** Caution! The following article may offend some with the language usage of the word “Nigger.” It is our primary purpose to educate and inform, not entertain. The usage and historical content of the word will be used throughout this article. Reader discretion is advised.**
Nas has the number one album on the charts. Two weeks in a row. The album is untitled. But we all know the title, though. At the Grammy’s a few short months ago, Kelis, Nas’ rumored soon to be ex wife, wore the title on the back of her jacket. But because of the explosive divide over naming an album with such a historically demeaning background, Nas consented to the removal of the title from the cover of his album. Yet, the picture of Nas’ back scarred with calloused whip bruises, in the shape of a capital ‘N,’ creates an astounding visual representation of the word in question.
This past week end, Rev. Al Sharpton, defended his close friend and civil rights patriot, Rev. Jesse Jackson. Yes, Jackson was wrong for calling Sen. Barack Obama the ‘word,’ Sharpton agreed, but Jackson is still a good man despite the seemingly hypocritical slip he made. Remember, Rev. Jackson and the NAACP ‘buried’ the ‘word’ symbolically last year in Detroit.
And…my late great-grandfather, Robert Samuel Standifer, when provoked and angered, was quick to use that word to describe a person and his actions. Whenever Big Daddy, that is what we all lovingly called him, began his tirade of the ‘word,’ you knew it was time to get outta his way!
Nowadays, the ‘word’ is used in a variety of ways and has numerous connotations. It is used in a racial, derogatory sense. It is used to describe a behavior. It is used to describe an individual in a friendly, homie type of way. It is also used as a warm greeting. But what really is the deal behind the ‘N’ word?
In latin, the word used to describe ‘black’ is ‘niger.’ In English, ‘niger’ is translated into ‘negro.’ In French, ‘niger’ is then translated into two words for both sexes, ‘negre’ for a male and ‘negress’ for a female. But it is the mispronuniciation of the later from French to English by uneducated Southern slave owners that gives us the version of the word we love and hate so well: ‘nigger.’ This word is deeply ingrained within the consciousness of all Americans, but not as deeply than in the collective psyche of African Americans. ‘Nigger,’ during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was systematically etched into American culture by advertisers, songwriters and publishers, business owners, entertainers and the like. The word usage of ‘nigger’ along with its’ negative connotation, spurred new words in every day American life.
Those words, like, nigger-tip, which means leaving a small tip, nigger-steak, which means a plate of liver, nigger-shooter which means a slingshot, nigger-stick, a police baton and nigger-rich, which means to be deeply in dept but flamboyant, were not the intelligent creation of an university educated African American. No, these words were created by Caucasian Americans. The usage of the word nigger also found itself in the homes of Americans. Products had names such as nigger milk, for ink. Songs of the day were titled, “Hesitate Mr. Nigger, Hesitate,” or “You’se Just A Nigger.” Even acclaimed novelist Agatha Christie wrote a book titled “Ten Little Niggers.” So, the word ‘nigger’ was deeply entrenched in both the worlds of African Americans and Caucasian Americans. Whether professional or layman, the word ‘nigger’ was tossed around like ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye.’
But the word ‘nigger’ in the African American community had a different reality. The usage of the word among community members was tolerated and accepted. Even though the meaning behind nigger held negative connotations coming from Caucasians, it did not take on the same venom. ‘Nigger’ was embraced and rearranged by African Americans to take on dual personalities: one could be called a ‘nigger’ lovingly, jokingly and warmly. On the flip side, a person could be called a ‘nigger’ in the worst or original Southern slave owner definition. The same holds true today.
In the twenty-first century, nigger has been reworked to sound and read ‘nigga,’ niggaz,’ or ‘niggah.’ These reincarnations of the basic original meaning and historic spelling is a cultural desensitizing of a negative word; redefined and embraced by the masses. However, the culture at large is divided over the usage, definition and comfort level of any form of the word ‘nigger.’ To say that it is wrong for Caucasians to use the word that they created by default is debatable. To decide that the actual embracing and redefinition of the word ‘nigger’ by African Americans for the exclusive use of African Americans is , too, highly debatable. The exorcism of the word ‘nigger’ from the conscious vocabulary of Americans in general, will be a collectively overwhelming task because of its’ roots and cultural re-identification. If the word ‘nigger’ was as repulsive as ‘pickininny,’ ‘mammy,’ ‘jigaboo,’ ‘samba,’ ‘coon,’ and ‘buck,’ then it wouldn’t be so difficult to extract. There has yet to be a reinvention and embracing of the word ‘coon’ or ‘mammy’ that we know about.
But should we actively use it? With the word ‘nigger’ being so and utterly linked in the consciousness of African Americans, it is more than a notion to cut it out of our vocabulary. But for those of us that feel the lash of the plantation owner’s whip when the word is spoken, it is not that hard to remove it from our dialogue. A word as foul and degrading as ‘nigger’ has the history of being, some in the African American community find no problem in eliminating ‘nigger’ from their psyche. This is a wonderful thing. What of others and should these be villianized for their embracing of the word?
History awaits the final call on that. Still, I know that my great, to the tenth power, grandfather, George (Nelson) Ricks, a runaway slave, wouldn’t approve of me using it in my daily speech nor would I want to hear my children use the word ‘nigger’ to hate on or to love another human being. That is not to say that I haven’t found myself using the questioned terminology. I am no-ones hypocrite. But in the moments when my sanity returns, I am remorseful and taste the full extent of the bitterness that comes with the word ‘nigger.’