The N-Word and How To Use It | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The N-Word and How To Use It

It's what blacks have always done since we hit America's shores: we take what's given us and we find a way to make it our own.

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N-I-G-G-E-R. I'll never forget the first time I accidentally used that word in mixed company. It was 20 years ago at the University of Missouri, and I was engaged in lighthearted chitchat with Kent, my white roommate, when I casually called him a "nigger."

For a second I'd forgotten that I was not among my black friends in my old neighborhood in Saint Louis, where calling a buddy "nigger" was synonymous with calling him "brother" or "man." It was just another way to talk cool, using a word that had become a part of our vocabulary long before we were aware of all its varied meanings and usages.

I was barely conscious of my accidental utterance, but there was nothing casual about Kent's reaction. His eyes widened, and his body flinched as though he'd just absorbed a boxer's jab. Then he snapped to an upright position on the edge of his bed, narrowed his eyes, and pointed an index finger at me. "I'm not a nigger," he said, his tone implying that he thought I was a nigger. He never actually called me a nigger, but the mere suggestion was enough to put me in a fighting mood.

"Do I look like a nigger to you?" I shouted.

"But you just called me a nigger," he replied.

"Well, that's different. You can't call me that. Not ever."

Fortunately, our dorm mates stopped this exchange before I could throw a punch at Kent, who probably thought I was nuts. Actually I was simply too angry to realize that I was the one at fault.

By calling Kent a nigger, I'd exposed him to what my old neighborhood friends called a "black thing" he didn't understand. The "thing" is the love/hate relationship many black people have with "nigger," one of the most complex, perplexing, and emotionally incendiary words in the American lexicon. And to be truthful, black people are hardly unified in their understanding or usage of this piece of slang.

There have been times in my life when I've felt very comfortable using the word, but I've also struggled with its usage. And now that I'm a parent I cringe at the notion that my two children will someday have to try to understand what these six letters mean to them, their friends and foes, and the larger society. While my wife and I are readying ourselves for questions like "Where do babies come from?" I know that none will be more vexing than the first innocent query about the N-word.

I could take the easy way out and tell our kids that "nigger" is a bad word that good boys and girls should never use. Or maybe I could recite the old "sticks and stones" adage and tell them it's a name that can never hurt them. But neither tactic is likely to work, especially the second, since I don't believe it myself.

If my kids are destined to be introduced to a word born of racial hatred, then their parents should be the ones to do it. But television, the Internet, the school playground, and other competitors for our kids' attention may get to them first. Or a dictionary.

Last February Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, Michigan, was asked by a little boy, "Am I a nigger because I'm black?" She told the naturally curious child that a nigger was any ignorant person, then advised him to look up the word in the dictionary for reassurance. The kid paged through the venerable Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, where he found that "nigger" is a term for "a black person--usu. taken to be offensive." With only minor revisions, this definition has existed for nearly half a century.

This was a shocking revelation for Williams, who started a petition drive to pressure Merriam-Webster to revise the definition. Her campaign gained momentum last September, when Emerge magazine ran a brief article about it. Since then, scores of people have joined her, many of them contending that the current definition inaccurately explains the meaning of the word. Some of them also believe the racial epithet is undeserving of inclusion in a dictionary and want it deleted altogether.

I know why Williams and others like her are upset. Being called "nigger" by a white person or a white-run institution is a slap in the face for many blacks. It evokes thoughts of the sorry legacy of slavery and the racism that haunts the nation. And it hurts. When I checked out the definition in my own copy of the Collegiate edition I felt stung--particularly since I knew that dictionaries are almost as ubiquitous as Gideon Bibles.

I don't believe the publishers of the collegiate edition meant to offend anyone. Most likely, they were simply reflecting the confusion that stems from the paradoxical usage of the word among Americans of all hues, cultures, and generations.

Since my dorm-room experience, several whites have told me of their own struggles to understand the term--and to understand why a word that was used for centuries by white people to disparage and dehumanize their black slaves and today is a chief element of hatespeak (witness the Nigger Joke Center on the World Wide Web) is cool for blacks to use but taboo for them. They ask, How can any self-respecting black person stand to use it? Why do black kids call each other "my nigga" in such endearing tones, privately as well as publicly? Is this a "self-hatred thing"?

I say no. It's what blacks have always done since we hit America's shores 400 years ago. We take what's given to us, or thrown at us, and we find a way to make it our own. Blacks melded African rhythms and European music to create jazz, this country's only original musical art form. We took the parts of livestock whites didn't care to eat--intestines, tongues, ears, and feet--mixed them with our native African dishes and conjured up soul food.

In the same manner, blacks took the loaded term "nigger" and disarmed it by making it a household word. In fact, we went on to embrace it by using it to spice up poetry, rap lyrics, and many a comedy stand-up routine. A case in point is Paul Mooney, a comedian and writer (Saturday Night Live, Good Times, and In Living Color). He doesn't just use "nigger" to accent his stand-up act. It's often the focal point of his jokes. In one bit he complains about the flak he catches from whites who sometimes object more vociferously to his liberal use of the word than do many blacks. "Make that nigger stop saying nigger. He's giving me a nigger headache," he jokes. "Well white folks, you shouldn't have ever made up the word. You fucked up. I say nigger 100 times every morning. It makes my teeth white."

Chris Rock, who currently hosts a weekly HBO talk show, is another funny man at peace with his use of "nigger." While my grandmother has never heard of him, she and Rock assign a similar meaning to the term. The hot comic told B.E.T. Weekend magazine he uses it to describe "a certain kind of black person who wallows in ignorance and likes being ignorant." During a recent HBO special, Rock expressed this point of view with these one-liners: "Niggers react to books the way vampires react to sunlight." "Niggers always want credit for something they should be doing. 'I take care of my kids.' You're supposed to take care of your kids!" "Black people don't give a damn about welfare reform. Niggers are shaking in their boots."

Rock, who used to lampoon CBS anchor Bryant Gumbel for "talking white," recently apologized publicly for using such a label. But he doesn't plan to cut "nigger" out of his act anytime soon. "I'll stop when niggas stop," he said. "Niggas robbed my house, robbed my mother's house. Black people didn't do that." He adds, "I would love to have no reason to use the word. I'd love for it to be obsolete."

Richard Pryor, one of Rock's role models, was at the height of his legendary career in 1982, when he vowed never again to use the word to refer to another black person. He said he'd had an epiphany during a visit to Africa. He didn't see any "niggers" in the motherland and realized that blacks there had no need to use the word. Pryor shared his pledge with the audience during a stand-up routine that was later released as a feature film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. The statement inspired lots of blacks to make the same vow.

I haven't made that pledge, but before I saw Pryor's film I never thought twice about why I used "nigger." I'm less comfortable using it now, but because of my lifelong cultural association with the word, I can't foresee total avoidance. Because my kids have a different culture, I've never used it around them, and I don't intend to.

Since my kids aren't going to grow up hearing "nigger" under our roof, the question still remains: How should I explain this word to them? There's only one way to do it--candidly and carefully. I'll tell them that the word is a national shame and at times a painful reminder of their ancestors' struggle for freedom. And I'll explain that the term has a history just as relevant as Jim Crow, the Revolutionary War, lynching, or Watergate, which is why forcing a dictionary to delete it would be a mistake, would be censorship.

Meanwhile the people at Merriam-Webster are busy mulling a revision of their definition of "nigger," according to spokesman Steve Perrault. He wrote me via E-mail that it's too early to pinpoint when or if a change will be made, but he assured me the issue will be resolved before the dictionary's next scheduled major update, in 2003. "The problem for us is that it's not simply a matter of changing one entry," Perrault said. "If we revise our treatment of the offensive word, we also have to revise our treatment of the many other offensive words in the dictionary. That makes it a fairly major undertaking, and our feeling is that we want to be sure we're getting it right."

Sounds like a good idea. But does this really require much deliberation? I don't think so. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language already has it figured out. Its definition of "nigger" begins with the words "offensive slang...used as a disparaging term for a black person." As an illustration, a quote from James Baldwin follows: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a Negro."

This interpretation seems fair and accurate to me. It's even suitable for the eyes of a child. And it may even enlighten a confused college kid or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Rebecca Jane Gleason.

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