When I posted my original “N” word article here some two weeks ago, I didn’t anticipate that it would merit a sequel. As it was, the gist of the original premise seemed preposterous if taken literally. Of course, no one could “ban” a word here — this is America, and that kind of thing just isn’t done.
Indeed, though a few who perhaps didn’t read further than the title didn’t realize that the question was, in essence, a rhetorical one, the piece did generate hundreds of comments. Some of these, along with my replies, were longer than the original piece itself.
But most of what was discussed veered from the original question and onto other related concerns such as the state of bigotry — both black and white — in 21st century America. One of my “theories” was that some young African-Americans who bandy this word around so freely and publicly are akin to disenfranchised Muslim youth who both despise the country they live in but are perfectly free to criticize it. Unlike other Americans (with the exception of Native Americans, who of course used to call our country home), African-Americans were originally brought here against their will as slaves. Other Americans originally arrived as immigrants who came here eagerly and voluntarily in search of better opportunities for themselves and their children. As such, they tended to embrace the “American dream” with fervor, and many flourished and gave their children the best that their new country could offer in terms of education and opportunity.
American-born children of immigrants are generally very well assimilated from the get-go, and many, in fact, can’t wait to emerge from their parents’ “ghettos,” eschew the old ways, and embrace their status as full fledged Americans on a par with their peers.
However, there are some — and only some — young blacks who are, in essence, not fully “assimilated” and still reside, both physically and mentally, in a ghetto which they voluntarily embrace, at least to some extent. Those who eschew education as the purview of the “white man” and relish bandying about a word which has such horrible connotations for all Americans has resulted in a tragic, self-defeating cycle. Moreover, the fervently held belief of some African-Americans that there is no such thing as black racism and that they are still left wholly out of the socioeconomic loop is, in my opinion, a strictly 20th century concept. Elders who still pass this self-destructive, counterproductive belief system on to their children are, in essence, harming them grievously and compromising what could otherwise be a bright future, albeit a future with some struggles and challenges along the way.
We also discussed the extent to which well-meaning whites still harbor racism in their hearts, and the ways in which our culture still reinforces this. We discussed the extent of opportunities for all Americans, as well as some still existing roadblocks for African Americans. We also discussed the unique historical interactions between blacks and Jews, and the anti-Semitism, mutual resentment, and misunderstandings which still permeate some hearts and minds.
But what, then, of the original question — should this word, so rife with horrible connotations, be “allowed” to continue as part of our everyday lexicon? Some new developments in the past few days have convinced me that this sequel is worth pursuing, for now the question has indeed taken on a much more literal slant.
From Reuters on March 1, 2007:
New York City symbolically banned use of the word nigger on Wednesday, the latest step in a campaign that hopes to expunge the most vile of racial slurs from hip hop music and television.
The City Council unanimously declared a moratorium that carries no penalty but aims to stop youth from casually using the word, considered by most Americans to be the most offensive in the English language.
The New York City measure follows similar resolutions this month by the New York state assembly and state senate, and supporters of the ban are taking their campaign to The Recording Academy, asking it not to nominate musicians for Grammy awards if they use the word in their lyrics.
The article also notes that many young New Yorkers and rap artists use the word as a “term of endearment or as a substitute for black, angering some black leaders who consider those who use it as ignorant of the word's hate-filled history in slavery and segregation.”
The campaign against use of the “n” word has gained momentum since comedian Michael Richards of “Seinfeld” fame “spewed it in a racially charged tirade” at the Laugh Factory, a Los Angeles comedy club. Richards has since apologized, and the Laugh Factory has now banned comedians from using the word in their acts there.
Councilman Leroy Comrie, a sponsor of the moratorium, “also asked TV network Black Entertainment Television to stop using the word in its shows. Representatives of BET did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”
As for the Grammy issue, Ron Roecker, vice president of communication for the Recording Academy, stated: "They are not going to be supportive of something that excludes someone simply because they are using a word that is offensive."
Similarly, comedian Chris Rock, when asked about the City Council move in a Reuter’s interview, responded: "What, is there a fine? Am I going to get a ticket?" "Do judges say, '10 years, nigger!'"
Rock said politicians were trying to divert attention from real problems: ‘Enough real bad things happen in this city to worry about how I am going to use the word.’
Meanwhile, at historically black Stillman college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a four day conference was held last week to discuss the racial slur.
Organizers said the goal of the event is to challenge the use of the n-word "through the use of intelligent dialog and a thorough examination of black history."
Andrew Hacker, a political science professor at Queens College and author of "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal," said just getting rid of the word wouldn't stamp out racism.
"I really think that as far as white people are concerned, the word is almost on its way out," said Hacker, who is white. "That said, there are a lot of white people who still in the privacy of their own minds think the word even if they don't use it because they regard black people as genetically inferior and that word categorizes that."
Kovan Flowers, co-founder of AbolishTheNWord.com, said striking the word from use would help set an example for other races.
"We can't say anything to Hispanics, or whites or whoever unless we stop using it ourselves," he said. "It's the root of the mind-set that's affecting why people are low, from housing to jobs to education."
Rapper Tupac Shakur was credited with legitimizing the term "nigga" when he came out with the song "N.I.G.G.A.," which he said stood for "Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished."
Stillman English professor Alisea McLeod said she doesn't buy it.
"It's hogwash. What this is really indicative of is a heart problem," she said. "What is coming out of mouths is what is coming out of souls. These are not words that are uplifting and I think (they) point to a bigger problem — a lack of self-love."
After reading of these new developments, I visited the aforementioned website, AbolishTheNWord.com. This excellent site has separate pages devoted to black history and the diabolical origins of the “n”word, as well as an entreaty to others to educate rather than argue. Among the items available via the website are flash cards with information on the word’s origins and intent to pass out to folks rather than confronting them when they bandy the word around in public.
But the most devastating feature of the site was the intro video, which made any mere words one could utter regarding the ugly legacy of this slur pale in comparison. Please check it out by clicking on the screen below to visit AbolishTheNWord.com.
So what, then, is the answer to the original question posed? To me, the answer seems clear — not to “censor” or “ban” the word, but to virtually abolish it by educating young people, one by one, about what the word actually symbolizes within the context of black history and the arduous 20th century struggle for civil rights — until it becomes as obsolete in current usage as, say, “talking picture,” “78 rpm,” or “photogravure.”
The “N” word, though it will always be with us, deserves in this brave new century to be relegated chiefly to the history books, rather than to trip freely off the tongues of young people who are unaware that those who sold, lynched, and tormented their ancestors in the century just past used it all too well — not as a term of endearment, but as a weapon with which to relegate another race to the status of subhuman pariah.
Rather than make it "illegal" to utter the word, why not just make it "improper?" In time, the "N" word may even all but vanish from our everyday lexicon and our collective unconscious like a long ago 20th century nightmare.
For to passively stand aside — as the "N" word continues to be uttered so ubiquitously in our cities, towns, and streets — would be, as the kids themselves might put it, strictly “old school.”