I believe we have wrongly elevated the word “nigger” to lofty heights, and I cannot wait until we knock it from the literary perch where it never belonged.
Let me state immediately that I am an African-American male. Inexplicably, unlike a white male, I can now use this word freely in this essay without waking up to a boycott of NPR corporate underwriters.
Black and white rappers are not the only ones guilty of making us obsess on this word. The press has given us the euphemism “the N-word” so we can discuss nigger in polite circles. New York City has struck a blow against free speech by passing a toothless resolution banning the use of the word. And a recent college symposium debated whether “nigger” was unacceptable while the derivative “niga” was alright.
And the word has done nothing but perform a disservice in my life:
I have been told that I am a “good” black person because I don’t act like a nigger. I have been in and also lost out on relationships = with black and white women = where I was supposed to claim my “nigger-ness” as a show of my male dominance and sexual prowess. During a dorm room discussion in high school where some white friends tried to explain that niggers could be found in all races, I immediately broke out into a parody of a popular soft drink song:
“Oh, I’m a nigger. He’s a nigger. She’s a nigger. We’re all niggers. Wouldn’t you like to be a nigger, too?”
I love singing at karaoke, and I have seen two bizarre sights related to the use of this word. One night, a white woman cruised masterfully through a song by the late rapper Biggie Smalls – looking around apprehensively each time she said “nigger” as part of her rap. And I remember a brother whose performance seemed audible only when it was time for him to say (scream really) “nigger” as part of his song.
Friends, someone will always be uncomfortable hearing or saying this word. And while I know many within the black community disagree with me, I believe this word cannot be reclaimed or sanitized. The term nigger single-handedly points out well the racism stain that is throughout the American fabric. We CLAIM we want to remove that stain, so why the hell are we using a scrub brush tainted with that word?
We can, individually and without government fiat, rise above using this word rather than letting it linger over our heads. I believe each of us, when tempted to use nigger in our speech, might better be served by adopting a philosophy expressed by an “N-word” Edgar Allan Poe was fond of:
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.