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Is It True What They Say About Black Men? by Jeremy Helligar

Is It True What They Say About Black Men?

by Jeremy Helligar

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Friday, July 5, 2013

What's a Little Use of the N Word Among Friends and Black People?

"Meanwhile, this nigger putting his hands on me...." -- from "Dirty Laundry," Kelly Rowland

"Nigger, please." -- Louise "Weezy" Jefferson, to her husband George, on an episode of The Jeffersons

During the ongoing debate on racism, the N word and Paula Deen, one point I've heard mentioned several times (always by a white person) is this: "What about all those rappers and black people who call each other 'nigger' and 'nigga'?"

Personally, I think it's a ridiculous word -- both of them -- that should be banished from the English lexicon at once. Whenever I hear it -- coming from a white person or a black person -- I shudder. But when the speaker is black (as it was the first time I ever heard the word, at age 5), it's a different kind of shudder. Regardless of how white people try to rationalize it, it's the sort of thing you can't truly understand unless you are black, and you've been targeted by "nigger" as a vicious insult and suffered under the scourge of anti-black racism.

In the end, though, "nigger" is just a word, one that derives its power from context. You can't effectively analyze the word and examine its use without looking at its history. In the beginning (when my forefathers were still in shackles), it was a derogatory word (presumable derived from "negro") used by the oppressor to describe, define and diminish the oppressed. That's the source of its power.

Therefore, in the modern sense of the word, its an insult that's most damaging when used by descendants of the oppressors (white people) to describe, define and diminish descendants of the oppressed (black people). In that context, on the power scale of words as weapons, it crushes "honkey" (a ridiculous word and one with very little power as an insult from the powerless to the powerful), "bitch" from one guy to another, "faggot" from one gay person to another, and yes, "nigger" from one black person to another.

What if Louise Jefferson had said, "Negro, please," as the punchline instead of "Nigger, please"? Perhaps it would have been less objectionable -- if anyone objected at all, and I can't recall it inciting any controversy at the time. What if a white TV character said, "Negro, please," as a punchline? Would anyone think that's okay? Of course not. As far as I know, "negro" is not on the list of no-no words, but in the right context and coming out of the wrong mouth, it loses its neutrality.


I see the use of the N word within the black community as a sort of neutralizing force. In the '80s when black people began co-opting it, regardless of the initial intent (and I imagine that it would be impossible to narrow it down to any one thing), the result was a diminishing of its power to diminish within the black community.

How could you argue with that? It's like introducing deadly weaponry into a non-violent culture and then objecting when people take the weapons apart, depriving them of their killing potential, and use the parts to build houses. In the case of the N word, rappers were co-opting a deadly word and using it to cultivate a specific culture (hip-hop culture) and make money. Along the way, it robbed the word of some of its power. Good for them.

But that doesn't make it okay for non-blacks to use it for their own condescending purposes. And I'm not talking about characters in Quentin Tarantino films. In the case of Django Unchained, winner of the 2013 Best Original Screenplay Oscar despite its controversial rampant use of the N word, it would be silly to expect a movie about slavery not to include the N word.

Does anyone really think it was used judiciously on plantations in the 1800s? Were people, including director Spike Lee, seething because Tarantino is white and Django wasn't a Spike Lee joint, or the work of another black writer-director?

Why was it okay for Lee to show a father beating his daughter and repeatedly shouting "nigger" in his 1991 film Jungle Fever? It was one of the film's most riveting scenes, and I, for one, objected to it no more than I did to Leonardo DiCaprio's frequent dropping of the N word in Django. To be honest, though, I find the phrase "jungle fever" to describe a white person who sleeps with black people to be just as disgusting as the N word because it makes offensive, degrading implications about where I come from. And Lee used it as the title of his movie!


Had Lincoln actually bothered to include more slaves in its own story of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, and highlighted the brutal lives they led, it probably would have been uttered more in that film, too. And furthermore, the characters in Django Unchained are fictional. If you're not going to condemn fictional characters for committing murder and other heinous acts of violence in action films, why the objection to the use of the N word in a film set in an era when it was in wide circulation among a certain segment of society?

It's simply a reflection of history, and at the height of the Django controversy, I sensed a certain amount of liberal guilt in some of the loud vocal objections to the film's "nigger"-heavy screenplay. Pretending that your ancestors didn't use the word liberally doesn't change history. It's probably not the best thing for impressionable youths to be exposed to on TV and in film, but it's as much the parents' responsibility to steer their kids away from using the word in real life as it is to discourage them from handling their enemies the way they might see characters do it in a big-budget blockbuster or any television procedural.

That's not to justify the use of the N word by anyone in the real world, but coming from a black person in everyday conversation or on a rap record, it simply loses its venom and its damaging context. It's like a blind quadriplegic trying to menace someone with a knife. If Justin Carter were blind and confined to a wheelchair -- or if he were a little 90-year-old lady with blue hair and a walking stick -- would he have been jailed for three months and counting for supposedly making terrorists threats on Facebook? Words derive so much of their power from the person who is using them.

Years ago, I took a night train from Berlin to Cologne, Germany, to visit my friend Olaf. One night I went with him and his girlfriend to his band's rehearsal and watched Olaf struggle with the English back-up lyrics he had to sing. "Do you even understand what you're singing?" I asked him during a break. "Of course, not," he said, laughing. "Some words, yes, but most of them, no."  I imagine that it's the same for many musicians who record and perform in languages other than their own, singing the lyrics phonetically. Does "I love you" have the same meaning if you don't even know what you're singing? Ultimately, they're just words.

Without context, understanding and intent, words simply do not have the same power, which is why yelling "Fire!" in an empty theater would be both pointless and inconsequential. And so it goes with black-on-black use of the N word. Yes, it sounds hideous coming from anyone, but without a non-black in the conversation, it simply doesn't have the same sting. To a racist onlooker, it would be like the pot calling the kettle black.

Rather than searching for loopholes and calling tit for tat, those white people who rationalize the use of the N word by white people because black people use it, too, need to stop trying to whitewash it and consider the history of the word and the feelings of the people whom it's traditionally been meant to debase. In a perfect world, I'd never have to hear it again. In an imperfect one, I'd settle for never having to hear it coming from a person who isn't black to describe someone who is.
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