The N-word

The word “nigger” is as American as apple pie and its original purpose was simple: to define an under-caste of sub-humans who were deemed inferior to whites. But over the years, it has morphed to take on different meanings and uses. Many argue that it is a word that can be reclaimed by the people it was meant to hurt but many others say it should be cast out of our vocabulary like the demon they see it to be.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, social and economic order in United States was dependent on a strict racial hierarchy. Black slaves and their free labor laid the bedrock for the country’s economy. This meant slaves had to be kept in their place to maintain profits. Beatings, whippings, shackles, and even murder were among go-to methods. But for casual everyday use, the sharp sting of the word “nigger” ensured Black slaves knew exactly where their place was in the racial hierarchy. For white people, the N-word had no other purpose than to degrade and humiliate Black folks to assert their economic and social dominance.

Today, the descendants of those white people still use the word as a weapon of hate and a way to express self-appointed superiority. It has also evolved to be used in everyday conversation to indicate something is undesirable or inadequate. Phrases like nigger-lover, nigger-lipped, and nigger-rigged are said with a certain air about them that suggests a deep cultural antipathy towards Black people.

For many people, the N-word rightly elicits sharp pangs behind each of its syllables and harkens back to a dreadful history. But for a lot of Black folks, a simple softening of the “-er” at the end turns the word into an expression of camaraderie and a badge of struggle.

The lightening of the word entered popular culture primarily through public figures like Richard Pryor. It peppered his routines, oftentimes used every few seconds. And Pryor used it with intent much like many white people did (and continue to do). But his calculation was different. He wanted to de-weaponize the word and snatch the whip from the slave master’s hand.

“Nigger. And so this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah.” -Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences, 1997

Pryor is credited for coining phrases like “nigga, please” which is readily used among Black people today. Other Black comedians carried on his tradition like Eddie Murphy who had jokes with names such as “Niggaz of the ‘70s”. On the HBO hit television series Def Comedy Jam, “nigga” was used like a punctuation mark. In the late ‘90s Russell Simmons said, “Twenty years ago, ‘nigger’ was self-defeating. When we say ‘nigger’ now it’s very positive.” This effort to take back of the word has permeated all facets of African-American culture.

Today, hip-hop and rap music are by far the most influential forces when it comes to the integration of “nigga” into the lexicon of Black Americans. It has laced tracks in both genres for much of the last 30 years. Any rap or hip-hip giant that you can think of has had the phrase in any number of their songs and song titles including pieces from Grandmaster Flash, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, and a Tribe Called Quest.

The introduction of this renewed way to speak the N-word has gradually given the word an increased casualness over the years and for many, it’s no different than calling someone “bruh” or “dude.” But does this new benign usage represent reclamation?

Many people would say yes. Take for instance Nia Ashari Harris, a Black NYU student and writer for Affinity. In an article entitled “How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage,” she argued that being able to use the N-word is like belonging to an exclusive club, asserting that you’re only granted access to the word if you are Black. She talked about how our Black ancestors were revered as kings and queens and that reclaiming the word felt like an assertion of her greatness a Black woman. She said that the redefinition of “nigga” has allowed people to define their Blackness in broader terms.

“Through the word ‘nigga’ and redefining it for ourselves, I feel like we have been able to redefine what it means to be black. Expanding the scope of blackness is everything to me, as it denounces the idea that there is “one type” of ‘nigga’. Blackness is Barack Obama, but blackness is also the Migos. Blackness is whatever a n*gga wants it to be, and that’s lit.” Nia Ashari Harris, How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage, 2017

But even the man credited with starting this movement to reclaim the word had a change of heart.

After taking a trip to Kenya, Richard Pryor had a poignant realization. His trip was spent in an environment where everyone was Black: in advertisements, in government, on TV, on the street, etc. And he asked himself as he looked out of his hotel window, “Do you see any niggas?” and he responded to himself by saying, “No, and you know why? Because there aren’t any.” Since that point, Pryor rarely uttered the word and didn’t like when other Black people said it to him. He said it was a word that described “our [Black people’s] own wretchedness.” And just like Nia Ashari Harris, he went on to talk about how he came from kings and queens and how that was part of his decision to abandon the word.

Another perspective that both Pryor and Harris shared is the idea that Black people can choose for themselves how they want to use the word, an idea that says there is no one shoe fits all an, in many ways, that is a very humanizing realization. With such a long history, with so many definitions, it’s hard to harness this word without fairly detailed context. If there is anything absolutely certain about the N-word, it’s that white people cannot use it under any circumstance.


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4 thoughts on “The N-word

  1. There’s a white comedian who married into a black family who does a whole series of jokes about “the ‘N’ word” and how his wife’s family uses it, but he can’t, or at least knows he shouldn’t. He’s hilarious. And if one comes from a “mixed family” one has had the same experiences. I wish I could remember his name….

  2. “If there is anything absolutely certain about the N-word, it’s that white people cannot use it under any circumstance.”

    This is not exactly true, because you don’t distinguish use from mention. People of any color certainly *can* deploy the word when quoting others or referring to it for expository or rhetorical purposes (i.e. mention). What they can’t do is use the word the way it was originally intended. What’s interesting here is that there’s a split: black people can’t use the word that way (“can’t”=”impossible) because it’s assumed they don’t share the hatred and contempt it implies; white people can’t use it that way (“can’t”=”may not”) because such expressions have become socially unacceptable. And of course there’s a whole lot of (mostly fruitless) discussion about why this split should exist and whether it’s “fair” etc.

  3. As always, great writing…Teddy nails it again! Like many other POC, the “N” word is one that has hurt me deeply because it often came from unexpected places, people I once naively considered friends.

    My most recent memory of that word being hurled at me was in 2007, by a Latina who considered herself to be white. This was an acquaintance whom I now believe was threatened by my being an attractive, smart Black woman while she was uneducated and obese. I also believe (with good reason) that she wanted my significant other at the time…he was Black too, but she didn’t have a problem with him. She wanted to have sex with him. No, it was me she hated. There is a lot of racism in South Florida from the “white” Hispanics toward Black people and they often dislike any Black person who challenges stereotypes.
    And there I was, a Black woman with long hair that was all my own, a size 4 with nice curves, and she just couldn’t handle seeing a “lesser” human being (in her eyes) having the things that she didn’t have.

    One night she loudly stated, in front of other people, that I had “nigger hair”. She didn’t say NIGGA, she said NIGGER. A hush fell over the crowd. I was stunned by this outburst of hate because I had never done anything to this person.
    To make matters worse, my boyfriend at the time didn’t say anything. As a Black man, he should have defended me from this woman’s racial slur, but he didn’t.
    It was in that moment that I received my wake-up call or became “woke” as the kids say now. I dumped that weak guy and never looked back. And it wasn’t the first time somebody had used that word against me as a way to make me feel inferior. I can first remember being 12 or 13 years old and a white boy whom I’d considered a friend casually called me a nigger, with the “er”.

    Not like “my nigga” (which is still problematic coming from non-blacks) but more like “you have ugly nigger hair”…yeah, that’s what he said.
    Anytime this word has been said to me, it feels like being punched. It really hurts. And they know it, which is why they do it.
    This word is not OK. It never will be OK.

  4. Also, I believe that the “N” word is one of the most disgusting and foul names you can call somebody, because we ALL know the history behind it.
    We ALL know that it is a term used against those of African heritage (or partial African heritage) as a way to wound deeply. There is no way that it can ever be said innocently.
    It is a quick, handy way to inflict mental and emotional abuse on people whose ancestors have suffered trauma and are still fighting to overcome racism today.

    What makes me ashamed of myself to this day is that when people would hurl that vile word at me, I didn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t know how to…I was never prepared for that type of hate because my mother mistakenly believed that it wasn’t something I ever had to deal with.
    So I was a kid dealing with a lot of it and then when I became a woman, it really hit me that I needed a safe space to talk about issues like this.
    Thank you for providing us with a place where (most) people seem to understand.

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