More talk about the ‘N’ word

Based on the volume of responses to my last column, I think it's safe to say that the "N" word gets people talking. I kind of thought it might.

I wrote about the Web site, whose creators have taken on the mission of erasing the word "nigger" from our vocabulary, and that includes such supposedly hip perversions and alterations as "nigga," etc. The target audience for this crusade is African-Americans, particularly younger African-Americans, many of whom now seem to believe that the word — which was coined by slave owners who considered black people less than human — is now a term of endearment. The word "nigger" is now all good.

Fortunately, there are more than a few out there, such as the folks at, who challenge that twisted logic and feel it is important to point out that you can't build a Ferrari out of parts stolen from a rusted-out wreck you found on the side of the road. Nobody's fooled except for the fool trying to fool himself.

That being said, I expressed doubts that abolishing the "N" word from black people's vocabulary, let alone the American vocabulary as a whole, would succeed. Some of us have become too attached to the word, while others simply don't see it as a big deal.

Since that column appeared, Jill Merritt, one of the Web site's creators, and I have been in contact. Here's some of what I asked her in an e-mal:


I am very interested in your Web site and what your organization is trying to accomplish. It seems to me a worthy goal, but the question I have is whether you truly believe you have any chance at all of accomplishing it?

You make some good arguments, but isn't the cat out of the bag at this point? Or to use another possibly unwelcome metaphor, how do we close Pandora's box once it has been opened and the contents have escaped?

I'm sure you recall when Richard Pryor swore to stop using the "N" word. People talked for a while and said that was good. But the word is being used by us just as much now as it ever was.


Here is Merritt's response:


I first would like to address the point you are making in regards to all of the arguments having been made before. Maybe so ... but this is the first time that this word is in pervasive use throughout the world by all ethnicities. This is also the first time that the use of it as a term of endearment is being used as a defense in hate crime trials. It has now been used twice as far as I know. Last year in Colorado and more recently here in NYC.

Based on the feedback we have received, an overwhelming number of people are in support of what we are doing and consider themselves a part of the movement. Black and white alike are pro abolishing the "N" word as a term of endearment and everyday language. If we had thought about the odds, maybe we would have never attempted such a lofty goal as others have tried before and failed. But we have received so much support, we know we are not alone and that thousands across the U.S. and thousands more internationally are all a part of the movement to abolish the "N" word.

We just had a school have an Abolish the "N" Word Day in South Central L.A. The teacher has been in contact with us and told us how phenomenal the day was for their school. The students "got it" and decided to not only stop using the word but to teach others about its history and why they should not use the "N" word. This is amazing.

As for closing Pandora's box, we need to open as many boxes that will lead to dialogue within the black community as possible. Had the box stayed closed we would never be able to address certain issues. We have kept too many things under lock and key for too long. So now that we're talking, let's continue this dialogue and address education, housing, finances, our diets and the many diseases that are killing us. We are at the top of every bad list and at the bottom of every good list. We need to talk about that. We need to develop a full wellness plan in our community so that we can begin to heal. Abolishing the "N" word is just the beginning.


When Merritt and I finally managed to hook up by phone, she had plenty more to say. She is extremely passionate about her cause — and overwhelmed by it. She had no idea of the response she would get, nor of the amount of time and effort the campaign would require. Merritt, who is based in Brooklyn, and her partner, Kovon Flowers, are doing everything from filling orders for T-shirts to juggling interview requests from CNN and the like. And to think that it all started when Merritt and Flowers, fed up with the numbing repetition of the "N" word in rap lyrics, thought they'd just print up a couple of Abolish the "N" Word T-shirts as their own personal campaign.

"Then we decided, 'You know what? Let's just get a Web site.'"

With a full-time job in the entertainment industry, along with other obligations, it seems one of her biggest challenges would be finding time to sleep.

What Merritt, 38, tries to tell black critics is that our willingness to forget our own history is killing us.

"The sting of the KKK is nothing compared to when somebody from your own community tells you you're wasting your time," she says. "There is a direct link between not remembering and the condition we're in."

For instance, in their efforts to try and educate black youth, Merritt discovered something rather tragic when asking them why they use the "N" word.

"The kids that we've been talking to, they truly believe that when you say the word 'nigga' it's totally different than when you use the word 'nigger.' They believe it is a completely different word. It's like night and day. That's something new to me. The younger generation doesn't associate that word with slavery. They know what happened, but it doesn't affect them.

"There are no reminders, and a lot of people feel there shouldn't be any reminders. That we should just move on."

After the column ran, as I said, there were quite a few responses. I'm happy to say the overwhelming majority of those responses were positive, which isn't always the case. Believe me. However, "overwhelming majority" doesn't include everyone ...

So Keith, let me understand this. Because if I read you right, I guess you also refer to women as "ho's." I mean, why else would you write, "When I was in high school, the brothers were calling each other bitch so much I'm surprised we didn't become gender confused?

Here is my confusion. My son has a friend whom he calls a "wigger." Yet there was almost a fight when my son was called a "nigger." The friend explained that he said "nigga," not "nigger."

What I dislike more than the word "nigger," is the term "the 'N' word." Either say the word, or don't. If you don't want to use the word, you don't need a placeholder for it. Could be that the placeholder is a reason "Why the 'N' word refuses to die." —Unsigned

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.