In Americans’ enduring use of the N-word, evidence against ‘reclaiming’ racist words
The use of a racial slur has been retained within quoted material in this essay as a means to investigate the use of that term.
In this political climate, hate speech is becoming common. And there has been an uptick of the use of the N-word, even from the mouths of people one would not expect.
While it came as no surprise to most people of color in Boston when last month Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said Fenway fans hurled the N-word at him, much of America was shocked to learn the word was sprayed on the Los Angeles home of international basketball great LeBron James.
“No matter how much money you’ve got, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being a black man in America is very frightening,” James said.
But when the word slips from the mouths of race conscious allies such as Bill Maher – the comedian and political commentator on HBO talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” – a lot of shock and hurt is felt.
Guest U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska invited Maher to visit Nebraska and “work in the fields with us.” Maher mockingly declined: “Work in the fields? … I am a house nigger.”
Nowadays it’s often difficult to discern if the word is being used as an epithet or a term of endearment – illustrating the confusion when an epithet such as this word, once hurled at African Americans and banned from polite conversation, wins broad-based cultural acceptance. Even some renowned African-American academics embrace use of the word.
While many of Maher’s guests rescinded their appearances on the show, Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson pinch-hit for him. “I’m emotional about this. I love Bill Maher. He’s a very dear friend. But as I’ve made plain through the years, the N-word should be reserved for black use. Period,” Dyson wrote on twitter.
In 2002, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who wrote “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” said that while the word has been used to “terrorize and humiliate” African Americans, “It’s also been used as a term of endearment and a gesture of solidarity.”
The notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to use the word with each other yet racist for outsiders to use it unquestionably sets up a double standard. Language is a public enterprise, and the notion that one ethnic group has property rights is absurdly narrow. Moreover, the fact that African Americans have appropriated the word does not negate a long history of internalized self-hatred.
Shortly after Maher dropped the word, many on Twitter chimed in to defend him, saying he used a modified version, meaning it ended in an “a” rather than an “r” – and that this morphs the term into an endearment.
I contend that you cannot conjugate the word, because it is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. Many slaveholders pronounced the word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s many African Americans used the “a” version as a pejorative denoting class difference.
Is there ever an appropriate context to use the word?
In 2015, President Barack Obama used the word on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” during an interview about America’s racial history – creating shock waves. Legal analyst Sunny Hostin said Obama’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office and the history of the word itself. New York Times columnist Charles Blow countered Hostin’s assertion, saying Obama used the word correctly: as a teaching moment.
If the word is used appropriately as a teaching moment, was Dennis Lehane – Boston native and best-selling novelist of “Gone Baby Gone,” “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River,” to name a few –wrong when he used the word at Emerson College’s commencement last month? In talking about Boston’s 1970s busing crisis, Lehane highlighted how white opponents of school desegregation shouted, “niggers out” at protests. Twitter blew up attacking Lehane, and he apologized immediately.
Another failed teaching moment was in January 2011. The kerfuffle focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as Mark Twain, in the NewSouth Books edition of his 1885 classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the original edition, the epithet is used 219 times. In a effort to rekindle interest in the Twain classic while tamping down the flame and fury the use of the word engenders, Alan Gribben – editor of the edition and an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama – replaced the word with “slave.”
In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster Lexicographers to change the definition of the word in the dictionary to no longer be a term African Americans, but instead a racial slur.
Unfortunately, controversies seem to erupt regularly into public view over the epithet no matter who uses it. For example, in July 2008, during a taping break on “Fox & Friends,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson used it during a discussion of Obama. In his displeasure with how Obama appeared to be condescending toward African Americans, a vital voting block, Jackson said he was “talking down to black people … telling niggers how to behave.”
It’s significant that Jackson and a cadre of African-American leaders conducted a mock funeral in 2007 for the word at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Detroit, and Jackson encouraged the entertainment industry to ban artists who use the word in songs. It highlights not only that the word slipped so easily from his mouth, but that it has a lingering power.
Our use of the word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as a people – white and African American – have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets. Reclaiming racist words doesn’t eradicate their historical baggage or improve the state of race relations.
It keeps the hate and hurt alive.
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.