Kevin Cato
Nigger
: Language, History, and Modern Day Discourse

from the author:
Truthfully, the inability to censor people in current discourse started to concern me and motivated me to write this particular paper. Often you hear black people using the word carelessly (whether as a term of endearment or as an insult) without questioning where the word came from. It was important to me to present a more challenging ideology about why the use of the word is questionable. People don’t always make the connection to the past. People tend to disconnect the word from its history without really thinking about its origin. The fact that we’re even having this conversation is proof that you can’t disconnect it from the past.
from the teacher, Amy Robillard:
In my Spring 2002 WRT 205 course, which I titled “Connecting the Public and the Private: Research as Critical Inquiry,” I asked students to study a controversial disciplinary issue in their fields of study and to present that controversy to an audience of their peers: students in the class, many of whom did not share the same disciplinary background. Kevin Cato chose to study the arguments surrounding the use and so-called reclaiming of the word nigger in some African-American communities. Using Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word as his jumping-off point, Cato presents the controversy passionately and authoritatively, inserting himself into the conversation as a successful researcher and simultaneously keeping the lines of inquiry open.
from the editor:
I found Kevin’s paper extremely thought-provoking and particularly relevant to our generation. We have witnessed the origins and substantial growth of the hip hop culture and consequently, the word nigger has once again been pushed into the forefront of national consciousness. Kevin fleshes out the word, discussing and challenging its many subtexts. He acknowledges the alleged “evolution” of the word by the hip hop community, but proves that there is an inextricable link to a shared history that must be remembered and respected.

Nigger: it is arguably the most consequential social insult in American History, though, at the same time, a word that reminds us of ‘the ironies and dilemmas, tragedies and glories of the American experience’” (Kennedy 1).

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word is at the center of debate because of its controversy. It addresses questions among a diverse audience of students and scholars of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in its quest to discover how and why the word should or should not be used in modern day America.

As a black American male, the word nigger conjures up within me hate, hostility, violence, oppression, and a very shameful and unfortunate part of American History. The word symbolizes the everlasting chains of a people plagued with hate and bondage simply because of skin color. For many black people, including myself, nigger is the most pejorative word in the English language. Even when compared to racial slurs like kike, honkey, cracker, wet back, spic, jungle bunny, pod, tarbaby, and white trash, nigger is noted as the worst insult in the English language. The word nigger suggests that black people are second class citizens, ignorant and less than human.

While many blacks and whites agree that the word should not be censored from the English language, it certainly should not be used by all people because of its historical significance. For example, black militants believe whites should never use the word nigger. On the other hand, the word nigger has been “reclaimed” by black youths particularly in the hip-hop culture. These modern day teens claim that it is just a word and that people give words meaning rather than words giving people meaning. If this were true, the word nigger could be altered from time to time depending on who was using it and where. In other words, youth in the hip-hop culture are arguing that context determines the meaning of nigger.

Kennedy proclaims a similar argument for using the word nigger. He argues that everyone (including whites) can use nigger, as long as the context of its use is clear and appropriate.

However, the historical significance of the word nigger is deeply rooted in American History. For example, Kennedy’s book presents historical examples of nigger in its most pejorative context: “Michael Jordan was suspended from school for hitting a white girl who called him a nigger” and “Tiger Woods was tied up in kindergarten by his older schoolmates who called him nigger” (Kennedy 22). It is precisely because of this history that many African Americans are in favor of banning the word from the English language. Although the historical significance of the word nigger often triggers deep-rooted hostility in the African Americans, it has also progressively evolved into a term of endearment in the modern day African American culture. Consequently, a fine line exists between past and present definitions of the word nigger that opens up the possibility of misinterpretation and the potential of further damage.

Should Nigger be Used as a term of Endearment in the Black Community and Everywhere?
Randall Kennedy argues that the word nigger should be usable by all people as long as no one is being harmed. “There is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying nigger, just like there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken” (Kennedy 51). Here Kennedy argues that context can determine how nigger is used, and to treat the word otherwise would transform nigger into a kind of fetish. Fetish by definition means to treat something with unusual obsession or devotion. (Merriam-Webster 430). However, Randall Kennedy’s argument that all people can say nigger is easily contested because though the word is a fetish, it is a fetish for a reason. The word nigger creates an obsession for people because of its historical meaning. In other words, if the history of the word stigmatizes it, then how can common use of the word, even by those who perpetuated its historical meaning, generate a new meaning? Kennedy’s suggestion of people using the word only with good intentions shows his dismissal of the contextual past. Kennedy argues that context determines the meaning of nigger: “Nigger can mean many different things, depending upon, among other variables, intonation, the location of interaction, and the relationship between the speaker and those to whom he is speaking” (Kennedy 54). Kennedy and many other intellectuals argue that African Americans use the word themselves. The fact that nigger has been and continues to be used by African Americans themselves constitutes a logical fallacy on the part of African Americans. For African Americans to think that they can use the word harmlessly without question while others cannot is irrational. In fact, an author from the University of Iowa poses the following argument in an article entitled “The Sense and Sensibilities of Using the N Word”: “Only when African Americans stand up and demand that their own culture stops using the word in any context, will they have the moral authority to insist that the word not be used anywhere else, by anyone else” (Davis 3).

This perspective on the argument suggests that blacks are forgetting their history, not whites! One would ask then how could rap artists like Jay-Z and comedian Alex Thomas all agree that black people have taken ownership over the word, so that blacks are not forgetting history but rewriting a piece of it? Then, in conjunction with these young teens of the hip-hop culture, Kennedy argues that the black person is reclaiming the word and redefining it in order to strip nigger of its original meaning.

For instance, a show on Black Entertainment Television, a cable network aimed at a black audience, described the word nigger as a “term of endearment.” “In the African American community, the word nigga (not nigger) brings out feelings of pride” (Davis 1). Here the word evokes a sense of community and oneness among black people. Many teens I interviewed felt that the word had no power when used amongst friends, but when used among white people the word took on a completely different meaning. In fact, comedian Alex Thomas on BET stated, “I still better not hear no white boy say that to me. . . . I hear a white boy say that to me, it means ‘White boy, you gonna get your ass beat.’” This ideology is in a sense self-defeating. If only black people are using the word nigger and are doing so in order to accomplish a transference of power, the attempt is a futile one because the sting of the word has not yet been disabled. White people, for instance, still cannot say the word nigger without evoking some sort of hostile reaction. If blacks have successfully revolutionized or reclaimed the word, than everyone—black and white—would be free to use the word without questions of race, class, or context. And while this may indeed be the ultimate goal of redefining nigger, it is clearly not the case at present.

It is because of this that Kennedy suggests everyone should use it, in order to prevent people from being restrained from the usage of certain words, which would be a form of censorship. Yet historical significance seems to weigh heavily on the minds of many African Americans. For instance, music editor of VIBE magazine, Shani Saxon says “White people used that word as a derogatory term for black people. Therefore they should not use it, it is offensive and it brings up bitter memories. Out of respect for us they should not use it.”

Derogatory Context from a Historical Perspective and Why Nigger Should Not Be Used
“Q: What do you call a nigger on a bike?
A: A thief.”

Q: How do you stop a nigger from going into your backyard?
A: Hang him in the front yard” (Kennedy 7-8).

Here we see nigger used in its most pejorative context, to dehumanize black people. Black people were so oppressed by the word that it made and still makes some of us sick at the echo of the two syllables that heave it into the air. Nigger was infused with power, hate and ignorance. For instance, in his book Kennedy recaptures some horrific moments created by the use of the word. These stories are based on facts: “One man recounted the following painful memory: ‘I stopped in Arkansas to get some gas and a sandwich.’ But when he asked the clerk for it, the clerk replied, ‘We don’t serve Niggers here’” (Kennedy 66). Here we see the historical root of the word reflected strongly. Another example can be seen in the retold story of the famous baseball player Hank Aaron. When Hank Aaron threatened to break white baseball player Babe Ruth’s home run record, letters began pouring in to Hank Aaron’s home, For instance, one person wrote: “Dear Nigger: I hope you don’t beat Babe Ruth’s record. How will I tell my kids a nigger did it?” Or “’Dear Nigger: You black animal. I hope you never live long enough to hit more runs than die great Babe Ruth’” (Kennedy 24-25).

Here white people used the word as a tool of oppression to label black people as less than human, as animals. Not only so but the word nigger usually generated stereotypes, The word suggests that black people are all thieves, lazy, worthless, and all second class citizens. In fact, Fredrick Douglas encountered the word when first learning to read; he was told, “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” (Kennedy 13). Malcolm X was told as a youngster that he needed to be “realistic about being a nigger” in terms of his career goals (Kennedy) 8). So it is not a mystery that the word nigger has serious, implications in black history as a method of categorizing, stereotyping, insulting, and oppressing black people.

As a result, many people (including myself) argue that this word cannot be used by whites. It does not matter what the context is unless it is being used in the context of an apology for its use; that’s it! The history behind the word nigger and its use by white people is so deeply rooted in American history that I do not see how having everyone using the word can possibly disable it. In fact, many white people agree with me on this. For instance, in an interview dated April 10, 2002, Sociology Professor Lauren Eastwood of Syracuse University stated that “It would be naive to think that everyone’s use of the word could disable it, because that would suggests that history has little effect on everyday life and language.” I agree with Eastwood. Use of the word nigger by everyone, (including white people) suggests that the history of the word has little significance. Or that as time progresses the original use of the word can and should be forgotten. But how could the oppressive use of nigger be forgotten if African Americans are still not guaranteed some of the same privileges that the word nigger denied hundred of years ago?

The word is still a weapon of oppression today. For instance, an author of an article in USA Today says that the word was aimed at him in a derogatory way in response to a previous article that he had written. He said, “The same tired argument has been made by other niggers...” (Wickham). After using the word the man attempted to quickly make a distinction between black people and niggers in order to justify his statements by saying, “I’m not some racist that thinks all blacks are niggers. You’re black by birth, but you are a nigger by choice,” (Wickham). This article was written in February of 2002, and the context in which the word is being used clearly indicates a lack of respect by the user for the history of discrimination against blacks in America. At the same time, this proves that the word is still being used pejoratively. It also shows that the use of this word by blacks within their own community could never totally deflate it from its original intent and meaning. Here the person who uses the word pretends to be using attitude, which in turn brings Randall Kennedy’s idea of context into question. Can the word be used in a context that makes it allowable for all people? Clearly, the answer is no. The answer is no because the use of nigger across all races leaves blacks susceptible to its derogatory use and opens the prospect of their being deceived by someone who will quickly deny that this was his/her original intent. Then how will one ever know if the word is really being used racially or endearingly? Nonetheless, Kennedy refutes this by suggesting that censorship for one group of people over another is wrong, especially when the other group (African Americans) is free to use the word.

Internalized Oppression or Self-Abnegation?
Equally important is the notion that some black people also use the word not as a “term of endearment”, but as an insult as well. In fact, Kennedy argues that the first time he heard the word was among his own black family. His family used the term to show disdain or disapproval for other black people. For instance, the word nigger in his black family was associated with adjectives like: lazy, dishonest, untrustworthy, and/or stupid. Black people with opposite qualities were not referred to as nigger, but were just called black (Kennedy 45).

The negative usage of nigger can also be seen through black comedians like Chris Rock. In one of his stand up shows, Rock says that “there are black people and there’s niggers” (Kennedy 41). If you listen to one of Chris Rock’s shows entitled “Black People vs. Niggers,” he associates the word nigger with certain types of black people with everything negative. For instance he states “I love black people but I hate niggers. I wish they would let me join the Ku Klux Klan.” and “The worst thing about niggers, niggers love to not know, niggers love to keep it real, real dumb...niggers don’t read” (Wickham). Here Rock, a black male associates nigger with everything negative like dishonesty, distrust, laziness, and ignorance. Interestingly enough, Chris Rock makes the clear distinction that it’s not all blacks, it’s just the niggers!

It can be argued that blacks are not necessarily using the word as a term of endearment but instead blacks are internalizing the oppression that they experience or that we experience in this country. This can be argued because while blacks are using the word, it is still upholding its usual harmful negative connotation. Kennedy argues that this usage does not portray blacks as internalizing oppression; instead blacks are throwing the oppression back at the oppressor. It is almost like saying, “You have tried to objectify us with this word, but your word means nothing because I can use it too!” Now, my only problem with this is that we have already been objectified as a people with this word. This argument would be more plausible if Kennedy had suggested that the word had recently evolved in daily language and discourse, and therefore was no longer growing in power. However, this is not the case. The fact of the matter is that the word has held power for over four hundred years and still holds power as demonstrated in the mere fact that Rock still associates the word with its original calumnious meaning. To suggest that we could take its power away by using it now, does not make sense simply because slavery has already occurred, black people are still underprivileged in America and the past cannot be erased. Therefore, when African Americans try to rid the word of its power by using it negatively, they are only proving that the word still has power.

This ideology can be better understood by reviewing nigger in this context. For instance, the movie Glory produced by Edward Zwick perfectly illustrates the negative use of the term in a context where black people are using it against each other. Within the film, Denzel Washington plays a supporting actor/soldier with a bad attitude toward other blacks that aspire to be white otherwise known as an “Uncle Tom.” As Washington fends off Freeman, he tells him to “get your hands off me, nigger. “You ain’t nothing but the white man’s dog.” Freeman responds by slapping him and saying: “You watch who you calling nigger. If any niggers round here, is you. Smart mouth, stupid ass, swamp running nigger. And if you ain’t careful that’s all you gonna be” (Glory). Obviously, there is a deep internal struggle going on here because Washington seeks to tear down other blacks by reassuring them that all they will ever be is a nigger. Yet the same sting resides in the word when he is called one.

Here, it can be argued that the usage signifies that black people have subconsciously internalized the oppression heaved on them through its original meaning and intent, because nigger is being utilized in the same way a racist, white person would use it. Hence, nigger in this sense puts the person being called the word into a subordinate position. So then the question can be asked while black comedian Chris Rock tries to remove some of the pang from nigger through comedy or maybe even to distinguish himself from the word, can this be the true significance behind the use of the word within the black community? Or is this clearly a form of internalized oppression?

But Words Do Change, Don’t They?
Certainly words change, but history doesn’t. In modern society, I found in my research that nigger is an accepted term. Many rap artists like Jay-Z, R-Kelly, Snoop Dog and a host of others use the word in their music to entertain their audiences. However, does their use of the word imply that it no longer has the power it did years ago? Take for instance, Jay-Z’s song “Jigga my Nigga” or Eve’s song “What yall Nigga ‘s want?” These songs may seem harmless because they use the word in a context of camaraderie and friendship. However, it can be easily argued that while context can change words, context cannot change history. Kennedy argues that the word nigger should not be banned from literature and speech. While this is true, the history of the word nigger cannot be overlooked. The word nigger is so stigmatized that to redefine it to me would suggest that slavery and oppression never happened. But the fact is, it did. Look for instance at a description given by a web site entitled Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. “The word Nigger carries with it much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked African Americans. It was a term of exclusion, verbal justification for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it reinforced the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless parasite” (Pilgrim).

The fact of the matter is that current uses of the word nigger cannot erase, transform, eradicate, or successfully redefine its authentic, ghastly definition. In fact, if the continued use of nigger could eradicate it of its original meaning then I am sure by now it would be okay for a white person to call me a nigger but a white person cannot do that because of the history of nigger. It is imperative that we come to an understanding that utilizing the word in several different contexts does not change or take the sting out of its true and original meaning, because though words change, history will never change. At the same time, this new use of the word does give nigger an additional meaning, Possibly the idea that language is interchangeable can refute the argument that history outweighs the modern day use of the word.

Although there are many lengthy perspectives surrounding the debate of its usage, there is no right or wrong answer for using nigger. While there are many arguments as have been demonstrated in favor of and opposed to the use of the word, I think it will take much more time to really grasp the transformation that is taking place among African Americans as well as among other racial groups. If anything can be taken from the argument I have dissected and delineated, it is that everyone has a stand to take on nigger, either for or against it, simply because the word is. The word is N-I-G-G-E-R!


Works Cited

Davis, Vernon. “The Sense and Sensibilities of Using the “N Word.” Journal of National

Association of Black Journalist. (1999). Fall 1999.

<http://www.uiowa.edu/~nabji/textln-word.htm>.

Eastwood, Lauren. Personal Interview. 10 April. 2002.

Glory. .Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Man Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary

Elwes, Andre Brausher. Tri Star, I989.

Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Pantheon

Books, 2002.

Naylor, Gloria. “Mommy What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” New York Times. 20 Feb. 1986.

Pilgrim, David. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memoribilia. Fall 2002.

<http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow>.

Saxon, Shani. VIBE Magazine. Fall 2002. <http://BET.COM>.

Thomas, Alex. Fall 2002. <http://BET.COM>.

White, Jackie. “Dealing with the N-Word.” Time Magazine. 2I Jan. 2002.

Wickham, Dewayne. “Book Fails to Strip Meaning of ‘N’ Word.” USA Today. 2 Feb.

2002.

 
Kevin Cato  
Kevin Cato hails from Brooklyn, New York and is a junior philosophy and sociology major. He is currently president of Chi Alpha, the Christian Fellowship, and was also recently inducted into Alpha Kappa Deta, an honor society for sociology majors. After graduation, Kevin plans to continue his education and attend law school. He hopes to someday work with Family Court as an advocate for violence against woman and children. His dedication to combating domestic abuse has led him to volunteer at the Vera House, which he affectionately describes as the “highlight” of his week.