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 for humanity?

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 Koreatown.

"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 about.

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" (Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, "Everyday 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 Thought").

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 book.")

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 spellings?"

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 edge."

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 can't spell.

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 sing:

Say God made us all, he made some at night 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 Ethiopian race

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 knowledge. 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 by.

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 down.

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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