“It is not what you call me, but what I answer to, that matters most.” - African Proverb
A while back I was having a conversation with Rock, my co-worker and friend. We were discussing the hot controversy at the time, Don Imus referring to the Rutger's women's basketball team as "nappy headed hoes". In discussing this, Rock began a sentence by saying, "We have a responsibility as African Americans..." to which I quickly interrupted and said, "Hold up bruh. We're not African Americans." He replied, "OK, I guess you prefer to say Black. Anyway...". At this point, it's important for the reader to understand that I never miss the chance to aggravate Rock. It's part of the dynamic of our friendship. Seeing an opportunity to push his buttons, I again interrupted him....
- Me - "No, African American and Black are not the same thing."
- Rock - "How do you figure?"
- Me - "Think about it. Ali (a guy we work with) is from Moracco, which is in Africa. Being born there makes him African. He is a naturalized citizen here which makes him African American. You're familiar the actress Charlize Theron aren't you?
- Rock - "Yeah. White chick."
- Me - "She's African American.
- Rock - "You're getting on my nerves now. She's as white as the pure driven snow."
- Me - "Yet, she's African American. She was born in South Africa and naturalized here in America. That makes her African American. We are of African descent, but born here in America. So to say that we are African American is simply not technically accurate."
- Rock - "So what are we then?"
- Me - "Niggers."
As you can imagine, Rock was none to happy about this exchange, and he expressed that by muttering something about making my wife a widow. With the mention of one word I'd managed to enrage my friend, shamefully dishonor my ancestors and reveal my own internalized self hatred. What other word has so much power? What started out as a way to rankle my friends sensibilities instantly became far more complex. My short lecture on the proper use of the term "African American" was meant to be a self-effacing joke poking fun at the transitory appellations we've used to identify ourselves, and graphically illustrate an undeniable truth. Despite every moniker we've been called or gone by on these shores (Negro, Colored, Creole, Mulatto, Afro-American, Quadroon, Black, African-American, etc.) the one label that has never waned in popularity is nigger.
Much like Periplaneta Americana, the term nigger has survived for hundreds of years and shows no signs of extinction. In 2007 the NAACP held a mock burial and declared it dead, only to see it to rise from it's tomb before the lid could be closed. In fact, nigger is arguably more resilient now than it has ever been in it's storied past.
Part of that past was it's inclusion in nursery rhymes. Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Niggers" is probably the most famous example, but "Eeny Meeny Miney Moe" provided my first recollected encounter with the word at around 5 years old on the playgrounds of Petersburg, VA. One of my running buddies at the time, Jimmy R. always used this rhyme as a means to decide who among us would be Simon for "Simon Says", "it" in Tag or any other chosen one for our various kids games. Up until that point I had always heard the rhyme like this...
"Eeny meeny miney moe
catch the devil by his toe
if he hollers let him go
eeny meeny miney moe"
Jimmy's version replaced the devil with "a nigger" and no one seemed to notice or care. Although I knew it was different than what I was used to, I just assumed that it was a nonsense word that Jimmy had made up to be silly. To my knowledge, I had never heard the word before. I remember being made aware of it's vile history just days after moving to Upper Marlboro, MD, when I used this very same method for picking an antagonist while playing with my new next door neighbors Micheal and Kenneth T. Both my mom and Mrs. T overheard my rhyme from the kitchen window and seized upon what I'm sure was a rather awkward and uncomfortable teaching moment.
Jimmy's version actually dates back to at least 1888 when it was known to be the most popular version among American school children. Rudyard Kipling even included it in his "Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides" published in 1935. Most likely it has it's origins in early depictions of the devil as black as opposed to the modern red. The logic being that if you catch the devil by the toe it won't cause his horse-like hoof any pain. If you've pinched a human's toe instead, he'll most certainly yell, and since you've made a mistake identifying him, you should let your unintended target go.
|...and The White House is in Chocolate City. Wear that shirt on your next trip here sir.|
Although theories as to the origin of the word nigger are several, it almost certainly has it's roots in the Latin word nigrum, which in adjective form is niger meaning "black". From that base, the Spanish/Portuguese and French adapted negro and noir respectively, then derived neger and ne'gre as pejoratives. According to Wikipedia, "In the United Kingdom and other parts of the English-speaking world, the word was often used to refer to people of Pakistani or Indian descent, or merely to darker-skinned foreigners in general". The pronunciation as we know it today most likely is the result of bastardizations of negro due to dialect; taking on its derogatory connotations around the 1800's. Thus, the most linguistically vile word known the world over was spawned.
Unofficially noted as the worst insult in the English language, nigger has always been used to oppress. Like it or not, the historic significance of the word is deeply rooted in American history and is recognized as beginning its inflammatory definition right here on our soil. To argue that nigger is not as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie is to assert a position that one knows to be flimsy at best. The perception of the term as derogatory is related to the viewpoint of the Black race as sub-human. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked Americans of African descent. Nigger suggested that Black people were inferior second class citizens. It was a term of exclusion, verbal justification for discrimination and oppression. Because of this, nigger often triggers deep-rooted hostility in Blacks. The word itself is aurally vulgar to the ear. When spoken aloud it almost emulates the sound one makes when vomiting.
- "So much of the European-American consciousness is based on its affirmation of greatness and superiority in contrast to the wretchedness and inferiority of Africans. With European-American consciousness comes the birth of this nation, and with this nation comes the molding of the concept of the African descendants born here. The very consciousness of the nation is based upon the precept of Caucasian supremacy and African inferiority."
In short, nigger is inextricably tied to a history of despotism and tyranny, and in the mouths of other cultures instantly emasculates it's target. What is of interest to me is why do other cultures wish to have permission or be free to say nigger? In exactly what situation would it be appropriate? What non-racist reason would one have for using it where something else wouldn't be better received by just about any audience? It's interesting to note the example of Eminem, one of the most popular rappers on the planet for the past 12 years. His considerable talents and skills as an MC have made him well respected within a Black dominated genre and the music industry in general. No stranger to controversy, Eminem has liberally used profanity, lyrically fantasized about homicidal/suicidal tendencies and publicly embarrassed other celebrities by suggesting clandestine intimate relations with them...and that's just within one album. Despite his tendency to invite conflict and controversy, Eminem has been careful not to add nigger to his repertoire' even though he may actually have the rep and credibility to pull it off in the right context. Put simply, Em's too smart for that. Despite the liberal use of nigger in the rap genre, he realizes that coming from his larynx the interpretation is dubious at best, and possibly career ending. Let's be completely honest. Other cultures don't need permission to use nigger because in all likelihood it is already a part of their vocabulary. Simply because one has established enough sense of self preservation to not use it in the presence of Blacks further illustrates why it shouldn't be used by other cultures OR Blacks.
|A brand of golf tees from 1920.|
Some may be asking why some Blacks insist on cart blanche to use nigger openly and freely. For a plethora of reasons, it is my opinion that we shouldn't. In our mouths, it is the apogee of self loathing. Yet much to my chagrin, I occasionally find myself disgorging this most hated term. Considering that I'm in the middle of writing this I've been much more sensitive to when and how nigger bullies it's way into my vocabulary. In the past few weeks, here are the contexts in which this bile has spewed from my mouth...
- "What the?!? Aww, HELL no nigger!" - Upon realizing a motorist in gridlocked traffic was driving on the shoulder and splashing muddy water on my recently painstakingly detailed car, then attempting to cut in front of me.
- "No, and I won't hear from him. That nigger owes me money." - When asked by a friend if I'd recently heard from a mutual acquaintance of ours.
- "THAT nigga is clearly insane" - My inner dialogue (muttered audibly) after concluding a conversation with a guy in Chipotle who had titanium implants placed under the skin of his forehead to create "devils horns", apparently a body art thing that all the cool, yet obviously deeply disturbed Goth kids are doing.
My usage and every other Person of Color's (there's another one!) usage of nigger perfectly illustrates the schizophrenic hypocrisy of our relationship to it. We are completely repulsed by the word, yet as a culture we perpetuate and cannot separate ourselves from it. Propagated in slavery, cultivated in racism and infused with oppressive ideology, the culture of American born persons of African descent suffers from the psychological damage/post traumatic stress resultant of an unrelenting systematic second class citizenship to this day. If one is told they are a nigger, forced to live as a nigger, and treated like a nigger from 1619 to present, a nigger is what you become. So nigger becomes a parasite; a semantic tapeworm left untreated to destroy it's host from the inside out, eating away at the souls of Black folk (shout out to W.E.B. Dubois), persistent and determined to suck the love, pride and self-respect right out of us. As a result, nigger becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. It is we who treat each other like niggers, we who live as niggers and call ourselves niggers.
Blacks have probably been calling each other nigger since the words inception, not as a pejorative necessarily, but generally as a term of identification. For my Uncle, a product of the pre-civil rights rural South, nigger is synonymous with any person of color. About 10 years ago he proudly told me how times were changing down South as the South Carolina town he lived in had elected it's first "nigger mayor". Use of adjectives also further defined intent. "Bad nigger" is a term first put upon particularly "hard to break" or rebellious newly arrived slaves. It evolved to describe any Black man who defied or stood up to "the man". It became a term of respect within the black community. In contrast, "Dumb-ass nigger" is obviously not and pretty self explanatory, but it is the "dumb-ass" that determines it. See what I mean about schizophrenic?
|NWA (Niggas With Attitude) was one of the most influential rap groups of the 80/90's|
Some have suggested that the context in which nigger is used can redefine it's meaning and determine whether or not it is offensive. Examples of this can readily be found in popular music and movies. It's not unusual to hear "niggers" where "fellas" or more disparagingly "dummies" would suffice, and female rappers routinely use "niggers" to refer to men in general. Another example of context is when nigger is used as a term of endearment to express camaraderie, friendship, or even favorable opinion (EX. "I can always count on Mike. That's my nigga, right there." or "That nigga Roger Federer is a beast on the tennis court!"). Earl Simmons, aka DMX wrote "I love my niggas, shed blood for my niggas" in one of his songs, which is clearly meant to express devotion. While context can change the intended meaning of words it cannot change history, and the history of the word nigger cannot be overlooked. Nigger carries with it images of hatred, brutality, injustice and domination. Contextualized uses of nigger cannot transform its historic definition no matter how one tries to "reclaim" or to put a positive spin on it. A word that has it's origins in hate cannot express love. Nigger is so deeply rooted in the negative that it can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. Use of it as such is a glaring testimony to the self concept of the user.
Sticking with that for a minute, I know of no other culture that uses a term meant to decimate them as an expression of affection. Most would not tolerate the use of a slur, let alone perpetuate it within it's own community. The best example of this is the Jewish Nation. Any insulting language or disparaging portrayal is met with swift and definitive resistance. Attempts to paint the community in a negative light are simply not tolerated. In 1996 when Michael Jackson, arguably the most famous entertainer on the planet used a Jewish epithet in his song "They Don't Care About Us", he received so much negative feedback and pressure that he issued a public apology, went back into the studio to re-record the song using alternative lyrics AND included a written apology in all future pressings of the album it appeared on. Despite his assertion that the song was meant to denounce racism, the point was that anything considered to be detrimental to The Jewish Nation regardless of its context was and is unacceptable. Stop and think about that for a moment. The biggest and most influential star in the entire music industry was forced to apologize and alter a song that had already been released and distributed. The message was clear - disrespect of Jewish culture would not be tolerated in any form, by anyone, for any reason. The Jewish Nation said “never again”, they meant it, and obstinately protect the image and honor of the culture.
There is also the argument that the regular and repeated use of nigger vitiates it, removing it's power. Two people who are seemingly in this camp are Quentin Tarantino and Aaron McGruder. Tarantino shocked many with the liberal use of nigger in his brilliant film Pulp Fiction (28 times), then again in the not so brilliant Jackie Brown (38 times). One of the most memorable scenes (of a movie filled with them) is an exchange between Butch and Marcellus. Marcellus, portrayed by Ving Rhames (who is Black) is bribing Butch (Bruce Willis), a fledgling boxer to take a dive in a boxing match. At the end of a compelling monologue, Marcellus extends an envelope full of large bills across the table to Butch and states as much as asks, "You my nigga?" As Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" plays in the background, Tarantino allows an uncomfortable silence to linger before Butch takes the envelope and finally answers, "It certainly appears so." Tarantino has stated that he is "...a guy who is not afraid of the word. I just don't feel pussy-footing around the whole racial issue." Aaron McGruder, creator of the edgy Boondocks comic strip is apparently cut from the same cloth. Nigger is regularly used in the animated version of his strip. In 2006, McGruder courted controversy when he resurrected Martin Luther King Jr. to see what had become of his dream. Upon viewing a little BET and experiencing some generally ignorant behavior in the community, MLK becomes frustrated and asks, "This is it? Some 40 odd years later, this is what I took all those ass whoopings for?! A bunch of trifling, good for nothing niggers?" McGruder has said that when everyone is referred to as niggers then it loses it's stigma - there will be no more niggers in the negative sense. It's interesting to note that nigger is usually used by short-tempered, hot-headed and socially corrupt Boondocks characters, and almost always in a negative manner. It's also interesting to note that in Pulp Fiction although Butch took the money, he did not take the dive and ultimately ends up saving Marcellus' life, effectively demonstrating that he never was, nor was ever going to be his nigger.
|Waste expensive champagne? Sure why not? I'm selling a lifestyle, right?|
|There is no mistaking the influence of "urban" marketing here.|
Although we refuse to admit it, there is no denying that nigger is a fetishized colloquialism. As alluded to earlier, nigger is seen almost as a taboo indulgence to some; an articulatory forbidden fruit that when indulged opens a societal Pandora's Box, yet rewards with the satisfaction of usurping power from an opposing source. When we use it, our target is immediately reduced to "less than" while simultaneously establishing us as dominant. This is why we hate that we love the word. It exposes a part of our character that we wish didn't exist. On the other side of the coin, we love that we hate the word nigger. We hate the word because of all it represents and the painful past it manifests. By publicly denouncing nigger, we alleviate ourselves of the labels that go along with it - ignorant, racist, ugly, prejudice, hate, oppression, etc., making us feel superior to those who engage in such language and attitudes while simultaneously establishing them as...you guessed it, "less than". This is the main reason why Chris Rock's wildly popular skit "Black People vs Niggers" has proven so popular. It verbalizes a tangible separation of lower class behavior from middle and upper class mores'. So ultimately, we love to hate and hate to love nigger for the very same reason - classism. Whether we use it on others or denounce others use of it, with nigger the viewpoint is always, "I'm better than you". Regardless of whether we like it or not, in a country that on one hand would be willing to enslave a people while simultaneously proclaiming the glories of democracy, nigger stands as a definitive lexiconic illustration of our society until we relegate it to nothing more than a history book point of reference from the long ago, unenlightened past.
"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."