It happened when I was 16-years-old, somewhere around my junior year of high school. I’d just gotten off work in a city far from the comforts of my own neighborhood and was waiting for my supervisor to lock up. Suddenly, a group of white boys whizzed by on bikes and started yelling that word …”nigger.” I looked around. Yes, they were talking to me. It was over as quickly as it happened. As I stared in the direction of the ignorant tribe, zooming high off the fumes of their crime, I searched my mind for a response. First came shock, followed by humiliation. Even a little sadness. I rode home in silence.
Our generation has taken for granted that we are only a few decades removed from a time when the “n” word was tantamount to a death threat. As my friend said when that word was hurled at her during her senior trip, “My reaction was shock and then repulsion and disgust. It was 2005!” We just never thought that someone would be calling us niggers. That still happens? As my friend and I discovered that we aren’t the only folks we know to have experience such an indignity, the answer is obviously yes.
So as antiquated as it seems, is this a word we still have to prepare our children to hear? Much like little black boys are told to cooperate and not make any sudden moves when pulled over by police, will you have to practice your child’s response to this ugly term? Perhaps it depends on if it’s still being passed down as a hate slur on the other side of the tracks.
“The first time I was called the “n” word was in Pre-K by a girl named Leslie,” said my friend Mandy. “She said to me, ‘My skin is light, your skin is dark and that makes you a nigger.’ ”
The NAACP’s ceremonious burial of the word in 2007 was cute. But even our so-called “thought leaders” have disagreed with this act. As black America seems to have only two modern philosophers, Dr. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, in a C-Span panel the latter defended what he calls his “promiscuous” use of the word by reasoning that nigger applies to any group of people who have been oppressed by the majority, and particularly by American capitalism.
“We got to understand nigga is a global phenomenon … I understand that as a nigga in America, there are niggas throughout the world … Can we connect through our core niggerdom to understand the vicious ways in which we have been subverted?” Dyson said.
Indeed, the word is used so colloquially that some of us celebrate it as an example of the resilience black people have and our ability to turn a negative into a positive. Just as women have turned the word “bitch” into a term of endearment – and men have even managed to make calling a woman “a bad bitch” the highest form of praise – we’ve mutated the word nigger into an acceptable form, nigga – because dropping the “er” simultaneously erases its past intent, right?
I, too, found Chris Rock’s sketch hilarious when he said he loved black people but hated niggas. I would not deny guilt for acting as though the n word doesn’t apply to me, but to my “cousins” that barbecue on the front lawn, wear do-rags to WalMart and buy rims with their tax refunds.
In a more serious interview on the Bravo show Inside the Actors Studio, Rock reasoned that black people’s taking ownership of the n word was “the same philosophy as soul food. They gave us the scraps and we made it into cuisine. And we took this word and we made it into poetry.”
He acknowledged that “nigger is the nitroglycerine of words, and in the wrong hands it can hurt,” but went on to say that if given to the right scientist – a rank of comedians that includes Dave Chapelle and Richard Pryor – the word takes the same artistic value it did in a Mark Twain novel.
However in January, a version of the classic Mark Twain novel Huckleberry Finn was published that replaced the word nigger with slave.
Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben proposed the idea to publisher NewSouth Books because in his words, “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.”
Though reading the word in print (219 times!) did sting when I was forced to read this novel in high school, removing it from a novel written in 1885 robs the reader of the context that the term was part of everyday vernacular in that time. Even though Finn was friends with a black man, as a child he heard the word used so much he thought it was the correct way to refer to black people. But given the way it is integrated in our lives now, the next generation may not see this as abnormal. Have things really come full circle?
As another friend put it:
“The first time I was called the “n” word was probably by one of my “n” words. ‘My nigga’ had long become a term of endearment before all of us were born. So will anyone ever remember the first time someone called them a nigga? Will they remember their nigga calling them a nigga? Nope.”
This friend has a spot-on sense of satire, but I recall the paralytic effect the word had when it was hurled at me on the street nearly 10 years ago with absolute clarity. Chances are I will never forget how it felt when it transcended the inside of a funny joke in a movie to become an ugly descriptor by complete strangers.
Have you ever been called a “nigger”? If so, did it change your feelings about “nigga”? Can we really separate the two? Speak!