The "N" Word
Years ago, Dick Gregory, a comedian of some fame, published a book called, "Nigger." His thought was that if this word was brought out of the closet and into the light, it would lose its sting. Naturally, his plan didn't work. It continues to be used. It is difficult to change verbal habits but even harder to change human prejudices.
Currently, according to the Houston Chronicle, Tammie Campbell
is making an effort to "bury" the "N" Word. She is leading a diverse Houston-area group focused on eradicating the term's usage and teaching its history. They are hosting an unusual event at 9 a.m. today at a Pearland cemetery to ''bury the N-word" in a coffin.I wish her luck. She is going to need it. The Chronicle article says says that various communities have in one way or another tried to forcibly reduce use of the "N" word by making it a misdemeanor crime or passing nonbinding resolutions banning the word. The problem here is that anything with teeth would surely run afoul of the First Amendment right to free speech. The only way these efforts can succeed, in my view, is in connection with a systematic push to make the word "politically incorrect" along with encouraging people to shun anyone who uses it. That too would probably not work but just that sort of action did cause people's attitudes and behavior in regard to smoking to change.
The word "nigger" continues to be widely used by African Americans addressing other African Americans either as an insult or as a way of signaling solidarity. This "paradoxical" use is like one White friend meeting another he hasn't seen in a long time saying, "You SOB, where have you been keeping yourself?" Talibah Newman is quoted at Taylor Siluwe's web site as saying
Many would say that it is wonderful that blacks as a race can take something so negative and turn it around. I say why bring something so demeaning back into the African American community and tempt some Caucasians to the point to where they think it is ok to say it. As always African Americans then believe that they reserve the right to get angry with whites for using the word as a racial slur.Fighting against this sort of usage is like trying to stop a moving train with one's body. The fact is though that there are Whites who say they believe that the use of this word by African Americans does legitimize its use by Whites. This is nonsense in my view, a purely sophistical defense of its use. The fact is that an African American male who addresses some stranger who is also African American as "Hey, Nigger" to get his attention and in a less than friendly tone of voice is likely to be going in for dental surgery very soon thereafter. The paradoxical uses of "nigger" will normally be used by friends with friends or in rap music.
There is a very interesting analysis of the various uses of this word can be found at a web site page written by Mike Daley
Black semantics are highly context-bound. A notable example, and one which will be applicable in a study of rap lyrics, is the use of profanity. It is used in both negative and positive ways, depending on context. Sometimes it has no "meaning" at all, and functions as a kind of rhythmic/semantic filler in speech contexts. Smitherman gives an example of "multiple subjective association process" in the use of the word "nigger/nigguh". She lists four possible meanings of the words, depending on context:The only thing I would quarrel with here is the apparent presumption that "nigger" is unusual in being context bound. All language is context bound.
1. personal affection or endearment
2. culturally Black, identifying with and sharing the values of black people, as opposed to "African-Americans", which has a more middle-class connotation
3. expression of disapproval for a person's actions
4. identifying Black folks - period (Smitherman 1994:62)
Anthropologist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan further comments on the context-bound meaning of "nigger": "The use of 'nigger' with other black English markers has the effect of 'smiling when you say that.' The use of standard English with 'nigger,' in the words of an informant, is 'the wrong tone of voice' and may be taken as abusive (Mitchell-Kernan 1973, 328)."
Years ago, during my first year teaching at the University of Illinois, I lived in an apartment complex with a not very well educated and not especially bright working class White guy and we fell into a discussion of his racial views. He asserted that he was better than African Americans. I, somewhat astonished, asked if he was better than all of them? He said he was. I then ran though some prominent African Americans' names asking each time whether he was better than that person. Every time he said he was. It is that sort of thing that is the problem. The working class see themselves as lower on the White totem pole than professionals, business men and women, and others who are better educated, have better jobs, and make more money. This seems to exacerbate a need to feel superior to someone so that they can maintain their own self-esteem. And, at the time, in Illinois the group that he would need to feel superior to would have been African Americans. And so long as African Americans are the ones selected for abuse there will be a need for the word "nigger" for such people.