Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘N-word’ not so easy to lay to rest

July 17, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) So they tried to put the n-word to death the other day, placed it into a casket and laid it to rest.

Oh, it made for a good public relations effort. The NAACP conducted the ceremony in Detroit, and the evening news showed the video of dignified black men carrying a plain pine coffin. There were speeches and cheers and a parade-like feel to the event, complete with a gospel choir. The n-word even got a spray of flowers, black fake roses.

But the n-word is not for the NAACP to bury. Black people did not birth the n-word. White people did. And so, watching the “funeral,” I couldn’t help feeling that the “mourners” were letting white people off the hook.

By now we all know that non-blacks aren’t allowed to use the n-word — and, indeed, the case could be made that it has all but disappeared from polite white company. Yet despite all the effort promoting “diversity” and “tolerance” and “respecting differences,” the word retains its power. Which is because it carries the weight of history, a history we are still living.

Note that in writing this column, I cannot actually use the word itself. Most newspapers will not print it. That is not just editors being skittish; they know the word carries too much pain to put it on the page. Besides, simply saying “the n-word” is enough. Everyone knows what the word implies.

Historians note the word began to take on its racial connotations during slavery. The Latin origin — niger — simply means black. Later, its derogatory use in literature, music, advertising and, yes, acts of murder and intimidation carried on from the early 1800s to today.

Rappers may not want to accept this, but they represent only a ripple against the tide of hatred that has surrounded the word for centuries. Their liberal usage of the n-word pales next to the purpose the word served as slaves were whipped, black men were castrated and lynched for daring so much as to look at a white woman. Nelly, Snoop Dogg and others may believe they are giving it new meaning in lyrics. But their recording profits do not even begin to offset the long-term effects of how the word was used on grown black men, often in front of their wives and children, to keep them in their place.

The truth is, the rappers and others purveyors of the n-word are only proving how much indeed they are still “owned” by the very word they are attempting to reinvent. As any number of African-American critics have pointed out, who needs the Klan or white supremacists to degrade black people when they will do it to themselves?

Language is dynamic, it shifts and changes. Yet the n-word has changed little, if at all, through the years. Some historians have dated the first jovial use of the n-word among black people sometime in the 1920s. More recently, the black actor Damon Wayans tried to trademark a take-off on the word (nigga) to market a line of clothing. No go. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office noted the term “is almost universally understood to be derogatory.”

I’ve heard white people say their use of the word is somehow OK by insisting, “I only use it for the people who deserve it.” Usually they mean a black person who is an addict, a violent criminal, a drug dealer, prostitute or pimp. Note that all of these words are descriptive enough. There is no need to add the extra offensive word. And yet people do, insisting that it is appropriate.

But what about people who claim they’re not racists? People like Michael Richards, of “Seinfeld” fame? While shouting down black hecklers in his audience, he repeated the n-word several times and, to put a fine point on it, conjured a very graphic image of lynching. He left no question about what he meant: blacks had not come that far, and with one slur they could, in fact, be put in their place, like slaves. “I’m not a racist,” he said later. “That’s what’s so insane about this.”

Yes, the word needs to be laid to rest. But it won’t be done by a mock funeral. It will be done when the wrongs of history are made right. We’ll know we’re there when the word not only doesn’t come from people’s lips, but when it no longer springs into their minds.


Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!