The Word Nigger
From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of
Metro Newspaper, San Jose, CA.
Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.
Maintained by Boulevards New Media.
With the help of Quentin Tarantino and
a decade of gangsta rap, the word
'nigger' has worked its way back as a
staple of pop culture. But has enough
healing occurred to make the word safe
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
I WENT TO SEE Quentin Tarantino's
Jackie Brown a few weeks ago and heard
actor Samuel L. Jackson use the word
"nigger" to refer to half of Southern
California, from black drug dealers to
Pam Grier to Robert De Niro to all the
folks on the streets of L.A.'s
"Look, I hate to be the kinda nigga
does a nigga a favor, then--bam--hits
a nigga up for a favor in return,"
Jackson tells another black character
in the movie. "But I'm afraid I gotta
be that kinda nigga."
Along with snappy pop-culture dialogue
and fits of explosive violence, the
use of the word "nigger" has become
something of a trademark of Tarantino
films. (Tarantino, by the way, is
white.) When Tarantino himself finds a
murdered black man in his garage in
Pulp Fiction, he asks Samuel Jackson
if there was a sign outside reading
"Dead Nigger Storage." And when John
Travolta questions the quality of a
stash of drugs in Pulp Fiction, the
white dealer asks him, "Am I a nigger?
Is this Compton?"
When I first heard the white drug
dealer's lines in Pulp Fiction, I
remember thinking that at last
somebody is admitting how commonly the
term is used among many white people
when there are no black people around.
Casually and matter-of-factly for the
most part, I'm sure, and without a lot
of dissent. After all, while the
Travolta character doesn't use the
word himself in the movie, neither
does he protest.
At the same time, Samuel L. Jackson's
use of the N-word in Jackie Brown is
especially noteworthy because he
throws around the term while talking
to a white character.
And it caused immediate controversy.
In an interview with the Daily Variety
newspaper, African American film
director Spike Lee says that he
counted the use of the word 38 times
in Jackie Brown. "I'm not against the
word," Lee said. "And some people
speak that way. But Quentin is
infatuated with that word. What does
he want to be made--an honorary black
man? ... I want Quentin to know that
all African Americans do not think
that word is trendy or slick."
Tarantino quickly defended his
position. Early this year he told the
Boston Phoenix newspaper that "[t]he
word 'nigger' is probably the most
volatile word in the English language.
Should any word have that much power?
I think it should be de-powered. But
that's not my job. I don't have any
political agenda in my work. I'm
writing characters. The use of the
word 'nigger' is true to [Samuel L.
Jackson's character]. To not have him
say that would be a lie."
And Jackson came out in support of
Tarantino. "Black artists think they
are the only ones allowed to use the
word," he said. "Well, that's
bull. ... Quentin sees something cool
about the way we live our lives and
deal with our problems. ... Quentin
actually lived in a black lifestyle
for a while." Whatever that is.
But OK, the secret is out, so we may
as well fess up. African Americans
have been calling each other "nigger"
probably since the word was invented,
not as a pejorative necessarily, but
generally as a term of identification.
"Bad nigger" is a term of respect
within the black community. "Dumb-ass
nigger" is not, but it is the
"dumb-ass" that determines. And quite
often the term is used as a sign of
highest affection. Some years ago in a
whoop-and-holler bar, I heard a woman
say to her boyfriend that she was
convinced he was going to eventually
leave her for another girl. "Why,
baby?" he asked. She broke into a sob.
"Cause you think my legs is too
skinny," she wailed. "Ain't so," he
said, putting his arm around her
slender shoulders and smearing a wet
kiss on the bones of her cheek,
"you'll be my nigger if you don't get
no bigger." She was convinced.
But this was in a "Negro yard around a
Negro house in a Negro settlement," a
"colored town" with its "colored
interests," as Zora Neale Hurston
would say. Black people spoke such
words only in private, hidden behind
the dark veil of black life that,
until this generation, most white
folks never penetrated or even knew
All that is changing now.
Led by a cadre of mostly young
entertainers, black people's use of
the N-word in public is a growing
trend. Black comics use the term
extensively, and references to "nigga"
and "niggaz" permeate many rap songs:
"My niggas never change/They kicken it
wit their gang and remain the same"
Thang"); "Thug ass niggas that love to
bust/It's strange to us" (Notorious
B.I.G., "It's Strange to Us"); "Wanna
grab a skinny nigga like Snoop
Dogg/Cause you like it tall/and work
it baby doll" (Snoop Doggy Dogg, "You
Like most rappers, the late Tupac
Shakur used the term freely in
interviews. In a 1996 interview with
Vibe magazine, Shakur used it to refer
to inmates he shared a prison cell
with ("I don't have to talk about
whether or not I got raped in jail. If
I wouldn't lay down on the floor for
two niggas with pistols, what the f**k
make you think I would bend over for a
nigga without weapons?"), to his fans
("Ain't no mystery ... niggas know
what time it is"), to his rap rivals
("Biggie is a Brooklyn nigga's dream
of being West Coast"), to himself.
("There's two niggas inside me. One
wants to live in peace, and the other
won't die unless he's free.")
The term is common in the acts of
black comedians, an occurrence that is
not even recent. Richard Pryor was
using "nigger" onstage 20 years ago,
and Dick Gregory (a staunch civil
rights supporter) used the word as the
title of his 1964 autobiography. (On
the dedication page Gregory wrote,
"Dear Mama, Wherever you are, if you
ever hear the word 'nigger' again,
remember they are advertising my
Such public flaunting of a derogatory
word by the defamed group itself is
not unusual. Many gays have taken on
the word "queer," and many lesbians
have taken on the word "dyke" as their
own; because of it, both words have
lost their pejorative sting.
At the same time it is becoming a
staple item of pop culture, however,
the word "nigger" still has a powerful
bite. The O.J. Simpson prosecution
began to derail, for example,
precisely at the point where it was
discovered that Detective Mark Furhman
was a habitual user of the word. Black
civil rights organizations such as the
NAACP condemn its use in all forms.
White people of good conscience,
therefore, are probably understandably
a bit confused and wondering, "Is it
OK to say the N-word? In any of its
Part II & III of III
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
TO START WITH, are "nigger" and
"nigga" the same thing? The Totally
Unofficial Rap Dictionary defines
"nigga" as a "curseword used
originally by white people, taken over
by black people as a name to show
their proudness, and take off the
But all hip-hoppers don't agree. Late
last year "The Beat Within," a weekly
newsletter of writing and art from
incarcerated youth published by
Pacific News Service, asked detainees
of the California Youth Authority to
give their opinion of the word. "We
asked people whether they saw any
difference between 'nigga,' which is
often used by young people as a term
of affection for friends of all races,
and the word 'nigger,' which has
historically been used as a term of
oppression," the newsletter stated.
The answers were decidedly mixed.
"In the old days people used the word
as an expression to put down and make
fun of people," one inmate replied.
"Nowadays people say the word 'nigger'
to call yo name or say you have done
good. The word 'nigger' is taking over
the world; no matter what people do,
this word is never gonna leave."
"I think a lot of people use the word
'nigga' because they can't remember
their folks' name," said another.
"Some people can take the word
personally depending on who it's said
by. But a young person doesn't usually
take it personal if it's said by
another young person." Another
answered, "When it comes to the 'N'
word, it makes me laugh just to see
everybody using it, and most not even
in the right term. They use it like
it's a positive word like 'What's up,
my N?' The word means ignorance. ...
To me you sound like a slave owner
when you be like, 'That my nigga.' "
And finally, as words to the wise: "To
some Blacks 'nigga' means friend. And
when other races hear us calling each
other niggas, they think it's cool for
them to use the word, but it ain't."
And: "If you are a black person you
can use these words, but if you are a
different color and you use these
words you will get yo ass beat."
I would be more impressed with the
"nigga-not-nigger" argument, I think,
if this was a generation of youth that
had proven its worth in school, but
was making a stand against
standardized spellings on principle.
Something like the late trumpeter
Miles Davis or saxaphonist John
Coltrane, having learned how to play
all of the notes right in a classical
fashion, turning around and playing
some of them wrong in order to get the
desired effect. Some of these young
folk are doing that, I believe, and I
respect them for that. But when I see
them writing out things like
"skanless" for "scandalous," I'm
afraid that some of them just plain
THE N-WORD SEEMS to have had a
negative connotation from its birth,
although the exact meaning has changed
over time. The N-word comes from the
Portuguese word "Negro." In The Name
"Negro," Its Origins and Evil Use,
Richard B. Moore wrote, "[T]he first
use of the word 'negro' as a noun or
name in relation to African people is
to be traced back to the period after
1441, when the Portuguese explorers
went down the African coast. ... [A]s
soon as the area south of the Senegal
River has been reached, where the
modern slave trade was begun by the
Portuguese, the designation of the
native Africans is changed from Moors
or Azenegues to 'negros.' "
By the 17th century, the use of the
term "negro" as synonymous with
"slave" was common in the British
colonies in America, and remained that
way through the end of the Civil War.
In the same year that the American
Revolution began, William Dunbar wrote
of his Baton Rouge plantation that
"[t]he Plantation Negroes are in
Number 14. ... There are also 23 New
Negroes for sale." And notices were
posted in July 1769 in Charleston,
S.C.: "To Be Sold, on Thursday the
third Day of August a Cargo of
Ninety-Four Prime, Healthy Negroes."
"Nigger" is almost certainly a
phonetic spelling of the white
Southern pronunciation of "Negro," and
probably came into written use at a
time when white America's spelling
rules were about as lax as those of
the hip-hop nation today.
The term "nigger," in fact, was often
used by African captives to describe
themselves, in many cases without
attaching a stigma to the word. Former
captive Annie Ruth Davis told an
interviewer in 1937: "I remember just
as good there been two long row of
nigger house up in the quarter, and
the Bethea niggers been stay in the
row on one side, and the Davis niggers
been stay on the row on the other
side. And, honey, there been so much
difference in the row on this side and
the row on that side. ... All Old
Missus' niggers had they brush pile
side they house to sun they beds on
and dry they washing, 'cause my missus
would see to it herself that they
never kept no nasty living."
But at the same time it was becoming
synonymous with the word "slave," the
word "nigger" was also, in some
quarters, becoming synonymous with
everything negative about the human
race. Under attack by Northern
abolitionists who were fighting
against the institution of slavery on
American soil, Southern slavers sought
to justify themselves by arguing that
the "niggers" were not capable of
being anything but slaves. Calling
captive Africans "dark and savage
barbarians," South Carolina Judge
Henry William Desaussure wrote in
1822, "Are the slaves, it is again
asked, possessed of the qualities
necessary to convert them with safety
at once into freemen, with all
political privileges? ... The answer
must be in the negative. The body of
them would either be the blind and
violent instruments of some of their
own cunning and base leaders ... or
they would be a dead, inert mass, mere
hewers of wood and drawers of water."
Gradually the N-word began to equate
with ridicule in the English language.
Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins
defines the word "denigrate" by
stating that "[t]o denigrate people is
literally to 'blacken' them. ...
Denigrate originally meant 'physically
turn something black' as well as the
metaphorical 'defame, belittle.' "
Such teachings were pounded into the
minds of the captives themselves, so
that many began to believe their own
inferiority and used "nigger" as a
derogatory sign. So that Mississippi
bluesman Sam Chatman could typically
Say God made us all, he made some
That's why he didn't take time to
make us all white
Let me tell you one thing that a
Stumptown nigger will do
He'll pull up young cotton and
he'll kill baby chickens, too
I'm bound to change my name, I
have to paint my face
So I won't be kin to that
The self-hatred of African Americans
is even more succinctly apparent in
this still-popular black ditty:
Niggers and flies, I do despise
The more I see niggers, the more
I loves flies
Forty years after the abolition of
slavery in America, the use of
"nigger" and the public ridicule of
African Americans were still very much
in fashion. In 1902 Owen Wister, the
acclaimed author of The Virginian,
published a poem called "In a State of
Sin" in Harper's, one of the most
prominent and influential national
magazines of that time:
Dar is a big Carolina nigger,
About de size of dis chile or
p'raps a little bigger
By de name of Jim Crow.
Great big fool, he hasn't any
Gosh! how could he, when he's
never been to college?
Neither has I.
But I's come mighty nigh:
I peaked through de do' as I went
IT IS FASHIONABLE in these post-Prop.
187 days to say that all of this is in
the past, that African Americans
crossed the color barrier during the
civil rights movement of the '60s and
'70s, and that white racism ended as a
factor in American politics and
culture in that same period. So it
ought to be OK to use the N-word now,
loosed as it is from the past and all
brightened up with a new definition
and image. Shouldn't it?
Well, not just yet.
Recently, the Southern Poverty Law
Center in Montgomery, Ala., reported
that the number of hate groups is on
the rise in this country, almost all
of them anti-black. It cited such
groups as Resistance Records, a
Midwest-based company that publishes
records with such lyrics as "Niggers
just hit this side of town/Watch my
property values go down/Bang, bang,
watch them die/Watch those niggers
drop like flies." And three years
after the first neo-Nazi site appeared
on the World Wide Web, the Law Center
reported that the number of openly
anti-black sites has risen to 120.
Gayle Tiller, vice president of the
San Jose NAACP, says the use of the
N-word is indicative of this trend.
"It's a derogatory word, whether it's
an 'er' or an 'a' spelling," she says.
"I find it really offensive. Hearing
it coming from a white person, the
blood is going to be rising, and
there's going to be a conflict."
Her opinion was shared by a number of
black Bay Area writers.
Elsie B. Washington, a novelist,
essayist and former editor of Essence,
thinks that the word is acceptable for
blacks to use, but not whites. "For
older blacks, it's still considered an
insult," Washington says. "It's our
word to use as we want, but, no, white
folks cannot use it, even if they're
would-be hip-hoppers. It's too
fiery ... too potent a word. Some
young whites using it might have a
good connotation in mind, but then
other whites hearing it will think
it's OK to use it in the traditional,
negative sense of the word."
Opal Palmer Adisa, a poet, novelist
and professor of literature and
writing at the California College of
Arts and Crafts, says she believes the
use of "nigga" or "nigger" is "the
same as young people's obsession with
cursing. A lot of their use of such
language is an internalization of
negativity about themselves." And
besides, she adds, "it's just an
excuse when they say that it's a
different word when you take the 'er'
off. It sounds the same. It is the
same. And these young people get just
as upset as an older person if a white
person calls them 'nigger.' "
Poet and novelist Devorah Major is
more ambivalent, saying that, yes, it
is possible for words to change their
meaning over time. "The word 'f**k'
was once an acceptable term for sex in
the English language," she says.
"Nobody saw any problem with it; that
was just the term they used. And then
the Romans came to Britain, and
everything Latin was good and
everything British was bad, and the
word 'f**k' fell out of favor and
became an obscenity. Now young people
are reviving it and using it just as a
word again. So there's an effort going
on to defuse the meaning of these
words. And I don't know how much of a
legacy the older generation is
carrying with these words that we need
to let go. It's hard for me to say
what someone can or can't say, because
I work with language all the time, and
I don't want to be limited." Still,
Major says she has two minds on the
subject. "Words have a meaning and a
history. You can add to their meaning,
but you can't subvert it. Nigger means
nigger; I don't care about the
spelling. And of course it's not OK,
because it still hurts some people."
I was born only a year after Jackie
Robinson broke the color barrier in
major league baseball. I was born in a
time when the lynching of black
citizens was still a common and
unpunished practice in the Southern
states. I was born in a time when most
African Americans were not allowed to
vote. I was born into a world of
segregation, where blacks in public
positions were few and far between,
where dark skins were the mark of
clowns in the entertainment field, and
where to be black was to be relegated
to the back steps of America. The
children of my generation sat down at
lunch counters, risked death to
register voters in the Mississippi
back country, lobbed bottles through
store windows, traded gunfire with
police. In most cases, we had no
earthly idea what we were doing. And
yet, when we had exhausted our youth
and were finished, many old barriers
to black advancement had been broken
Because of this, it is tempting now to
say that this new group of hip-hop
kids is on to something about the
N-word and other matters, and to let
them have their way. But I am afraid
that I am of a generation that has
seen too much pain, too much of the
backhand of America, and so I must
resist the temptation. I wish I could
live with my guard let down, I really
do. But once slapped, one will always
tend to duck. Always.
And in those times when I do forget,
there's always someone around to write
"nigger" on a school bathroom wall, or
make fun of "ebonics," or ridicule
African religion (voodoo), or post a
"nigger joke" on the Internet.
Reminders that though we have broken
the canker of racism, it is doubtful
that anyone alive today will still be
living by the time the venom finally
drains from this country's system.
ONCE, WHEN I WAS about 8 or 9, I
believe, my father took me down to the
Chinatown section of Oakland to pick
up a bag of freshly boiled crabs.
Somehow we ended up walking all the
way through the store and into the
back warehouse where the catch was
prepared. Two men stood on slippery
concrete slabs on either side of a
huge pot, lowering a basket of blue
crabs down into the boiling water. Oh,
man! How they wriggled and clicked and
snapped and scrambled onto each
other's backs to avoid the hissing
hell below. None escaped. A briny
steam flowed all about the warehouse,
covering my lips with wet salt. The
crabs slowed, stilled and turned a
bright orangey-red. I could not
contain myself. When we got back home
I grabbed the bag of crabs and ran in
the house to tell my mother to "look
at what the Chinaman did!"
My father would not let that pass.
"No, not Chinaman," he said. "Don't
ever say that. It's Chinese man."
I really did not understand. I had
meant no harm by what I had said. I
was in awe, really, of the men in the
warehouse, with their black rubber
boots and yellow rain jackets and
their shocks of straight black hair,
the tendons of their forearms
undulating like roped snakes, their
faces set and stern as they labored so
close to the boiling pot. It was the
most dangerous work I had ever myself
seen. My words were meant to describe,
not to disrespect. Chinese man. China
man. I did not see the difference.
That was not the point, my father
said. They did.
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