Category Archives: Language

The N-word. A Confession, perhaps.

(I posted this, then took it down, then rolled around without sleeping much, and decided to re-post it.)

If CNN was bold, they would have had a white anchor open their show “The N Word.”  Instead, African American Don Lemon opened the show uttering the word nigger.  He closed the show the same way, uttering that word.

Ultimately, Lemon did a respectable job hosting the discussion.  I don’t know that we gained anything, though.

One of Lemon’s guests said, “I use it when I’m trying to be cool.  I use it when I’m trying to insult someone.  And I use it to describe someone who is a bad-ass nigga . . . .”  Meaning, she uses it, sometimes, as a compliment.

So – at least according to some – speaker matters. Context matters.  Which means uttering the word is a matter of some sort of privilege.  In this case, though, that’s not an earned privilege, but a privilege with which one is apparently born.  It is innate.  Passed down from generation to generation like some recessive gene.

What Lemon missed, I think, as did all of his guests, is the logical conclusion of the question the discussion begs – is it all right for an African American to use the word, but not all right for a European American to use the word?  If it is all right – and it apparently is – for an African American to use the word, what about someone whose dad is black and mother white?  Or, whose grandfather is white and grandmother black, with a white mother and white father?  What about three generations ago?  Four?  Five? One drop of “black” blood?  Does one drop of “black” blood let one utter nigger without fear of reproach or riot or resignation?

Where we end up is pretty much back where we sadly started in 18th and 19th century American history, which was – and still is, among many scholars – a question of what it is to be “black.”  At one point in our nation’s history, laws defined exactly how “black” one had to be to be considered “black” (back then, of course, the question was how “white” did one have to be to be “white”).  For a complete, more informed discussion, check out Who is Black?  One Nation’s Definition, by F. James Davis.  You can find an excerpt important to this particular point at PBS’s Frontline: “The One-Drop Rule Defined.”  Davis writes, “To be considered black in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the ‘one-drop rule,’ meaning that a single drop of ‘black blood’ makes a person a black. It is also known as the ‘one black ancestor rule,’ some courts have called it the ‘traceable amount rule,’ and anthropologists call it the ‘hypo-descent rule,’ meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. Blacks had no other choice. As we shall see, this American cultural definition of blacks is taken for granted as readily by judges, affirmative action officers, and black protesters as it is by Ku Klux Klansmen.”

Personally I think that as with all words the word will disappear when we let it disappear, let it die, divest it of all the power that the word itself will fight to preserve like some linguistic Selfish Gene.  (If you haven’t read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, read it.  It is tough to put down.)

Right now, the reality is that the word nigger is an unfortunate part of our contemporary culture.  Superstars utter it publicly and privately, hip hop artists rap it, Hollywood producers introduce it in scripts to “start a conversation about slavery,” kids on the corner use it.

I’ve used it.  I grew up hearing it from my mother, a depression era woman born in 1922, among others.  In Asheville, the black section near Eagle Street and South Market Street was Nigger Town.  It was, to us, to many others.  I didn’t decide that.  I was a little kid learning language.

Then, as I grew up, as black kids started attending the private school I attended – Harold Johnson was the first I can remember – as black kids started swimming at the private pool where I spent the summers, as black kids started playing baseball in the leagues I was in, and as I got to know these kids, the word became more and more uncomfortable.  Then it became an embarrassment.  Then, magically, miraculously, it disappeared from my personal lexicon.

So, I’m sorry.  I’ve said it, too.

I don’t know if I can genuinely regret that I’ve said it any more than I can regret being born when and where I was born and to whom.  I just was.  I certainly regret the history behind the word.  Regret that it still hovers in our cultural consciousness.  Regret any pain the word caused and causes and will cause when spit out at all – by blacks or whites or anything in between or outside those concepts, uttered in hatred or otherwise, by racists or otherwise, conscious or unconscious, appropriated or inherited.

We can denounce the word nigger from here to eternity, but it will survive for a long time to come, if nowhere else, in the darkest corners of racist havens (brings to mind folk singer Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”) around our Nation.

And you can argue about it trying to educate and inform others until you are blue in the face, but some people are going to say it, and too many are going to continue to say it not with apologies or abbreviation, but with a defiant and twisted sort of pride.  And some of those will defend it along the tired lines that I’ve heard more than once: “I ain’t a racist!  Anybody can be a nigger.  When I say nigger, I’m just talking about a lazy person.  It ain’t got nothing to do with what race you are.  A lazy, worthless white guy can be a nigger.”


Those people are losing their voice, losing their platforms, losing their venues, losing their audiences, and they will go the way of the N-word, too, when the N-word goes the way of them.

Someday, I suppose, you’ll need an Oxford English Dictionary (online) to find it.  By then, few will truly understand the dark power the word once wielded.  But that might be good.

Next week, we tackle the C-word.