The N-Word: A Possessive Case
As the remnants of another Black History Month disappear yet again, I become extremely conscious of this part of my being. Although I do not limit celebration of the contributions of my people to just February, something about us reaching national awareness does excite me. This month-wide celebration has allowed me to truly dissect issues, new and old, in our community. This meditation has also allowed me to realize unity.
Solidarity within communities of color is necessary for survival. When you coexist within systems strategically made to keep you unsuccessful, it is important to take pride in the identity associated with doing that. This identity is a complex and profound one to fully realize since it is founded upon being the other. As there is no problem to being one’s self, there should be no problem in being that other. I am a black man. I too, am the other since my color does not allow me to fit into the white oppressive patriarchal mold designed for easy maneuvering within this society. I have to make the best of this situation, despite the range of issues I shall face.
The issue regarding the word “nigga” never seems to cease. It may be taboo, but it is definitely not foreign. Nigga is used amongst a majority of my same race cohorts. I do not put it in quotations for it is not strange. No underline from the red-hot inquisition of Microsoft Word. The English language knows nigga. Literature knows nigga. America knows nigga, as it tried to throw the two syllables at them like acid on flesh. Nigga is a word we all know; yet we all cannot fully comprehend for painful reasons.
Here begins a very obvious etymology. Derived from nigger, the highly derogatory ethnic slur used against people of African descent ever since they were brought here, nigga has been a modification applied more amicably within the community. Nigger on the other hand was used mainly contemptuously. Read any canonized literature of the United States throughout the 18th to 20th centuries when African Americans did not have any rights to their own selves. If a black character was introduced, most certainly they were somebody else’s nigger.
The use of this word, historically by white people, reinforced the hierarchy between blacks and whites in that it established this country’s social climate: the white majority, dominant and privileged and the black minority disadvantaged.
The use of that word also intends to oppress. African-Americans, as an ethnic group, have been enslaved for a majority the United States’ timeline. Jim Crow found its end in 1965 only fifty-one years ago. Slavery itself was an institution that implied slaves as property to their white owners. To call an African-American a nigger reinforces that dynamic again, immediately erasing any identity made for themselves. Essentially, the word strips of humanity.
Nigger did not intend to mean what it did. Its etymologic root from the Latin niger, which means black, shows the direction a word may take with time.
From a linguistic approach these are all common in the lifespan of a word. Its meaning is bound to change over time, either growing or diminishing completely. In order for a word to truly reach its extinction (words and languages die altogether according to this field of study) a word must have gone through a process of semantic change. Semantic change can happen in various ways such as broadening, narrowing, pejoration or amelioration, the latter being exactly what the black community has done with “nigga.”
This action is worth its merit. For a whole group of people to take a word once used against them into something friendly, funny, but mainly familiar is impressive. Though some may renounce any form of the word, the use of nigga through black media (hip-hop music as the greatest example) provides a consensus that it is a common aspect within our black spaces.
I only say nigga within black spaces. It is personal experience in which only we can relate to. Whether they actively participate in the culture or not, you still contribute to the nigga experience. Culture is inevitable. The same systems oppress us, coloring our lives in ways we do not wish it to. Using this word is to find refuge from the situation in each other. It is recognition of a struggle. It is understanding.
To use this word when not part of this community undermines them as a whole. It rearranges the bounds of an identity finally created by people once denied theirs. The exchange of nigga between non-black persons is useless. The word does not substitute anything outside of a black dynamic. There are no synonyms or antonyms for it because it is that particular.
Black people should not have to teach non-black people not to use this word. It should not need to be a responsibility to ask for this modicum of respect. The way one evades cursing around their parent, teacher, or employer is a sign of decency. Does this decency end in the space of our black comrades? Are their feelings and experiences not valid? Should they be dictated on how to express themselves? Is it necessary to share this specific piece of culture with everyone? Should we relax?
The answer to all of these is NO. The people who belong to a specific culture should have the means to control which aspects are shared and which are not. It is not the decision of anyone else but them. This keeps cultures distinct and separate if all of elements pertaining to it remain unified. This is how culture can truly be enjoyed and appreciated, with respect and no intention to infiltrate.
To my white friends, please, you are not my nigga and I am not yours. It is not a synonym for friend, pal, buddy or love. Consider your position of privilege to help end this racist tendency to drink black culture dry of its value.
To my other friends of color who are not black, please refrain also. Although our histories are tied and we fight the same battle, our beauty is in our uniqueness. There are issues exclusive to our respective cultures and we cannot contribute to the erasure of them. Our cultures are full and whole and we must keep them this way. Only through discovery of whom and what we are can we fully stand in solidarity.
To my niggas, say it, but don’t spray it. Not everyone can exist in our spaces and that is fine because they have their own and this is ours. Like all words, nigga has its time and its place, and it is our responsibility to keep that sanctity among us. We deserve it, and nothing can tell us otherwise.