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What Am I Saying When I Say 'Nigger'?

I'm still trying to figure out what the most loaded two syllables in the English language mean to me.

af Wilbert L. Cooper
24 marts 2015, 6:30am

To quote Kanye's latest single, I say nigga "all day, nigga." If you're riding with me in the whip, then you're probably one of my niggas. If you're hating on whatever it is that I'm doing, then maybe you're a fuck nigga. If your skin is a bit darker than mine, you might just be a black nigga. Sometimes, I like to flip it different ways, changing up the emphasis so that it sounds kind of percussive, like nuckah or nicka. Or if I'm feeling a little funny and fancy and want to playfully tease someone, I'll add weird suffixes to the end of it, like nigorino or niggy.

But as much as I've tried to temper the word by softening it with an –a instead of an –er, it doesn't seem to have lost its power over me. It's perhaps the most loaded two syllables in the English language. It's a word designed to denigrate people who have skin like mine. And although so many of my personal heroes—from Ice Cube to Richard Pryor—have tried to reclaim the hateful word for young black men, there have been times when I have been beaten down by it.

I say "beaten down" because when it's hurled at me from a white person's mouth, the result is more punishing than any punch. And even in the times when I've managed to fuck up a white boy who said it, it was certainly no victory. A real victory would be to no longer be seen as a nigger inside my own country.

The word follows you from the schoolyard to the boardroom, from the street corner to Wall Street. It doesn't even have to be said out loud. The fact that there's a word in the common tongue designed specifically to express your inhumanity is bad enough. Whispers of it flash through my mind when a shopkeeper trails me around a store or when police officers pull me over for no reason. I can hear it being rattled off like a fire alarm through my consciousness, tearing into who I believe I am and who I'd like to become.

Nigger is complicated. It's a conversational crutch and a crucible. It's a cross to bear and a club some white kids wish they could join. I say it constantly, and yet I detest it and what it represents. It's on my mind incessantly, and yet I try not to think about it and what it means when I say it to my friends, my neighbors, my sister, my brother, my parents, and even myself.

The realization that I had internalized nigger so much didn't occur to me until last week, when I heard the excellent new Kendrick Lamar album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The word is all over that record, as it is on a lot of contemporary rap albums. But Kendrick stands out for really trying to reshape the word with a sense of pride and reverence. In fact, even the album intro features a prominent sample of the chorus of "Every Nigger Is a Star" (that's with a hard er) by Boris Gardiner. And fittingly, the album ends with Kendrick's own personal exploration of the word with an updated version of the record's first single, "i."

The new version of the song is presented as a live performance, with the beat being constructed by IRL musicians instead of samples. About a third of the way through "i," the live set falls apart and Kendrick starts speaking directly to the audience before jumping into an acapella freestyle about the "infamous, sensitive N-word."

He explains that the way we use terms like fuck niggas to describe our brothers is tantamount to being a white slave master. And then he traces his own usage of nigga, spurned by critics of hip-hop like Oprah, until he arrives at the word negus. According to some quick googling, negus is old Amharic—a language spoken in Ethiopia—a word that translates to, as Kendrick says in the song, "black emperor, king, ruler..." The rapper ends the track by calling himself the "realest negus alive."

The whole thing happens very quickly, but it left a profound impression on me—and many other young people, if my Twitter feed is any indication. Since the album's release, I've seen mentions of negus pop up on social media and get shouted out in almost every one of the overwhelmingly positive reviews To Pimp a Butterfly has received.

The idea of negus being the reason black men say various forms of nigger to one another is appealing to me because it's a concept that connects something I do today back to my African lineage—something I've been pretty disassociated from. When it's put in those terms, reclaiming the word from white supremacy feels more like a birthright than just saving face. However, I can't say I ever thought about African kings or rulers or excellence when I called my niggas "my niggas." And even knowing the meaning of negus now doesn't exactly change my reality, which is one where the word nigger, more than anything else, embodies the collective pain of institutionalized subjugation that continues to this day for black folks.

But for better or worse, Kendrick's negus put nigger on my mind—not so much for how rappers use it, or how white people use it, or how other young black people use it, but for how I use it. To help me understand myself, this word, and how the legacy of negus might or might not fit into it all, I reached out to Dr. Neal Lester. Lester is the director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, and he teaches a course on nigger's history. We had a conversation that helped shape my understanding of this word, its legacy, and what it signifies when it comes out of my mouth.

VICE: Why teach a course on the word nigger?
Neal Lester: What fascinated me about teaching my course has been that this generation of students have a disconnect with American history. And they don't have a concern with the words they use. I've heard people say, "I'm not personally offended by the word." Well, I'm not personally offended either. Being offended is not what drove me to try and study it. My work was an opportunity to understand the intergenerational breakdown over this word and why there's this effort to "reclaim" it.

Do you know how the word became a term used to describe African Americans?
Well, it wasn't for African Americans. It was for Africans. The theory I buy is that at about the 15th century, when the Spanish first encountered Africans, they described them as "negro." "Negro" in Spanish means black. And it didn't take long before black became associated with uncivilized, feared, threatening, uncultured, unattractive... all the things that are still related with black when you look it up—as Malcolm X did—in the dictionary. So in 1619, when black folks arrived in the "New World," the connection between black bodies and blackness with negativity had already been established.

How did the term become so loaded?
Well, we define ourselves by who we are not and what we are not. So while it may have started out as a descriptor, rarely does a descriptor remain neutral of morals or values. The word is bigger than the letter and sounds that make it up. It's about how a group of people is treated in this country. It's not really more complicated than that.

So what do you think about the justifications people make to use the word?
Like, Oh it depends on who said it and how it is said. Or, If you say it with a -ga ending it means this... and if you say it with an -er ending, it means that.

It sounds foolish hearing you say it like that, but yes, that's what I mean.
What's fundamental is that the nig part, which is the root of that word, stays the same. There are lots of pieces of evidence that demonstrate that nig is negative. In the last election, when people had anti-Obama signs that said "Don't ReNig in 2012," they were negative.

What's interesting about this word is that people put a lot of emphasis on how it is spelled, how it sounds, and how it is said, so they can attribute different meanings to it. My thing is that it doesn't matter how it is spelled or sounds, it still means the same thing relative to American race relations.

Some people see it as a term of endearment.
Yes. Slave masters used it as a term of endearment with their slaves, too. Look at The Help—they had relationships with their maids that were extremely endearing. So saying it is a term of endearment doesn't change how it has been used against us as a people.

What do you think about Kendrick Lamar relating it to negus and African royalty?
I'm just not sure how that quick turn at the end of that song, to address Oprah and others who have disagreed with the way rappers like him use the word, gives his fans more insight into themselves. I guarantee you, not many people know anything about the history he's alleging. And people certainly don't have a connection to—the students I teach don't even have a connection to what happened before they were born, much less ancestrally.

Can we ever flip nigger and make it positive?
It's the ultimate epithet. There's no way you're going to be able to flip that and make it positive. Long before this album, we've been told over and over that black folks are descendants of kings and queens. I don't know how that has changed our behavior or how we think about ourselves or each other. The negus seems more like an opportunity to for people to say, Oh OK, that's why I'm using it.

But can't I say whatever I want and make it mean whatever I like?
Toni Morrison in Beloved said, "Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." So while it's true that you don't have to be what someone else defines you as, tell that to a child who grew up being called a "pickaninny." Or the students at the University of Oklahoma after the racist chant video surfaced... All that stuff becomes part of the history of this word that cannot be summed up in "Oh, this is what this means now. I'm gonna start using it because it represents kings and queens." It's an interesting exercise, but I'm not sure where you go with that idea.

What about the idea that words change and language evolves?
This is absolutely true.

Well, what makes nigger any different? Why can't it evolve?
Because part of this word never changes. Not to mention, the n-i-g-g-a spelling was in those minstrel songs in the early 1900s that mocked black folks as coons and buffoons, right along with the n-i-g-g-e-r spelling. So people alleging that if you change the spelling, you change the meaning, are ignorant.

Hip-hop has done a tremendous job changing the meaning of other words. But those words are not people or their identities. Take phat. Or the way we name ourselves individually, like Snoop Dogg or Puff Daddy. These show the ingenuity of people of color. But the N-word is different. There is nothing else like it in the English language.

So, do you think we should never say the word?
There is no reason there should be a ban on the word. We certainly shouldn't be going back to change the text of Huckleberry Finn or anything like that. But we should think about our use of that word in a social context. I mean, we should think about other words that you say, like homophobic words and sexist words too. But you can say it, as Paul Mooney once said, until your teeth turn white. It is up to you. You're not going to go to jail for it. But once you realize that just doing something like changing the spelling of it doesn't change the actual meaning of it, you can't unknow that.

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Tagged:
Culture
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RACISM
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WILBERT L COOPER
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To Pimp a Butterfly
nigger
nigga
Malcolm X
Vice Blog
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