Monday, June 21, 2010

The Globalization of the N-Word

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“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)

9 comments:

Balanced Melting Pot said...

I have had this discussion with so many African-Americans and it's a losing battle. Those who use it have convinced themselves that they have changed the connotation - have in essence taken the power out of the hands of the oppressor - and therefore can use it without implying all of the negativity. The problem with that argument is that there are some who use it negatively in reference to African-Americans who aren't up to snuff (deadbeat dads, criminals, etc.). During these arguments, I don't know what else to say or why I would even need to explain why this word should not be used by black people. You can't compare it to the use of "neg" or "negro" in other languages - different history. Who knows, maybe it will eventually go out of style.

Anonymous said...

it was ice cube back in a 1992 source magazine issue, that made the public statement "we took a word that meant negative against us and use it as an indearment toward us." q-tip sought of gave the sametime of statement in "sucka niggas" back in 93. What hose young men at the time didn't realize is that things travel and people are influenced by them for many years to come, in america where i am at I can tell, I feel it's like joke to use the term n-word, and not just use the word itself, it is already used in countless songs and has become a standard noun in hiphop songs and in american black culture, but the word has been flipped and that shows we let it get flipped, no can we makesure they know what the word really means? that is the zillion dollar question, because u are talking now a generational cycle worth of time that the word has been used in song and as a soul brotha phrase.

Anonymous said...

If you are in the public eye, try not to use the term but it does not have a negative connotation anymore. Words do change meaning over time and that word does not mean anything to me.

Anonymous said...

words don't change over time if that were the case we would come up with new forms of languages every 50 years or so, thats why words are what they are words you can't flip what a word is defined, but you can sell yourself short and go along with the flow and flip it, if commercially sold music and commercial radio plays music with the n word even being bleeped out that is still in the public, the quest is to reach those who have been weaned on the trick97/mtv form of the boogie, a re-education is needed.

Anonymous said...

Well, I heard my 15-year-old nephew say n**ger and I told him I don't want him to ever say that word again. He had the nerve to tell me that n*gga meant friends between blacks snd n**ger is what white people say which is bad. I told him that is bull**hit. Yes were black.

DCDistrictdiva said...

I agree with Melting Pot; you are truly preaching to the choir, and I've definitely got an "amen" for everything you said, including the clip from Boondocks (my favorite!). But, what is the solution? How can we change this?

Frenchie said...

@DC That's a tough one, how do we change something we've been conditioned to accept as the norm?...I think the 2 most important groups to target are the media and the youth. We have to start teaching young children the true meaning of the word and what happened to black people in America because white ppl thought they were no more than the N-word. A lot of today's youth have no knowledge of black history beyond the Civil Rights Movement and Rosa Parks. We have to ingrain in the next generation that it's as unacceptable to say that word as it is to say any other curse word.

Secondly, we need to lobby corporate media outlets and record companies to stop supporting artists and airing videos,shows, and movies that use it. I wouldn't bother with most of the entertainers themselves. Instead, hit them where it hurts, in their pockets. I have very vague memories of how the consistent campaigning of civil rights activist, politicians, and everyday citizens led to banning some of the most misogynistic gangsta rap from the airwaves and the establishment of the Parental Advisory label on CD's in the 90s. This was a huge victory! We can continue to carry the torch by insisting that the N-word not be included in the media, not even in my beloved Boondocks, and not supporting artists that use it. From Aaron McGrueder to Jay-Z, they can afford to buy a thesaurus and find new words to use to express themselves

Matt said...

I am curious what people think of Chris Rock's take on this topic from his "Bring the Pain" show?

I personally have always been taught to never use the N-word for the copious reasons already mentioned above. I know that all people do not share that view though, and you would be surprised (alright, maybe you wouldn't be surprised) how often I heard it thrown around in my younger days when there were not any black people around (yes, Frenchie has a white reader). Thankfully I run in a bit more enlightened and mature crowd than back in High School.

I see this issue as a problem with getting black people on the same page. If some black people use it and it seems ok then some white people are going to think it is ok to throw around too which no one wants. Step number one is to get the black community to stop using the term then you can go from there. Granted I realize that this is easier said than done and the black community is not a homogenous block that thinks in group think, but that is the key. On the plus side though, after black people stop using it, white people are bound to give it up too and steal whatever new word comes up like we are want to do. You know we can't help but steal black culture, it is just what we do.

@Anonymous on June 21 at 5:41pm:
I agree with you that words change, but this one dies hard. I assure you that even if in your mind it has changed, it remains the same hateful disrepectol pejorative word as always in the minds of the vast majority.

@Anonymous on June 21 at 7:03pm: This is a bit beside the point, but have you picked up a book of shakespeare recently or read the bible in King James? How are you going to try to say that language doesn't change? This particular word may have the same significance but I assure you that language does indeed change overtime.

VegasSeven said...

Paraphrased from Reverend Al Sharpton at Essence Music Festival last week during the Education Seminar:

We will not accept the "B" "H" or "N" word.

Let me see here.... A derogatory word against Jews, a hate crime... A derogatory word against the Irish, a hate crime. But not the "N" word against blacks?

I once spoke with a rapper who said it was his freedom of speech to use the "N" word. Two weeks later I was in my car and I got a phone call from him. He was arrested and he said I have to help him because the police...."violated his civil rights."

I told him Niggers don't have civil rights and hung up the phone on him...

The crowd at Essence stood up and gave him a long standing ovation.

Another thing Rev. Al Sharpton said: "Russell Simmons has the IQ of a light bulb. Of course he believes the N word is okay, because he profits of the word."

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