How simultaneously harrowing and splendid it is to live in a world so full of possibilities, so overrun with apparent contradictions and complexity! Always a hurdle to cross, a new, heavier mental weight to bear. Then just when you reach the cliff of your wits, a Royal Super Negro in a Vibranium microweave suit swoops down and carries you over the chasm… and to the next valley.
It keeps you on your toes, doesn’t it? Yet, despite any of the clouds that may sometimes hover over the parade for our Blackness, we have many things to enjoy, reasons to celebrate, and so much to look forward to. #WakandaForever!
Now, to more pressing matters…
Words are my stock and trade. And since it’s Black History Month, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to examine one word that has been analyzed and scrutinized within and outside of the Black community ad nauseam. The hot, ongoing debate around this word remains relevant for a number of reasons, especially because it evokes such visceral reactions within so many who hear it. That word is, of course, “nigga”.
As a writer, I am a firm believer that words hold the power of life and death, that each one has its purpose (or myriad purposes), especially the purpose to teach. I am uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to prevent anyone from using any word. Of course, many would agree that there are circumstances under which certain words are inappropriate—professional settings, in houses of worship, in the presence of elders or highly respected persons who would be offended, etc. However, proposing a wholesale moratorium on any word, in my not-so-humble opinion, is unnecessary and possibly even a waste of precious time. So, for the purpose of this article (for the purpose of my own personal expression on and off the page), and to avoid patronizing the very audience with which I’d like to engage, I will not be referring to it as the “N-word”.
I was compelled to do some soul-searching regarding the use of ”nigga” after watching a Ta-Nehisi Coates interview over the holidays. A white audience member asked Coates for his insight, because she did not believe in saying it, but wasn’t sure how to help her white friends understand that they also “should not” say it.
At the heart of Coates’s response was this: It’s about context and relationship. As an outsider of a community, with no meaningful relationship with that community, there is no way for an individual to understand the nuances of words used in an ironic fashion. They’d get the context wrong every time and expose themselves as ignorant and insensitive at best.
He gave the example of his wife and her best friend playfully referring to each other as “bitch”, along with an explanation of why it would be wholly inappropriate for him to join in their jesting. He also talked about a white friend of his who regularly jokes about escaping to his “white trash cabin” for vacation, and that he wouldn’t think to follow suit with something like, “I’m coming to your white trash cabin.” He mentioned the fact that some people in the gay community have used the term “fag” with each other for years, but that it is not something he would take the liberty to do with them. These are all circumstances in which he’d have neither the community relationship nor the contextual understanding to use these words in the way these people did.
He broke it down even further by explaining why he thinks so many whites take issue with being told that they cannot say “nigga”, regardless of the fact that some black folks throw it around with abandon. Whites invented the word, he explained, and what’s more? Whites navigate a world where they are told from birth that they own the world, that they can do what they want when they want. To be told that they can’t use a word that they invented, in a world that belongs to them, may very well feel like the ultimate affront to some whites. The question Coates was ultimately led to ask was, why would individuals who have no significant relationship with a community insist on having access to terms that they do not fully appreciate the context of?
This was a very intriguing explanation to me and one that I had never seen anyone articulate in quite this way. (You can view a portion of the talk here if you like.)
Now, I believe in letting people say whatever they want so we can see who they really are. And yet, while I don’t agree that anyone should use valuable time explaining to whites why their use of “nigga” will be seen as a threat by many, I think Coates’s commentary made a lot of sense. So, I decided to dig deeper and see what some other celebrated black thinkers have to say about it.
I started with a cursory search for related videos and came up with some material from Reverend James David Manning. Now, if you know anything about him, you understand that he’s hardly a celebrated black thinker in the sense that I mean it. But even a broke clock is right twice a day. When he defended his prodigious use of “nigga” for the following reason, I couldn’t deny the resonance of his comments:
“Why rob society of one of the best descriptions of behavior I’ve ever seen?… We need not kill the word, we need to kill the spirit.”
In a talk with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West,
Michael Eric Dyson had this to say about his own use of “nigga”:
“Nigga is a global phenomenon. That’s why I use the word with promiscuity.”
Explaining that it can be used to illustrate the ways in which the oppression of people all over the world is similar, he says he prefers to “Put it on front street… I know you’re calling me “nigga”. I won’t allow you to have the ultimate terminological privilege of naming me and fixing me with your narrow category…”
Killer Mike once described how he came to a deeper understanding of the history of the word “nigger”. “The root word simply means ‘black’…negro, nigro, negre”, He commented. So, for him, the word is not the problem. The problem is that those who use it as a derogatory term hate all that is black. They’ve made black loathsome and therefore turned the word into something loathsome. (You can view his explanation here.)
Cornel West had this to say:
“If someone actually loves the people—Martin King, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Fannie Lou Hamer—if they wanna use the n-word for me that’s fine, ‘cause I know they love me. The problem is that there’s not enough people who use the word who love the very people who have been terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized by the powers that be. I think we have to be very, very careful and cautious in terms of whether the love is at the center of that word.” ( “The N Word” on The Stream, Aljazerra 2013)
West has advocated for a moratorium on the word. He’s concerned about an internalization of self-hatred which he believes will result when a person is not learned enough to understand the nuances of the word. However, is it true that using “nigga” disconnects people—particularly young black people—from their history? I’m more convinced that usage can possibly reveal that disconnection if a person already lacks understanding of history and context. In that case, you could take away the word and still have an individual who is aimlessly navigating the world with low self-esteem, little self-awareness and a grossly insufficient understanding of the world and life itself.
Really, I can understand the sentiments of those who think the word “nigga” should go the way of chitlins and greens seasoned with fatback. Much like the artery-clogging variety of soul food that some still choose to partake in without restraint, the modern-day use of “nigga” is very much a choice, the responsibility for which lies squarely at our feet.
Still, unlike hog maws, “nigga” is a living, non-concrete thing. It has that transcendental quality that all words have, and it cannot be linked to our symptoms in a neat and tidy diagnosis like fried chicken and butter beans to diabetes.
We and our words have the ability to be many different things, to hold many different meanings and perspectives, without true contradiction. Actually (in looking ahead to Women’s History Month) I’m reminded of a famous song by Meredith Brooks where she declares, “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint—I do not feel ashamed.” This couldn’t be a better illustration of the complexity of life, humanity, and words.
She goes on to say, “Just when you think you got me figured out, the season’s already changin’ “. And change is, I think, what makes so many uncomfortable. Intricacy in ideas, in character, in words and communication, is something that many people simply wish to avoid navigating.
Yet words are not static. They are living things in and of themselves which change and expand and conform with time.
Many of us cannot accept that the word “nigga” holds valid meaning today, because the hateful acts around its root word, “nigger”, have simply been too heinous to accept. The idea that such a word can be reclaimed seems nonsensical to some, since it is still used as a weapon in the society at large. However, the fact that one person crafted and subsequently used a hammer as a weapon does not mean that I cannot use it as a tool or an instrument to simply make a noise that is pleasant to my own ears. Whether others understand my use of it is neither here nor there. It’s helping me build the kind of house, the kind of music, that I choose to enjoy.
I’m sure this debate will rage on for at least as long as the poison of white supremacy infects us. Still, no appearance of propriety conveyed in our speech, no moratorium on a word will stop emphatic bigots from seeing us as subhuman. And I’m pretty sure that the kinds of people who would use “nigga”, or “bitch”, or “fag”, or “cunt”, or any other word as a weapon wouldn’t care less about respecting the abstract notion of a word ban.
In the beautifully succinct words of a commenter from The Stream show noted above,
“People will speak. THAT must be accepted. Relinquish.”