“...not just a word…”

Scholar: N-word has power, but weight is shifting

by W. Winston Skinner


Dr. Dre is one of many rap artists whose songs frequently use the word “nigger.” Some scholars think rap music is gradually changing the word’s meaning and context. 

A Grantville city employee resigned after text messages he sent that included the word “nigger” surfaced.

A city council member, recorded on tape saying the same word, says he sees no reason to resign.

Doug Jordan, the former police chief, is white. Barham Lundy, the council member, is black.

The word – which Grantville Council Member Johnny Cooks described as “not just a word, it is an attitude” – continues to elicit powerful emotions four centuries after it first emerged in the English tongue and half a century since passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Public officials, citizens and scholars have varying opinions about the word – and about when, if ever, it is okay for anyone to say it. Some African-Americans maintain it is okay for black people to say it to each other, but not for white people to say it.

Lundy is one of them. “I can say that word to somebody, and nobody will be offended. Nobody’s offended when we call each other that word. When we hear someone else call us that word, we are offended by that.”

Wayne Rosser, the black community activist who taped Lundy saying “nigger” in a conversation centering around police cars in Grantville, said, “A public official is held to a higher standard.”

Cooks, reflecting on the word at the most recent council meeting – after Jordan’s resignation but before Atlanta media pilloried Lundy for his taped remarks – noted that the N-word has led to the commission of violent acts and to job discrimination. “It is not a word spoken by accident,” he said.

It is a word spoken – a lot – in rap music. “The word is being used more and more,” observed Dr. Luvell Anderson, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis.

“Rap music is using it all over the place. It’s shifting the weight of the word,” said Dr. Laurence Thomas, professor of philosophy at the University of Syracuse. Anderson and Thomas are both African-Americans.

Thomas said if any Americans in 1950 had been told there would be a multi-million dollar genre of music in 2014 where “nigger” was a part of many songs, no one would have believed it.

“Then it was derogatory. It was difficult for it not to be derogatory,” Thomas said – referring to a time when Jim Crow laws – particularly in the South – greatly restricted access to many parts of American society for blacks.

“Language changes,” Thomas said. “Words can change. They really, really do change.”

With regard to “nigger,” he observed, “nobody can say it’s exactly like it was in 1950.”

The word – what it means in various circumstances – is being altered. “It can have a double-edged sword,” Thomas said. “People are often naive when they refuse to see the complexity of things that are really there.”

As a college professor in New York, Thomas said he sometimes walks past a fraternity house where a rap song is blasting – “nigger” being part of the lyrics. He said he does not immediately think the listeners, mostly or all white, are racist – they are just listening to a style of music popular among their age group.

Teens and young adults – black, white, Asian, Latino, mixed race – listen to rap music in large numbers. “That tells me something very profound,” Thomas said.

“Nigger” now means different things when said by different people – and when said in different contexts. It can be used “in the old-fashioned way” as a derogatory description or a way to put a black person back on the back of the bus.

It can also be an offhand, even friendly greeting. “I’ve heard many a black person say it to another black person,” Thomas said.

The black-black interplay with the word is nothing new. “It’s an old practice,” Anderson said. “It’s a way of identifying with one another.”

In that sense, “you can call people you are related to some kind of way” something you would not like someone outside the circle to say, Anderson observed. While it can be hateful in other settings, “nigger” can become “one of those endearing terms” shared within a group, he said.

Through the talents of rap artists, the word also can “get used differently” than it has in the past, Thomas said.

The sheer ubiquity of the word in rap may well help blunt the traumatic edge the word often wields. “It wouldn’t surprise me. If you hear something enough, the words have some freedom and some malleability they otherwise wouldn’t,” Thomas reflected.

He also said official, formal settings and roles and the N word do not mix. “When you’re in an official capacity, don’t use that word. When you’re in a casual situation with your friends, you might,” Thomas said. “Even if a word’s permissible, it isn’t permissible in all contexts.”

“Nigger” may be developing differing meanings for people of different ages. Several years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle and writer Maya Angelou talked about “nigger” on a television show, “Iconoclasts.”

Chappelle said his humor utilizes the word at times in a way to negate or at least minimize its power. Angelou, who lived much more of a pre-Civil Rights Acts life, disagreed with his idea. The word, she said was “created to divest people of their humanity.”

Anderson recalled an interview he heard with a well-known black rap star. The singer was asked how he would react if a white fan called him “nigger,” and replied that he would not mind.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Thomas said. “You can’t have rap music doing everything with it” and still have the word forbidden for non-blacks to say. The musicians, the rap music industry and black activists “know white kids are listening to it.”

Randall Kennedy in his 2001 book, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” described the term as “a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics.”

The word was spelled in different ways in early America – when much spelling was not standardized. The first known version of “nigger” is found in 1619 in the journal of John Rolfe, the English settler to Virginia who married Pocahontas. Writing in his journal about the first ship bringing Africans to Virginia, the pioneer tobacco planter referred to the arriving Africans as "negars."

Rolfe’s terminology probably was merely descriptive, as the word did not initially have a negative connotation – evidence of Thomas’s thoughts on ever changing language.

“We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the 19th century, ‘nigger’ had already become a familiar and influential insult,” Kennedy wrote. In an 1837 book, Hosea Easton stated the word had become “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race. … [I]t flows from the fountain of purpose to injure."

Numerous black writers have written about the demeaning use of the words by white authority figures in slavery times or in the subsequent Jim Crow era.

Anderson, 39, recalled feeling uncomfortable in a social setting with white friends when rap music – with “nigger” popping up frequently – was playing. “It’s hard to articulate. It was kind of weird – almost like I shouldn’t be in that particular place at that time,” he remembered.

The meaning and emotional sting of “nigger” may be shifting – at least in some circumstances. The word can, however, cost a police officer his job and require a city councilman to explain himself.

The N-word, Anderson concluded, still carries “a lot of complex dynamics.”

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