Why the ‘N’ word refuses to die

First, a warning. This column contains racially offensive language for which the author makes no apology. Not that offensive language — or at least language that is offensive to some — is anything new to Metro Times, but when it comes to certain subjects, even we freewheeling types here at Detroit's own alternative weekly sometimes have to be careful how and where we tread.

But in this particular instance I'm hoping my readers will grant me a pass since there really isn't any other way to tackle this subject matter head-on like it needs to be.

Those of you who continue to be fascinated or repelled by how frequently, and sometimes joyously, some black people employ the word "nigger" among ourselves might want to check out a particular Web site which is leading a grassroots charge to abolish use of the "N" word altogether. The Web site, abolishthenword.com, according to its introductory statement, was begun by a group of frustrated African-Americans who feel that we as blacks have become far too comfortable with a word that was created by slave owners to degrade an entire oppressed race of people. This year, however, actor-comedian Damon Wayans — who is black — stirred up a bit of controversy when the story broke that he has actually been trying to copyright the word "nigga" with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office for nearly two years. Apparently he wants control of the word so he can use it to market some products he's trying to sell. So far his application has been turned down twice.

I think it's safe to say that times have changed when a black man wants to legally own the word "nigga" as his personal property. Somehow I have a hard time defining this as a symbol of how far we've come as a people, but it's definitely a symbol that things have changed. For the folks at abolishthenword.com, there's no question that any use of the "N" word by black people except for historical context or educational purposes should be banned.

"As a small group of Brooklynites who grew up during the original old school era of hip hop, we remember when rap songs never used the 'N' word or profanity for that matter. We remember referring to our friends as homeboy and homegirl. And we were still cool. We remember the airing of Roots and the sting of hearing the 'N' word on national television for the first time. Now we ask ourselves what happened. What happened in our community that the 'N' word is tossed around freely in everyday language? When the use of it makes you cool, down, accepted.

"Our community has come full circle as we extend an invitation to others to call us the 'N' word as well and we answer with a smile. Our ancestors must be rocking in their graves. The 'N' word is not a term of endearment. It cannot be re-appropriated. We cannot redefine the 'N' word or re-spell it to make it positive. Racism is so subtle, we now think that we can embrace the 'N' word and take away its power. However, not enough time has passed for this concept to be effective. The word is viewed as a racial slur at large, it will continue to be so until it is put away for a generation, and then maybe it can be embraced at such time in a historical context."

And to help retire the word, the site sells "Abolish the 'N' Word" T-shirts and paraphernalia to spread the idea.

I, too, can remember the days of "homeboy" and "homegirl," and I also remember when rap was quite a different animal from what it is today. But I also remember a time long before rap came on the scene when the late comedian Richard Pryor had an album entitled That Nigger's Crazy. Pryor later had a complete change of attitude about the word, and a spiritual awakening of sorts, after a trip to Africa. He renounced the word and swore never to use it again. A lot of black folks applauded Pryor's decision, which carried a lot of weight coming from someone so wildly popular and with so much street cred. No doubt a lot of other black folks made the decision at the time to erase the word from their vocabularies.

That was about 20 years ago or so, I believe. Today we have a new generation of youngsters, many of whom have never even heard of Richard Pryor, but who have a warm and cozy relationship with the word "nigger," "nigga," etc. In other words, Pryor has passed on, but the "N" word is alive and kicking. It simply will not die. And while I sympathize with the efforts of the folks who created this Web site, and I certainly understand their concerns, I can't help but wonder if they realistically have any chance of achieving their goal. Once Pandora's box has been opened, it's hard as hell to shove the contents back inside.

One argument I anticipate is that maybe the problem is folks like me who choose to voice their doubts openly instead of jumping on the bandwagon. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The emotional distance between what a "nigger" was and what a "nigga" is has grown too wide, and many of us no longer believe the word has any real power to do much harm — especially if we're the ones wielding the sword. And, sick as it may sound, a lot of us (this no longer includes me) really like the word and will not let it go.

During my nearly five decades on the planet, I've seen us call each other so many things it's hard to keep track. You could almost create a museum stocked full with African-American terms of endearment through the ages. Brother Man. My brother. Bro Me. Bro. Blood. Black. Son. Home Boy. Home Girl. Home Slice. Homie. Homes. Cool Breeze. Gangstuh. Baby Boy. Pimp. Playa. Ho. Bitch. Nigger. Nigga. Mah Nigga.

I'm sure I missed a few, but you get the general idea. We've always got something to call one another, and too often it's something ugly. I'm hardly a sociologist, but I suspect it's because if you deal up close and personal with ugly for most of your life, then ugly is what you know best. When I was in high school, the brothers were calling each other bitch so much I'm surprised we didn't become gender confused. If we were mad, it would be, "Bitch, I'll kick your ass." If we were in a humorous mood, it might be something like, "Oh, this bitch thinks he's funny 'n' shit." And if it was consoling, somebody might say, "Hey, bitch. You all right?"

But even back then, the "N" word ruled supreme. For example, let's just take that last phrase and construct a "for instance" conversation"


"Hey, bitch. You all right?"

"Fuck naw. That nigger think he can come in here startin' shit and ain't shit gonna happen. You watch, I got a surprise for his black ass."

"Man, you better watch yourself. You know that nigger's crazy."

"Bitch, that nigger ain't seen crazy 'til I commence to whuppin on that ass."


I know conversations went on like this all the time because I was in the room. To be honest, sometimes I still am in the room. Yeah, I know. What does that say about me, right? Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but I'll tell you this: Pandora's box is a bitch to close, nigga. For real.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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