“Oh That Troublesome N-Word!”


This past weekend writer, critic, activist James Baldwin would have been 90 years old. As a tribute to Baldwin who was one of my heroes I posted a video clip of an interview with James Baldwin called, “Who is the N**ger?” [He used the actual word but throughout this post I will refrain from using it either in its original spelling or the more popular hip hop spelling ending in the letter, “A”]. Watching that interview reminded me of how problematic the N-word has been for Black people. Baldwin declared that the word did not belong to Black people, it belonged to Whites and since they created it, it reflected who they are, not who Blacks are. (See clip below).

For those of us who experienced the Civil Right Movement, the word provokes an almost visceral reaction–fear, anger, offense, outrage are all wrapped up in that word. For today’s youth it is often “just another word.” But the word is not nearly as neat and clear cut across generations as that.
Black people have always had a complex relationship to the word. We’ve used it as a term of endearment (c’mon folks ‘fess up…we’ve referred to friends and foes alike using the N-word) and as an indictment (as in “N-word, please!). Our use of the word, while simultaneously condemning Whites for using it, has created some controversy. We hear it all the time. “Why is it all right for you to use it and I can’t use it?” The best response I’ve ever heard to that came from scholar, author, journalist Marc Lamont Hill who asked, “Why do you want to use it?”
Black comedians are known for their use of the N-word. Richard Pryor referred to himself once on the Late Show with Johnny Carson as “Skinny N-word.” His stand up was riddled with the word. Chris Rock insists that there are two kinds of Black people–Black folks and N-words–and he does an entire set that contrasts the two.
But where does that leave us? Several White celebrity’s have found themselves in deep trouble for having their use of the word exposed…Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame), Paula Deen (of Food Network), and pop singer Justin Beiber have all been caught using the word.
My discussion with young people about the word pulls on its historic use and meaning. I remind them that author Toni Morrison says that the N-word is the first word every non-Black immigrant learns when she or he arrives in the US. It is the word that makes them “American” and allows them to have solidarity with Whites. It is the word that grants them entrance! Indeed, after the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 racists were calling some Middle Eastern descent people, “Sand N-word!” Think about that…N-word is such a pejorative that it can be used to denigrate anybody!
Some Black people say that our “in-group” use of the word represents our “taking it back” and keeping it from having power over us. The Black use of the N-word thus becomes our ability to invert the stereotype. But not everybody buys that reasoning. And, that’s why we’re a diverse community. As I said in an earlier post, we don’t all think alike! What do you think about the use of the N-word?

Stay Black & Smart!