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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The N-word again. Of course.

Six years after the NAACP staged its symbolic burial, that word has proven rumors of its demise greatly exaggerated.

In just the last few weeks we’ve had the following: Richie Incognito, a white player for the Miami Dolphins, tags a black teammate, Jonathan Martin, with that epithet and black players defend the white guy because he’s an “honorary” brother; Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers tweets the word in criticizing his teammates and says people who have a problem with that should “get used to it”; Trent Williams, a black player for Washington’s professional football team (speaking of racial slurs) is accused of using the word against Roy Ellison, a black referee, a charge Williams denies.

Then it gets worse. The mushrooming controversies prompt two African-American NBA analysts, Charles Barkley and Michael Wilbon, to defend their usage of the N-word. And it’s not just the jockocracy, either. Last week in The New York Times, celebrated social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is African-American, made the old “context” argument; i.e., it’s OK if we say it, but it’s not OK if you say it. In defending the N-word as an “in-word” Coates noted how some women will jokingly call other women by a misogynistic term or some gay people will laughingly use a homophobic slur in talking with or about one another.

Some of us would say that’s not such a good look, either. Some of us think there is cause for dismay when women, gay people or any put-upon people adopt the terminology of their oppressors as self-definition.

But the larger point is this: so what? Like it or not, the N-word is not like the words used to denigrate women and gay people or, for that matter, Italian, Irish or Jewish people, simply because the experiences those peoples endured in this country do not compare with those of African-Americans.

The N-word is unique. It was present at the act of mass kidnap that created “black America,” it drove the ship to get here, signed the contracts at flesh auctions on Southern ports as mother was torn from child, love from love and self from self. It had a front-row-center seat for the acts of blood, rape, castration, exclusion and psychological destruction by which the created people were kept down and in their place. The whole weight of our history dictates that word cannot be used except as an expression of contempt for African-Americans. The only difference when a Matt Barnes or Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it is that the contempt is black on black.

  • sigrid28

    True: use of the N-word by wealthy, spoiled athletes dissing each other in the press is “not such a good look.” But neither is censorship, because we count on freedom of speech as the province of the Fourth Estate. It is freedom of speech in our country that assures that all minorities shall have a voice, their voice, however odd or foreign or crude. The heavy burden that the N-word carries behind and within it is not unlike the heavy burden exacted by free speech in a society where bigots like George Wallace and publishers like Larry Flynnt alike have paid a heavy price for what they have said. Our words depend in a scary way on everyday justice, yet that is the society we belong to. From the point of view of American literature, where the word has had a storied history (I won’t cite examples here), how can we do without it? When it is used, it is not news. Some lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Chicago ‘Defender’ Sends a Man to Little Rock, Fall, 1957” (1960):

    The saga I was sent for is not down,
    Because there is a puzzle in this town.
    The biggest News I do not dare
    Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
    “They are like people everywhere.”

    The angry Editor would reply
    In a hundred harryings of Why.

    But about the N-word as a worthy point of controversy in our country and a just topic for Leonard Pitts and any other author who takes it seriously, I join my sentiment with Gwendolyn Brooks’s in another line from this poem: “It is our business to be bothered.”

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    I agree with you, Leonard. We need to finally bury that damn word. Let it be relegated to historical context, not common usage. Let our kids have to ask when they read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Huckleberry Finn”, “Daddy, what does this word mean?” then we can explain it to them.
    Unfortunately, our youth pay more attention to sports and music superstars than they do to people who try to set an example. When a white guy like me drops the N-Bomb, (a term I have not used in over 45 years) I am considered a racist bastard. When a black guy drops the N-Bomb, he is just trash-talkin’. Sorry, but it’s got to stop from all sides, not just people like me. Black Comics have to stop using it in their routines. Black Rappers have to stop using it in what they claim are “lyrics”. Black Athletes have to stop using it as part of trash-talk.

    • whodatbob

      Excellent post! It has become seldom used by Whitey often used by Blacks. Justifiably there is outrage when a Whitey uses it, but no outrage when used by a Black. Equality is all treated the same.

  • charleo1

    Speaking, personally, I do not use the word in any context. Because, I am of the generation that understand exactly, what Mr. Pitts is talking about. And, we must never return in any way, to our not so distant past. As William Faulkner pointed out, speaking of the South. “The past is never dead.” “It’s not even past.” And, I would imagine, for those African Americans who remember, or even lived through that era of Bull Connor, police dogs, and fire hoses being turned on children. Black Children, who watched as their leaders were first jailed, and then cut down, right before their eyes. These people have earned the Right to never hear the word used again, in any context. And, I truly believe that, and support that. Pitts sees the word’s use as a form of self deprecation. But, I’m not so sure that is what is going on here. The younger generations, those born after the momentous Civil Rights Bill, raised by parents who, by and large supported the Civil Rights movement. These children of ours, and their children, look at race, and race relations, in a way people of my generation and Leonard’s generation, never can, because of our experiences. My generation grew up listening to Bill Cosby, and Richard Prior. Our children grew up listening to rap artists, such as Tupac Shakur, and Black comics, and actors like Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock. All of whom incorporated the, “N,” word into their expressions, and routines. As did many others of their time. Even as Cosby, and
    others, chastised them for doing so. But, just as art, imitates life. Life, especially young life, often finds itself being influence by the art it collectively watches. And, the definition of words change, and find their way into the vernacular of succeeding generations, having none, or very little of their original meaning at all. “Cool,” is not necessarily a temperature. Nor, “Gay,” a care free, state of mind. And artist, “Snoop Dog,”for example, has nothing to do with a curious, four legged canine.
    This should not imply, today’s generation is unaware of the word’s past meaning.
    Or, that it’s use in all it’s ugliness continues to be used by certain hate groups,
    common racists, and bigots. And yet there seems to be a determination by today’s
    youth to claim ownership of the term. And, in that way, reduce it’s importance, and disarm it’s ability to denigrate, and disrespect. Cameron Wake, the all pro linebacker, and team mate of Richie Incognito, described his lack of being offended
    by asserting Incognito is an, “Honorary Brother.” In other words, a person Mr. Wake considers incapable of using the word as a White Supremacist would. And the lack of any reaction from across the league among the Black players themselves, would seem to bear this out. The message seems to be, yes we know the word. And we, African Americans, being the only reason the word exists at all. Can, and therefore do, take this word, and it’s meaning from the racists. And wear it, if you will as a symbol of our rising above, and give it our own definition, as only we may understand it.


  • MichelleRose3

    ANY denigrating word ought to be eliminated; words based on race, gender, ethnic derivation, or any variation thereof.

    But it’s not going to happen. Why? Consider any slur in the context of how it’s delivered and why it’s delivered. These are power words, but let me be crystal clear: the only empowerment going on is in the mind of the user. Using a pejorative slur (which is not the redundancy it might appear to be), reduces the target to ONE thing; a single definition of a human being; which is the real disservice to that target individual and to humanity as a whole. But people like power and using those words gives the user the illusion of power.

    We are more than the sum of our parts. (This may be what makes us survivors ) To reduce ANYONE to a single definition, especially one that demeans the target, is a mortal insult indeed, no matter how much or how well the target and/or the accuser (because it IS an accusation) identifies with or claims that word.

    Short answer: when two black guys call each other “niggah”, they’re just buying into the white power structure; a construct they will NEVER truly be part of, no matter how much money they’re paid to move a ball back and forth or stand on a stage and entertain. (note the difference between that word and the more conventional “N-word”. Users claim that difference permits familiar usage. I disagree) They won’t be part of that structure because we are far from anything resembling equality in this country or anywhere else in the world. A shame, isn’t it? But shame never prevented similar or worse cruelties. You can’t feel shame if your worldview includes power words that demean other humans.

    Words have power. We’re all agreed on this, I think. When a genius like Dr. King or JFK or even Obama employs words to uplift, educate and enlighten, then it’s a glorious thing that ennobles us all. Use any from the other list and the user immediately drains the humanity from the language, the target, and himself (or her. Gender is not exempt from this) Another short answer: demeaning words are meant to display power over the target of those words.

    That’s the REAL crime against humanity; the true violation of the human spirit. Use those words and the user immediately devalues everything we stand for as a species.

    No, the n-word (either one) should never be used. Neither should any of the others on that dreadfully long and sickening list of pejoratives be used, at any time, for any purpose. Use any of those words and you just lost part of your humanity and denied your target the same humanity.

    No argument supporting the use of those words can survive even a cursory analysis. There is never a good reason to use those words. They’re representative of an ad hominem attack and THAT alone reveals the weakness and cruelty behind the words.

    I refuse to be both weak and cruel. I refuse to use those words, anytime, any place, for any reason. I did not study the English language for nearly my entire life for that despicable purpose.

    Those who use those words have failed in their most basic responsibility to other humans: to communicate clearly and fairly. Anything else is contemptible and dishonorable.

  • tax payer

    It’s a word use ( more often by them among themselves ), but once they hear it from someone else it becomes a Racist Word.