By Jamaal Johnson
May 10, 2007 - 3:41 PM
When dialogue begins to flow like a windless Blackalicious verse with colleagues and friends-- political correctness is thrown out the flippin’ window. Most of the things you share with these “lucky” ones are off the record, and should not be aired to the public because they are deemed unsympathetic, or distasteful for the populace to hear. But this is not true for the most overused word today: NIGGA!
“Oh no he said that… word.”
Negro please! Yeah, I said it and most of you can stop acting like you haven’t uttered the dreadful N word. I’m only being real when I say that everyone and their dog says nigga—and it’s perhaps the most sensitive five letter word in history (or six, if you prefer nigger over the slightly watered down version).
You can find your Lindsay Lohan stunt double, Uncle Jesus and that nigga from around the way (oops) spitting out the term every other word like it’s programmed in their mind by a science fiction brain chip.
Being the fly black male that I am (toot! toot!) it’s sometimes hard to stomach ‘others’ using the word. And when I speak about ‘others,’ I’m talking about anyone that is not black, though any type of Oreo mix gets a pass. But should I be angry? I mean, nigga is heard all over the airwaves from hip hop music and it’s become normal. So is it the ‘others’ fault? Blacks across the globe have this aura about them, which in most cases the ‘others’ just want to be like them. Here are some examples: rock and roll, jazz, hip hop, fashion, our walk and vernacular prowess. A long story short, the system was able to commodify black life with and without the participation of black folk.
The situation of “nigga this nigga that” is an ongoing conflict that fails to cease. And to try and tell people not to say it is like telling them to change the way they tie their shoes.
To be as politically correct as possible, the “N word”--oh forget it, nigger--comes from the slave trade. It is derived from the term neger, which stems from negro. In Spanish it means black and was used to describe people of African descent, according to Randall Kennedy’s article, “Who Can Say ‘Nigger?’ And Other Considerations,” in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Over time, slave owners and people who participated in demeaning the character of blacks exclusively used nigger.
Centuries later, “nigger” eventually transcended to a form of kinship or a greeting among other blacks by dropping the “e-r” and adding an “a” or “ah.” It has been tweaked by the very people who were controlled by it to gain ownership and to undo some of the pain that is intertwined with the word, according to scholarly reports and articles.
Dr. Ernest Brown, a lecturer in the Africana Studies department at San Francisco State University says, "I don’t use the word because of the fact that many people have died to take the word out of the language without success." With his dark-tinted Stevie Wonder shades and consternation etched on his face, his booming voice resonates off the walls in the small office like a woodpecker thumping a hollow tree stump.
"It’s always been around in the African American community and they seem to want to make it commonplace. It’s a demeaning and degrading word usually directed towards African Americans."
In the world of perfectly manicured lawns and two-parent households,19-year-old suburbanite of Pinole, CA, a small suburb of the east bay, Neil Castellan, aka Curly Fries, learned the word at an early age. The urban swagger and street vernacular from the curly haired white boy seemingly exemplifies his existence with urban culture.
“It came out of my mouth a few times and nobody really reacted, so I thought it was alright to say it,” he says.
“It’s a habit. I say it without even knowing it now,” Castellan says. “When I’m in Richmond, or around parents, I really pay attention to what’s coming out my mouth though,” explains Curly Fries while leaning in his chair nonchalantly as though he has been interrogated on the nigga topic before. “It was just a way of life, hearing it all the time at Pinole Middle School.”
Keith Fukamae, a 21-year old small-framed Asian American, who shares the same neighborhood with Castellan in Rodeo, CA, vaguely remembers the first time he used nigga, in the 8th or 9th grade. “People I hung around were saying it, so I kind of just start saying it.”
The existence of black life is unseemingly, the shi-zz-nick of popular culture. Black people are the sore of America. Always ignored, but always seem to pop up unexpectedly, whether good or bad. Comedian Paul Mooney said it best: “Nobody wants to be a nigga but everyone wants to be a nigga.” Don’t say, “Nigga” if you don’t want to experience or hear what a so called “nigga” goes through. Blacks’ should speak up, if they disapprove of ‘others’ using the word or the “n” word in general.
On the predominantly all-black campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, much attention has swirled around the word nigga because faculty and students live with the word on an everyday basis.
"It’s the debate," says 41-year old Dr. Myra Shird, Associate Professor and Director of Speech at NCAT. She speaks about the issue often, and educating others of her opinion has been a step in answering an increasingly controversial issue. Shird and others have held a panel about nigga at the NCAT campus each semester for some time now. “People are engaged with the topic. Every time I have done it, it has been a standing room only.”
Shird explicitly unpacks nigga like a bunch of sweaty Sear's movers during a phone interview. The explanations tumble from her in a continuous flow as she addresses each question with efficiency and passion.
"There are (Klu Klux) Klan groups that don’t use the word anymore because it has become commonplace, if you will, in the market place," said Shird. "Yankee Doodle, if we look at the history of that, has the same slander and history as nigga. So we see that the evolution of language has taken place in our society before, but we just take a lot of note on nigga."
The word Yankee has also evolved from a Colonial description negatively describing Northerners in the 1800's, while now it takes on a friendlier, joking tone, but this will never happen for a word, such as nigga because of the denigration of black people in the United States because how it was used to oppress black life.
The eye and attention is on nigga because everybody is using it and I mean everybody, so the question is: can a word like nigga ever be acceptable language for anybody to use? Just ask Kramer, where is he now? Probably somewhere being a nigga…
Hip Hop’s 20-year plus history has sculpted the way some think and approach the word nigga, but before hip hop in the mid 1900’s, blacks were using nigga to describe a certain black person, doing wrong or being ignorant.
"The experience of the word is different, it’s not connected with pain… it’s connected with money," adds Shird passionately.
And over time nigga has been adopted by not only blacks as a form of camaraderie, but by Latinos, Asians, and Caucasians. Many young adults that are not black explained they start using nigga after some sort of learned or repetitive usage among their peers or listening to music, according to a number of interviewees.
Take Castellan for example.
“I haven’t really thought on why I use it, it was something that I caught on to by living and going to school in Richmond and listening to Tupac,” Castellan says.
Whether or not hip hop culture does influence how the word is used, it’s still evident that nigga or nigger still sparks anger and controversy for blacks and makes others uncomfortable.
Ironically, some black people that use the word don’t want others to use it towards them or at all, because they feel it’s degrading and perpetuating racist relationships.
The sunlight shines through the upstairs window of the SF State student center on the fair-skinned Jeannie Nahashon, a freshman at the university. She is of African and European descent and confesses that she too uses nigga.
"When I say nigga I'm referring to a black male or female, it excludes all other races and just focuses on people of African decent," explained the 18-year old Nahashon. "To be completely honest, people make it seem socially acceptable to use the word, its like substituting the word for male or female."
Aware and knowledgeable about the root of the word, Nahashon expressed that the spelling shouldn't change the meaning of nigga, but, "I see it as empowering because it shows that we overcame our past."
Shird responds to the idea with vigilance in her tone.
"They are hypocrites," Shird says. "Now the shoe is on the other foot with this particular language thing and for black folk to say 'oh we can use the word, but white people can't,’ or ‘ohhh, I heard them say it’ No! You can’t do that. Either nigga is okay or nigga is not okay."
Is there a solution or remedy for the loosely used epithet of nigger or does our future graciously bestow everyone as a nigga?
“If we want this to stop, we are the first people to stop it because I guarantee you that you know more black people that call each other nigga than you know white folks that would walk up to you on the street and say, "Yo, what’s up my nigga?' she says. “We are the catalyst of change."
The word nigga doesn’t seem to be dwindling from the vocabulary of many, but at least some are gaining the awareness that in some way or another it’s negative. Just take Mr. “Curly Fries” for instance.
“I’m actually trying to stop using that word because of what happened to my cousin at In-N-Out. She said that word and some lady just went off on her,” Castellan says. “It’s just not worth it.”
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Jamaal Johnson is a regular contributor to OH DANG!