Having been called a nigger more times than I can count as a child, somewhere down the road I was forced to adopt the defense that it was not what they called me but what I answered to. Throughout history this has been a word, like many, that both Blacks and whites have gave meaning to in reference of an oppressive social and economic standing. As a child I recall how I would often give credence to this definition and thus control over my being as I spent off in a fury to assail the conveyor of the word. Having been robbed of my cultural esteem by European ideals and history forced upon me, I had no reference point as to who I was. I was confused! Lost! And informed early on that even the white blood that ran through my veins was worthless. I was a nigger defined by Webster’s Dictionary and America’s one-drop rule. Accepted as such, often I would ponder the question: If Blacks and whites were not working with feelings of inferiors and superiors, or if the social and economic positions associated with these complexes were to change-what significance would the word “nigger” have?
If words only bear significance when there is an acknowledged or factual belief associated with them, then without said association are they not meaningless? Here, I recall one of my white teenage friends have used the N-word in a causal conversation, then looking to me and questioning if I was offended. Having recognized the confusion on my face, after I responded that it was offensive, he jumped to explain in a fluster that he thought that Blacks were referred to as “niggers” having heard his parents use it. As for the confusion on my face? It was just that-confusion. In some odd way, I recall how I just sat there trying to figure out why, unlike those times I’d be up in arms having heard a white boy utter the N-word, I was not trippin’. Hindsight now provides that I had began to recognize the ignorance and meaningless of the word. Here it was this white kid and his family were poor as dirt and didn’t have a pot to piss in. While things weren’t necessarily peachy living with moms, my grandparents owned hundreds of acres of land, their home, vehicles, etc. They were self-employed, and while not rich, they were comfortable. Thus the way I saw it, by him referring to Black people as niggers, both his family and he were confused about who the real niggers were.
That said, with all the accounting for progress professed today in the Black community-from the social to economic-one area we have yet to progress in is the continual authorizing of white America to define the terms and experiences to which we respond to and allow to define our being. In doing so, we shadow our so-called progress with a confidence that’s easily shattered with the mention of the N-word. Because, if indeed values are created and transported by communication through the body of words, then we allow ourselves to maintain those very values by responding to them. In other words, our reaction to the N-word from an inferior mindset gives them the power to continue to define us as inferiors. As noted by author/activist/publisher Haki R. Madhubuti:
As long as we are reaching to other people’s definitions and programs, pro-action among the knowers in the Afrikan-American community will be futile. Today Afrikan American people in the United States are a majority people with a minority complex, and this comes from the uncritical acceptance of other people’s ideas, dreams, visions, and definitions. However, there is a significant number of Afrikan American people that will never go back to acting out the definitions of others…..
Taking the foregoing into consideration, I often wonder if there will ever be a time when the N-word will lose its utility and meaning within the context of white racism? Personally, I don’t believe it will any time soon. It will always be tied to an era, which wasn’t but a few generations ago, when Mr. Charlie’s nigger-boy had to have permission to do this or that. This history will never be lost on the conscious of a Black man, woman or child. This is especially so given the oppression which gave the N-word meaning, thrives today. Yet there is hope.
Here, I must digress to say there seems to be promise for a radical shift in the makeup of the oppressed in light of projections that white America will lose their social and economic positioning as America’s majority population over the course of the next forty years due to changing demographics in communities of color. If indeed there is merit in the saying: “There’s strength in numbers” and white America losses its hold as America’s majority, then it only seems logical the social and economic conditions they have created for centuries to oppress the Black community and other communities of color, will gradually disappear. Or will they considering the fact that most Americans, despite race, have adopted the capitalist spirit of white America as well as its bias views toward other races, especially Black Americans?
Arguably, there has long since been an effort to rid the N-word of its sting. Throughout history comedians such as Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor have notably built their careers on cracking profane and profound jokes about Super Nigger, bitches and hoes, and their own personal woes. To this day the terms nigga, nigger, honky, cracker, spic, wetback, and kike are frequently used catch-lines that have been floating around Black and white spaces since horsewhips were a legal means of boosting worker productivity.
For me personally, growing up watching Redd and Richard had me dying inside with laughter. Moreover, their wise cracks and mockeries about race made me realize there was something to laugh about when it came to racial stereotypes. Then too there was this odd sense being liberated from the sting of racial slurs where they give whitey the bird as successful “Niggas” who beat the odds. They seemed to accept being niggers in a white world. Be it Black niggers or Sand niggers, everybody was a nigger to the white man even his poor white trash. So, instead of setting around emotionally boxed in by the N-word, they embraced it, enthralled audiences with it and, argubly assuaged the sting of it.. In doing so they took control of the power of it, transformed it into laughter, a term of endearment and exposed the comical and ignorant side of it.
To an extent, today’s hip hop artists have followed suit. To this end, there’s no shortage of crow on the plate for critics to feast upon. Just as they faulted Redd and Richard, critics ever assail the hip hop community’s express usage of the N-word. “Today’s hip hop artists are the epitome of yesterday’s minstrel show,” they argue.. Seemingly, it is a bulletproof argument. Yet hip hop has egoistically conferred upon the N-word an idiom, a syntax that is ahistorical. The word “Nigga” has become somewhat of an oxymoron to say the least. In a social context it symbolizes the attitude of the underdog having that story of the oppressed yet striving to succeed, or having actually succeeded despite the odds just as Redd and Richard had.
Undeniably, the N-word is powerful. It is explosive with an emotional range that can go from love to hate at the drop of a dime. It is a word that personally I struggle with. There was a time in my younger days when I felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria in greeting and being greeted with, “Whatz up my Nigga!” Hearing this today makes me cringe inside, especially when uttered in the presence of white folk. This never fails to remind me of the oppressive and racist implications of the word. To white people, and I have had them tell me this, Blacks calling each other “Niggas” affirms the psychological damage they have done to our self-image. This is something I personally have come to recognize through my years of arduous study on the question of race in America. Therefore, no matter what context the N-word is being used in, who uses it, etc., the encounters I have had throughout my life with racism will always remind me that it’s associated it with Mr. Charlie’s nigger-boy. And to hear Latinos, Asians and wiggas referring to themselves as “Niggas” only confuses me. When I hear this, I’m like what the fuck kind shit they on? I guess some real nigga shit—so they think!
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 6−“THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY OF HIP HOP.”
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