“If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”-Carter G. Woodson
I loathe the N-word. It is a verbal manifestation of mental and spiritual oppression that has endured even after the removal of the last vestiges of physical bondage in America. Consequently, imagine my horror when I heard an educated, young Nubian man refer to himself as a n*gga. Certainly, this is not the 'industrial, political, social and religious emancipation’ of the universal negro that Marcus Garvey was referring to! Black intellectuals in the U.S. are scrambling to call themselves any variation of a Nubian King or Queen yet this Nubian is consciously calling himself a n*gga?!...The proliferation of American rap music amongst black and non-black people around the world allowed the N-word to become globalized. With very little consideration for the inherent racial inferiority implied by the word, the complacency of the post-Civil Rights-era black American has allowed this remnant of America's racist past to become an everyday part of the global lexicon and synonymous with black culture.
In 1926, H.W. Fowler wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage that the N-word is “felt as an insult by the person described, and betrays in the speaker, if not deliberate insolence, at least a very arrogant inhumanity". Throughout American history, black people were enslaved, maimed, murdered, raped, and terrorized with the legal support of the U.S. government. Scarcely a few decades after the black community made great strides in overthrowing the most blatant aspects of institutionalized racism in America, this generation champions their freedoms and honor the sacrifices of their forefathers by calling themselves n*ggas. I can already hear the chorus of moans and groans from those who have been conditioned to believe that the N-word is now used as a word of "empowerment" and "endearment" to show how we can "reclaim" our history and identity. This group of apologists maintains that the usage of the N-word in the largely black genre of American rap music and through daily interactions between African Americans has nullified its racist past.
In spite of this claim, one can never separate a word from its connotations, denotations, and historical past. The N-word was established as a word to dehumanize black people and reinforce the idea that to be black is to be ignorant, child-like, and 3/5th of a human being, if even that. The word became a brand, used as a justification for unspeakable acts of cruelty, injustice, and crimes against humanity throughout America's history. The shock and condemnation amongst the black community towards Michael Richard's (a.k.a Kramer's) racist tirade in 2006 exemplifies how the N-word remains wrought in an unspoken history of pain and shame. Simply dropping the -er and adding an -a belies an ignorance of history and insolent disregard for the social, political, and physical sacrifices of African Americans. Despite arguments in the contrary, there is no self-empowerment in referring to oneself and one's people as a racial slur. By embracing the N-word, we contribute to silencing our ancestors, bolstering racists and neo-Confederate apologists, and white-washing the horrors of American slavery and Jim Crow.
I have been approached with "what's up my n*gga" by the sons of Cuban exiles in Miami, Algerian gangs in Paris, Korean hip-hop heads in Seoul, Sudanese ‘lost boys’ in Cairo, and so many others worldwide. Each time I hear it in my travels; I'm left with a sinking feeling of despair. With no thorough knowledge of U.S. history amongst them, it's very clear where foreigners learned such a phrase. Dr. Martin Kilson of Harvard University describes my reaction as the "typical sensibilities of African-American citizens" to have a “deep dislike for public expression in American media - newspaper, radio, television, magazines, and books - of the epithet n*gger". However, I'd argue that this is a oral Pandora's box of our own doing. Our lack of self-reflection and willingness to embrace a racial slur has allowed superficial rap lyrics and unaccountable, corporate-owned entertainers to shape the worldview of black American culture through the lens of the N-word.
It is impossible to believe that we can actually restrict the N-word for use by "us" and to empower "us". We have no more control over its usage that we have over the use of any other word in the global lexicon. It's now okay for others to use the word because we us it. Thus, instead of continuing the struggle of WEB Dubois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to have us viewed as equal to all other men, we have allowed their sacrifices to go unnoticed by this current generation and rendered ourselves nothing more than glorified n*ggas once again. Perhaps this is why Marcus Garvey made the provision that, "I have no desire to take all black people back to Africa; there are blacks who are no good here and will likewise be no good there."
Accordingly, in an article discussing the N-word, H. Lewis Smith reflected that, "After almost 400 years of conditioning, a community of people have become immune to, or accepted, the adverse implications and negative effects the term, and all it encompasses, imposes on their mind state, and ultimately their life’s success." It is detrimental to spread our culture of lack of accountability and introspection to the rest of the world. Worldwide, hip-hop music has become a cultural phenomenon; resistance music. It is the avenue through which those who suffer through unspeakable hardship give voice to their hopes and dreams, champion political activism, and break down barriers. In America, we've bought into the idea that we are n*ggas and allowed corporate-owned artists to brand us as such to the world, selling our legitimacy and history for a price. Let us seek to debunk conventional black apologia for the N-word and demand that those who claim to represent us- from Souljah Boy to Jay-Z and Talib Kweli- expand their vocabulary and refrain from using the word. In our schools and neighborhoods, let's take the time to educate the youth about the true meaning of the word and redefine our communities.
From the Nubian man struggling for equality in his homeland, to the Sudanese 'lost boy' who escaped Sudan and walked across 2 countries to seek refuge, to the young black man in the housing projects of Brooklyn dodging drug dealers and crooked cops to make it to school on time, we are not n*ggas. No, we are the embodiments of the dreams of Malcolm, Huey, and Martin. We are the living testaments to the failure of five-hundred years of colonialism, imperialism, and enslavement to kill our spirits and obliterate our race. We are resilient fortitudes of strength, pride, creativity, and intelligence. We owe it, not only to our forefathers, but to all the people of colour that continue to face genocide, civil war, occupation, rape, imperialism and modern day slavery, to reject the N-word in all its forms. Afrika Bambaataa referred to the members of his 'Zulu Nation' as Kings and Queens in the hopes that they would one day live up to the lofty titles that he bestowed upon them. This is the image of black America that we should portray to the world through our music and seek to emulate
In the News:
How and Why Hip-Hop Has Been Political-but Will that Continue?
Feeling a Little Uneasy These Days (the N-word in South Africa)