The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?

Dr. Neal Lester talks about meeting folks across the country who want thoughtful, informed and critical conversation about the troublesome n-word.

In the last twelve plus months, I have done dozens of public lectures on "Straight Talk About the N-word" on my university campus and at other colleges, high schools, churches and other organizations. I have spoken to segregated audiences, integrated audiences and intergenerational audiences. Over the year of having these conversations, one thing has become clear to me: Folks across the country want thoughtful, informed and critical conversation about the troublesome n-word that goes beyond the surface.

What is also clear to me after these many talks is that those who claim pronunciation, spelling and tonal variations of the n-word as an alleged act of “taking it back” and making it a “term of endearment” acknowledge a disconnect from the spiritually lethal label. More often than not, this younger generation of primarily black males uses this word’s variant “nigga/niggah” as a reclaiming of or legitimizing of their strong, black heteronormative masculinity. It’s primarily a “black male thing” to meet and greet with a casual “Whassup, my nigga?!”

When asked why this greeting is used so often instead of “brotha,” or “man,” or “homey”—which n-word users allege as its equivalent—they contend that they have “flipped the word” so that it doesn’t have that same historical sting associated with turbulent American race relations witnessed by their parents, grandparents and even teachers as manifested in the cruelties of American slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.

While I do not approach my talks, publications or interviews with the expressed purpose of convincing folks not to use any form of the n-word, I do intentionally challenge the notion that how the word is pronounced, intoned or spelled somehow changes its meaning from derogatory to endearing. It does not. Indeed, the word “nigger” and all other variations in spelling appear in 19th-century American minstrel songs that are now popular Disney tunes—“Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Oh Susanna” and “Shew Fly.” It’s the second and third verses that commit the unpardonable sin of naming without apology.

Rapper Common, in his preface to the February 2014 ESPN “Special Report on the N-Word,” offers this historical connection and disconnect among those who do not know what needs to be known, understood and passed along:

The n-word is a euphemism to shield us from the shame of our past. … It is a polite code for the slur, but the slur itself—Nigger—that looks like a Sunday morning in Alabama when five black girls went into the bathroom of their church, and only one came out.

Once I demonstrate the n-word’s attachment to a past and present American history of violence, pain, misrepresentation, death and mockery associated with black and brown bodies, some lights of awareness flicker. When I ask them how they came to their decisions to use or not use it, they admit that they often don’t think about what they say, or insist, “It’s just a word!”

When we all cease to think about the words we use, we are not thinking critically or responsibly about how best to name our realities and our circumstances. Language is powerful. And as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. posits, “A word is … the skin of a living thought.”

Perhaps even more disturbing about the disconnect between using the n-word word and the peculiar American history that created it is that so many young folks—blacks, whites, Latino, Asian and others—really believe that racism no longer exists. This disconnect is especially disturbing to hear from a generation who has just lived through Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and James Craig Anderson; the racist utterances of pop-culture icons Paula Deen, Michael Richards, John Mayer, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Dr. Laura Schlessinger; the controversies surrounding Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground. These are just a few of the countless cultural moments from the recent past that should remind us that we are not in a post-racial America—even if that were some desired social end.

A fitting, albeit unfortunate, illustration of this fact occurred when I was working with a local Arizona college team that invited me to do a Black History talk on the n-word, and the non-black graphic designer chose to name the saved marketing poster document “nigposter.jpg.” I and others were decidedly offended. Nowhere in any posters of my many talks locally and nationally have we spelled out the n-word. That adult staff member is now being held accountable.

Was this naming meant to be a “term of endearment,” a microaggression or an indication of sheer ignorance? As the one doing the naming, this designer is the one who holds the definition of this file name, not me. In the profound words of author Toni Morrison, “Definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined.” 

You can watch a video of Dr. Lester discussing the n-word here.

Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

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