Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Enslaved by Language: A Brief Archaeology of the Word Nigger

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.

Recommended reading:

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings, 1972-1977.

Frederick Douglas, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.


Keith said...

Great post. I remember growing up that I heard the word a lot coming from most of the whites and blacks I knew.

I've got a question for you. What books would you recommend for someone really wanting to learn about the history of slavery and other topics of that nature?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more... it's a filthy word. I've talked with my kids about it's use, and stressed to my son that should I ever hear it from his mouth, I will suddenly get in touch with my trailer park roots and he'll find himself on the floor with me straddled over him, a bottle of dawn in one hand, and a bottle of palmolive in the other.

uglyblackjohn said...

Nigga, Nucka, Ne-ga-ro and Ninja have all replaced the common usage of "Nigger" for those who feel "enlightened".
But in truth... what is the intended meaning behind any of these words?
The meaning is always meant as some form of inferiority.
Even in casual conversation (much like MF or Bitch) the intent seems to suggest the dominance of he who is speaking.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I hit send too soon... I also meant to say that around the time of the Don Imus comments, I had discussed this kind of pejorative language with my older two, and how to resist any peer pressure (spoken or unspoken) to use it, and how to handle it if it was used in their presence or directed towards them. I have to confess I was at a big loss in guiding them how to handle it in peer situations, seeing as I have no experience whatsoever with being on the receiving end. Opening up the dialogue seemed to at least empower my daughter, who was very troubled by a peer situation last year. I've had a blog in draft about it for a good two weeks now because I was and still am awed by how she handled it... but I'd be interested in a blog about how you'd encourage your teen/tweens to handle the use of the word in their peers, if you're taking requests :)

md20737 said...

I often use this word in anger and disgust. But I am still guilty of using it. I am learning and practicing more resttriant, because I am embarassed when I use the word but I still use it. Sometimes I use just say you N but its still the same intent. Eventually I am hoping to erase it out of my language. Because its a painful degrading word. That I know I have no business using.

I used on TPAIN when I saw him with a 450K chain around his neck that said big azz chain. At that point in time no other word described him more in my mind than the N word. Now that I am not angry and disgusted. I can find many more words to use to describe his level of stupidity.

Anonymous said...

I tried to justify using the n-word...but even as a major in English literature, a student of this great English language and its "variations," I found myself tongue-tied as I repeated the same inane argument over and over. So, I tried to look at it from an "Afrocentric" - I know my black history so I'm just using it to show respect - kind of way. Needless to say, I was unable to explain why I continued to drop the n-bomb. The most important thing I have learned as a college student is the power of words. We don't understand how much one word affects another person. I know for a fact that saying something positive can inspire an individual to make a change for the better, do something for someone that they normally wouldn't have done, and in a world where everyone struggles sometimes all someone needs is a little encouragement. And if I can use my words to uplift someone, I don't see why I'd use them to hurt someone. And I don't care what anyone says, nigga/nigger still hurts - that's why African Americans don't want white people saying it.

SGTMcClain said...

Wow, I guess I am alone in thinking that words are just words. Personally I think people put way too much stock into words and let words control their emotions and feelings.

While I don't use the word or its derivatives that often, that is a choice that I made because I can find a plethora of words that can better express the thoughts that I am trying to get out of my head.

My point is so many people get upset and frustrated at the use of certain words and can write and fuss and argue and preach about how wrong a word is. But in my opinion the more you do that the more you encourage the use of those words. I honestly believe that if we as a society ignored the ignorance that is involved with the positive or negative usage of the words, then their popularity would wane and once its no longer popular the word will fade from existence.

I know many will disagree with me, but we have been trying this the other way and things only seem to be getting worse in that department.

Max Reddick said...

@ Keith

A good place to start is American Slavery by Peter Kolchin. It's a quick read.

Also try Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery by Charles Johnson

Many Thousand Gone is another good one but I forget the author.

@ curlykidz

It is a horrible word. Let me think about your challenge, I'll let you know what I come up with. That's a hard one.

@ uglyblackjohn

Not only does it suggest dominance, I would also tender that it suggests a bit of ignorance on the part of the user.

@ md20737 and blackpoetsunite

I think that we all have been guilty of using it at one time or another. At one time, I used the word. But at some point, I just didn't feel right doing so.

And blackpoetsunite, language is a powerful, powerful thing. Each and every day, I gain more and more respect for it.

@ SGTMcClain

Words are not just words. Human beings are made of language. Think of it this way: every thing about you is contained in language, in writing. Your complete life is a narrative that can only be expressed in language. When we are born and when we die, our births and deaths are recorded in language. If that written record of our birth or our death does not exist, we do not exist.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you wrote this Max. I hate when people use the word. It's disgusting and painful for anyone who have ever had it used it the most derogatory of senses.

It kills me when somebody comes out with a song that aligns that word with a catchy tune. Then not only can people use it in daily speech but now they can sing it.

I hope tons of young people read this. This word needs to be taught along with history because they need to be educated on the word and what it really means. Then maybe, just maybe, they will think before they let it come out of their mouths.

SGTMcClain said...

Words are just words though, at least thats the way I was raised, and as I recall most of the people I grew up with learned the same lesson. I believe it went... Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

The problem is more and more people spend all their time letting words hurt them instead of rising above the ignorance. Life is way too short to let your focus shift from all the greatness you could be doing with your life just to focus on why people shouldn't use certain words.

Its gotten to a point to me that its annoying to even talk to some people because instead of listening to the content of what is said all they are listening for is those key buzz words that we have had pounded into our heads telling us that these words are not proper to say, even when no malice is attached.

We not just a black people but as people in general are becoming way to sensitive, and in my opinion need to stop crying and man/woman the heck up and get past all of this, because trust and believe the people that want to hold you back are no longer calling you the words that you are listening out for.

I pray that we all learn to open our eyes to whats really going on out here.

But again what do I know.

Bougie Applebum said...

Great post Max. I cannot stand the word. I have a co-worker who uses "ninja" and even that makes me cringe.

I really wish people understood the venom in the word. Whether the word is used with "ger" or "gga" at the end, it is still the verbal descendant of a harmful intentions.

There have been funerals to bury the "n" word and rallies to cease the usage. Honestly, I don't see it happening.

Keith said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I appreciate it. I'll definitely check those out.

It is a horrible word. Throughout the years I've heard so many people (Anglo-American, African-American, Hispanic, Asian) use the word. I don't like it. I don't anybody should be using such words.

Anonymous said...

@ Max... thanks, I'd be interested in seeing your take on it. It is tough, and I have a feeling my daughter's victory over her first encounter was much more her than me, and I got her through it more by sheer dumb luck than skilled parenting. But if nothing else, you inspired me (as you often do) and I finished the blog I've had in draft since the middle of August!

Kim said...

I don't like the word especially when women use it. More than that I hate that WE have said we have adopted the word so it's less painful and less powerful. How very false. Because if we have really powered down the word, then anyone could call US the word and we would have no reaction.

Lyn Marie said...

@ SGTMcClain
I do understand your reference, sometimes people can be over-sensitive but words do hurt. I'm sure just about everyone can recall a time when someone in their life said something that hurt their feelings. The hurt is initiated by words then by the actions of someone we cared about or who's opinion mattered.

Another perspective may be the phrase a man is only as good as his word. Again that word must be followed by a deed or both are valueless.

I had a conversation with a middle school girl that was yelling Nigga at a young brother in the hallway as a way of showing off. I quickly pulled her aside and tried to let her know that she was better than that. I asked her if she understood that when people used the word originally is was meant to place our people as less than human, as livestock that didn't matter. She was surprised by the revelation and apologized. I said "thank you baby, just remember your better than that word". I felt good about the exchange and realized that the generation gap (the gap of experience)may influence the way younger people use the word.

What do you think?

Cyndi said...

@ Lyn Marie

That's something I wondered myself this week when I was reflecting back on my daughter's experience. She was very upset not only by it's use in a social setting, but also that it didn't seem to bother anyone else. I know from speaking with some other moms in my community that they don't allow their children to use the word, so this free use of it from a 4th grader was puzzling to me as well... and I wondered if a lot of the difference between the kids' use of the word was whether the parents had discussed the history behind the word with their kids, or just told them "we don't say the n-word." In the latter situation, would it be any surprise that some kids look at it as just another curse word to be bandied about for the shock value Dropping the f-bomb, for example, probably seems pretty cool at that age. I can't lie and say there aren't days where dropping the f-bomb isn't particularly satisfying for me...

Lyn Marie said...

@ Cyndi
I think you may right, for some it is just a swear word. I remember swearing the first time, I felt like a grown up. I think I was in 5th or 6th grade. It was almost a passage into a teenager.

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