i'm posting this because i was thinking of him and his use of the word the other day, not because i'm looking for some vicarious black authenticity in my own comments:) + he's one of my fav. writers.

“i wrote a response for about an hour and then my computer crashed. so here we go again.

my most recent theory is connected to what happens when someone is bit by a venomous snake. the venom is to be instantly sucked out through the mouth and spit out. similarily, the word nigger was used in a venomous way in the past and present day usage of it may be black americas way of spitting out the venom of hatred and oppression by sucking it out of their hearts and minds and spitting it out ie: saying it. which is to say, that it may be part of the healing process. that’s one way to look at it. ofcourse we can also say that it is simply internalized self-hatred. however, it is also becoming rare in the black community to hear the word used with negative intention. where do i stand? good question.

when i use it it is for specific purposes, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean heightened. i use it to make a point, to make a connection, to make a joke… as a child i was not allowed to use it. yet remember hearing men use the word in ways that just sounded very “cool” to my ear. it was richard pryor that is probably responsible for making the word almost sexy. when he openly decided to stop using it (primarily because of a letter he recieved from maya angelou) it was major news. many comedians attribute that moment as being the time when richard pryor stopped being funny. hmmm. weird.

when i was in germany, once, a black german asked me to speak to american rappers about using the word. he felt that we should stop because he was being called nigga by white boys in europe who thought it was the cool thing to say: hip hop fans.they didn’t know the history of it, but he did.he felt angered by it and tried to explain to his friends why they shouldn’t use it, but then became more confused when at a wutang concert, one of the cats on stage said, “i love y’all. y’all my niggas”.

i think that the history of the word “nigger” in america from the beginning to now, “nigga” is surreal. as surreal as michael jackson. the way it is most commonly used is now as the highest compliment “you’re my nigga” (wasn’t that in a curb your enthusiasm episode?). yet, the history of it is far from forgotten. a person who uses the word everyday will still freeze dead in their tracks if they heard someone say it with the “er” pronounced.

personally, i have gone from having stopped saying it, to saying it, and then ofcourse, to saving it for special occassions.. i think that we will eventually stop using the word all together, yet we may be 2 or 3 generations away from that.
there’s a song on my new album called “african student movement”. the song is a musical sequel to the poem “sha clack clack” and is meant to instigate dialogue about the word nigga/er and our usage of it.it’s a powerful word. i find i am only offended when i hear people of color use it in a derogatory manner, such as “stop acting like a …”. however, i don’t deem the mere usage of it derogatory. i acknowledge it’s history, just as i do ours and know that we are a growing people. and perhaps, just as a person is inoculated against a disease by having it put in it’s system, we are participating is some unspeakable circular healing process. consciousness is evolving, as is our ability to articulate it. the healing process can and must include dialogue. thus, this question is a good question. i don’t have the answer. only theories. you are right in knowing that when i use it in a poem or song it is for you to acknowledge where and how i’m using it. but i never use it in one way. sometimes it’s the lauren hill approach

“and even with all my logic and my theories
i add a “motherfu&#er” so you ignorant niggas
hear me”

and sometimes it’s to instigate discussion about the word itself. as a lover of language, i am amazed by the layers of meaning and power held within this word. there are other words that have long interesting histories that are connected to african americans like “yo” and “okay”, but they are practically disconnected from their history. most people don’t know or care where these words came from. the history of the word “nigger” probably didn’t have derogatory beginning. shit, it just might be the hidden name of God.
seriously, we have the river niger and many other etymological ties that can lead us to the origin of the word which probably predates colonialism. so, the usage of it, i think, is probably beyond our rational knowledge. the choice to use it or not is individual. as for whites using it. i would say NO. as much as i can theorize reasons why blacks may use it, i can think of no good reason why a white should. but who knows. at the end of the day. it’s a word. perhaps the most powerful word in american colloquial english. and a word with that much power has a destiny beyond our rational reasoning.

there’s a documentary about to come out about it and of course alot of press. which means, there will be new dialogue surrounding the word in the near future. the dialogue is most important.”

-erik/hypo

Joel Wideman said...

What about the ironic way Bill Hicks used it in his comedy?

Wrath said...

Hey Maurice. Thanks for your comments. I have pretty much stopped using the word as well except in certain very tight circles. I agree that today's youth seem to be extremely confused by that word and just about everything else concerning thier racial identity. But so were most of us when we were growing up as well. This entire country seems to have cultural identity issues. That is one of the trade-offs fro living in such a culturally diverse nation.

Thanks for posting that, Eric. Mr. Williams makes some very interesting points. Definitely thought provoking.

Good to hear from you again, Joel. I've honestly never heard of Bill Hicks though.

davidltamarin said...

what about when you are writing? Do you let your characters say it?

Is it the same spoken and written? Maybe I have a double standard because I would never publicly say it to a large group but in one of my stories Satan used the word. You are right about the younger generation being confused because I didnt know if people would get offended. It was a satire piece with Satan using modern day slang terms and that was the context (I should add here I'm white and Jewish).
If you avoid the word then you it prevents you from writing a realistic portrait of racism. Look at Ellison's Invisible Man, the word is important to that book because we see how people use it to demean and how it is part of the history of racism in America.

Does it matter what race the author is, and does it matter what race the character is?

The reason for the confusion, I think, is that people of my generation (Im 32) associate "black culture" with "outlaw culture". White suburban rebels like myself hear NWA singing Fuck the Police and start associating the n-word with being a rebel, being anti-establishment, being a bad ass and a gangster.
Gangster used to be associated with white Western outlaws like John Dillinger and Al Capone, and now people associate the word gangster with Tupac and Ice Cube.
Gangsters are glamorized by youth counterculture, and today the word gangster and the n-word are used almost interchangably.
A lot of gangster rap imagery refers to the old West, like using the term 'gat' for a firearm and talking about posses.
The line of thinking is:

Gangsters are cool

Using the n-word is part of being
a gangster

i want to be a gangster or I admire the gangster lifestyle therefore I will use the word

white kids use it because it implies they (we) are "bad-ass".

Take a look at a Quentin Tarantino film and you can see the connection. 25 years ago rebel kids listened to the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, today the same kids listen to the Geto Boys and Eazy-E

I think another issue that comes up for people like me is, do I have to change CDs if I am going to pick up a black friend? I listen to rap music but would put some other type of music on when I was with black friends because I didn't know if its considered insulting to play music that uses the word a lot, even if it is being said by someone black. But then I go to my black friends' houses and they play the same music so I feel like its okay to put Tupac in the tapedeck when they are around. But I would never sing the lyrics out loud because talking about killing n----s is okay if you are Tupac, but not okay if you are a scrawny white Jew!!!

Heres my question: there are a LOT of white people who wouldnt use the word in front of blacks and get morally appalled by the use of the word but have no problem saying it when only their white friends are around. If people like that are going to say the word, should they be consistent (but disrpescpectful) and use the term in front of blacks or talk differently when black people are around? If blacks should only use the word when no whites are around, does this cause people to treat each other differently by race or is it a matter of respect?
these are all just questions, there are no simple answers.

there are definitely different standards- I am not offended by words like honky and cracker and peckerwood but I don't like hearing words like kike or expressions like "don't Jew me with the money". On the other hand as a devout Satanist I don't mind the term Christ-Killer but then again I was never chased through the streets having the word yelled at me like my father and uncles

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Anonymous said...

I found your blog searching for my old friend Felicia. I too am a former Antioch student. Loved Antioch (and hated it at times)for some of its sepratatist answers. I am a white bisexual woman. Didn't quite fit in a neat Box. Always disliked liked lables (ans still do). Read you blog the "N" word. Brought back many memories and emotions. Proud to say that as a white person...I never felt it was a word I should use. I do appreciate your discussion about the complexity. It is confusing how one word can be used semi-affectionalty in one community and can be so insiteful in another. Nice to see your postings, reminds me of Antioch. Thank you for sharing your passion and personal exirience.

Peace,

Ariel

Anonymous said...

I was stunned to read in your post that Felicia Chappele was your "sanity" during your tenure at Antioch; Felicia is anything but sane! She exhibits bipolar traits and really ought to be committed. If you doubt me, google her rant to the Xenia city council (it's on You Tube).

Maximus Lewin said...

It's been a long time! Good to see you out here on the Internets.