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Navigating the N-Word

In 2001, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) held what looked to be a parade. Hundreds of people crowded the streets, marching in unison. It was later discovered that a few men were carrying a coffin in the parade. To my surprise, this wasn’t a funeral at all, but rather a symbolic event held in the attempt to bury not a person — but a word. They were going to bury the word “nigger”. Or was it ”nigga”?

When you take time and reflect on American history, it’s pretty obvious why “nigga” is one of the most researched and debated words with regards to African-American vernacular. It’s quite polarizing. On the one hand, you have those who feel like the word, which was originally created to dehumanize blacks, has ultimately changed in meaning to become a term of endearment among black folk only. On the other hand, you have those who feel like the word should be eradicated completed.

Well, after reading Navigating the ‘N’ word: How Keeping Niggas Alive is Killing Black Folk, I understand which side the author Brady Goodwin Jr has taken. Let’s start with the “term of endearment” argument. This argument bases its stance on the fact that black folks have now taken ownership of the word while simultaneously telling white folks that they can’t say “nigger”. According to Goodwin, it is not possible to simply take such a hateful word and flip it to mean something else because the word itself was never created to carry out that meaning. He compares this semantic pattern of altering the negative meaning into a positive to the crucifix. The crucifix an iconic symbol because we Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected from the grave and is no longer dead upon the cross. This cross is a symbol of our salvation, our Savior, and our Risen King. It’s a symbol of triumph. The word “nigga”, though used affectionately, cannot be used as an example of victory because that word still oppresses its users (by “users” I mean black folk).

He also makes the argument that the usage of the word “nigga” reinforces the same dehumanizing intent that the word “nigger” was originally created to do. The use of the word “nigga” as a term of endearment, for example, “That’s my nigga, right there,” is just one of its three main uses.

While the term of endearment is called the “dependable nigga,” there are also “the expendable nigga” and “the exceptional nigga”. “The expendable nigga” is used in reference to a John Doe: people who are regarded with no name or identity outside of their skin color. “The exceptional nigga” is almost the complete opposite. It functions as someone who is upper echelon — the top dog.

Linguistically, I don’t see how this word can be eradicated — especially when it was originally created by a large group of racist white folk who believed in this construct and gave it power. Secondly, as mentioned before, this word has too many functions within black vernacular to be singled out as one word and one meaning.

Furthermore, this word is deeply rooted in hip-hop. I mean, listen to “Story of OJ” from Jay-Z’s 4:44 album. Here you have an exceptional black man who was very successful and rich yet he didn’t want to be considered black. He wanted to be seen as just a man — Just OJ. That’s cool and all; but what about the rest of the world’s perception of you? What about BLACK folk’s perception of you? What Jay Z was highlighting in his chorus was that, in addition to the racial hierarchy in America, there is a hierarchy amongst black folks. Yes, you can be rich and live in a more affluent white society, but you’re still in the lowest part of the racial hierarchy with the rest of us niggas. And here you have a clear example of the word being used to oppress its users.

Now, I can understand how this word has the potential to keep black folk in a lower caste. But I feel as though this book is putting too much emphasis on how we use the word instead of collecting ethnographic data that captures what black people listen to, how they self-identify, what percentage actually uses the word on a consistent basis, and with whom they use it. And regarding race relations, simply not using the word “nigger” is a defense that a lot of white folks use to justify them not being racist — “I don’t call black people “niggers”, therefore, I am not and cannot be racist.” Nah doc. That’s not how it works.

Look, if you’re black in America, then you’ve probably felt the venomous sting of that word at some point. My eldest brother still remembers being called a “nigger” for the first time. It cut deep and even as a kid he felt the damaging weight of such a word. But that’s still not the same as hearing it from someone who looks like you.

At the end of the day, there’s no clear answer here. But I think James Baldwin said it best when he said the following:

“What you were describing and what you were afraid of (was) not me. YOU invented it. It had to be something you were afraid of (and) you invested me with. If I am not the nigger, and if it is true that your invention reveals you. Then who is the nigger? I give you your word problem back. You’re the nigger, baby. It’s not me.”

Check out Justin Willis’ v-log about this book and others on his YouTube channel “The Black Curriculum

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