I have watched the arguments surrounding the usage of the word “nigger” from a distance and said nothing. But now I have been shaken from my place of passivity.
This weekend I accompanied my children to the theater for a movie, and I heard the word bandied about by the throngs of African American teens with such fervor that I had to pause for a brief second to collect myself. And then on yesterday, I visited an inner city middle school to watch President Obama’s address with a friend’s class, and as I walked down the hallway, I heard the vulgar staccato of the word in almost every conversation I overheard—nigga’ this, nigga’ that, that nigga’, those niggas.
But the final straw came on last evening. As I waited for my last class to begin, two of my young African American male college students sat in a corner having a loud, animated conversation and making liberal use of the word. It became such that I finally pulled them aside and gave them a choice. Discontinue using the word in my presence or leave. They chose the latter.
I don’t know who will read this. I don’t know what good it will do if any. But I have to say it if only to assuage my conscious.
Soon after Europeans began exploring the New World and discovering the vast amounts of potential wealth to be had there, they realized they would have to have an extraordinary workforce if they were to exploit that potential for wealth with any efficiency. Of course, the enslavement of the many indigenous people Europeans encountered as they branched out throughout the world came to mind, but the Church forbade the enslavement of other human beings, and they were forced to step back and regroup.
So, over time, those holding power colluded with those creating knowledge in an effort to prove that these darker peoples were indeed not human, and would benefit from enslavement. Enslavement was sold as a means of bringing civilization and religion to uncivilized pagan peoples.
As an aside, believe in the objectivity of science and knowledge only to your detriment.
But anyway, doing this period, the various pseudo sciences aimed at dehumanizing these darker people proliferated and were promulgated throughout the scientific community. Volumes and volumes of studies all testifying to their subhuman existence were written and circulated.
And keep in mind, before this period, race was not a function of skin color or ethnicity in most of Europe. Race was expressed as a matter of birth and only two categories existed, nobility and commoner; either you were born of blue blood or you were simply a peasant, a common man. The category of race was created simply to organize human beings into a hierarchy of being for the purposes of debasement, dehumanization, and ultimately enslavement.
And before long, the Church acquiesced, and the slave trade began in earnest.
So, long before literal chains were placed about our wrists, about our ankles, about our persons, we were enslaved figuratively through language which bore false witness against our humanity, which sought to place us into a category of living beings right above animals. And the word nigger was an integral centerpiece of the lexicon of the language of enslavement.
I have heard the arguments claiming a “re-appropriation” of the word. I have heard the arguments claiming that the repeated use of the word strips the word of its original meaning. I have heard the arguments claiming that using “nigga’” instead of nigger is a term of endearment, a sign of solidarity. But all these arguments ring hollow.
Some things cannot, and should not, be reclaimed and recycled for extended use. Some things cannot be rehabilitated. And whether you are directing the word nigger towards me in the pejorative sense, or nigga’ in a sense of brotherhood and shared struggle, the history of the word cannot be elided; between the mere two syllables of the word is written the language and a history of centuries of debasement, dehumanization, discrimination and destruction. And the continued use of the word only recapitulates the very terms of our original enslavement.
Young brothers and sisters, stop for a second to think.
Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings, 1972-1977.
Frederick Douglas, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.