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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