The N-Word Conversation. What exists in the space between the 'er' and the 'a'?
written by Moeima Makeba
The N-word is arguably the most debated word in American culture. Examined and scrutinized, the n-word is a constant hot button topic in terms of race, history and the experience of Black Americans in the United States. It's even had a funeral (that no one really showed up for or took seriously), to squash its usage. Discussions regarding the many psychological constructs and systemic actions is more popular than ever - but there's been no lack of use of the infamous N-word.
Let’s start with it's origin…
Most historical context credit Spanish or Portuguese for being the derivative of the word, coming from negra, descended from the Latin word niger which means black. So often the conversation of our history is lead with slavery of the body and slavery of the mind, but what about slavery of the language. It is commonly known that the word was born and bred as a tool for degradation. This is a tale as old as time in terms of the overall history of the Black American. Once upon a time this six letter beast was an often used as a whip. It was meant to insult, to degrade, to demean and to punish black men, women and children. It was a tool meant dismantle a person's sense of humanity.
Drop the -er and add an a, and now you have a word that’s used to describe Blackness.
Camaraderie. A word used as a link. The word has been kept alive because of regular use in multiple forms of pop culture (movies, music, art) and in parts of the African American community. It's not a blissful get out of jail free card for us to use, and even if it was - clearly it’s proved to be faulty, and not exactly bulletproof.
In many ways this word is the perfect depiction of our collective experience of oppression and our reaction to it: it was meant to batter, meant to be destroyed. But it resists destruction. It persists despite scrutiny. It's reclamation is controversial, and its value is debatable. But people still want to say it, even if it is ‘just for us’. Black people been putting the spin move on negativity since always, and as much as we have endured in this country and other parts of the word, our resilience is unmatched.
And with that comes the rationalization of the history and power of this word from both sides - as some people try to argue that the word doesn't have the negative connotations that it did at one time. Because CLEARLY we live in a post-racial society….right?
You don't have to look very hard or very long on the social pages of major news or media sites or in the comments of stories on police brutality or incidents of hate to find this sentence. It is usually fired off as the tip of the iceberg when extinguishing the tired ass, often employed "Everything is not about race." argument that is guaranteed to make an appearance, send you into a deep eye roll. If race is something that was conjured - what's the big deal? Why are we still talking about it? It doesn't even exist, right?
This must be said: I'm willing to bet that if we put it to a vote, not one Black person would want anything 'to be about race'. It's an exhausting experience to be defined by the color of your skin - over and over and over and over again. And it's a whole other story to have your experiences with injustice, questioned. Race is still being discussed at length, because it continues to affect our everyday lives. This we know.
It is experiences like this that remind us what Blackness can be. Which is sometimes difficult. Dangerous. Threatening. More often than not it can be a struggle in a world that wants to take everything valuable from us, and yet claim no accountability for our pain and our anger. Perhaps claiming the n-word is not an act self hatred and an act of transmutation but when a word with such a weighted, violent history is reclaimed by the very people it's meant to oppress - how much positivity can really come from the negativity?
Most words carry nuance, having traveled through time experiencing as many changes as history allows, but now who does it belong to?
Who should say it and who shouldn't is always at the forefront of this conversation. While Whites may use it - they don't exactly take ownership of its creation. Yet, when co-opted by black people who bar whites from using, it's deemed hypocritical. Language is an incredibly difficult thing to police and bar and the fact of the matter is - telling White people (or anyone for that matter), not to say it will only make them want to say it more.
Look up the word's current definition...
Even on paper, it still carries impact. It can still feed an unnerving anger. And put the word to use IRL in any form and suddenly it is a loaded gun. Loaded with anger, hatred and vitriol. It is a wound not yet healed and so, on the conversation goes.
This conversation is far from over. Maybe we will never agree. Maybe this word will never die. But frankly, neither will we.