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The Problem With My Nigga

Will this word ever go away?

By Ricardo A. Hazell February 23, 2014, 03:08 AM EST

Nigger

It would seem that the "N" word is more in the news than ever, both in society and in professional sports as well. The fuse has been lit and the roof blown off the canvas of brotherhood that once shrouded the locker room of the NFL, exposing it to the harshness of the real world. A real world that is awash in issues surrounding race. A society that has been feverishly trying to shake up the practice of bullying in the work place. A world where phrases like "legal precedence" and "failed leadership" are moved around like a two-ton boulder, very carefully and only after extended mental deliberation. A place where the N word is normal and a part of everyday life, whether we like it or not.

As the NFL cleans out its cabinets, it would appear that African American men should be having an airing out session of their very own. As is often the case when elements that were once held sacred within the confines of the American experiment lay bare, underlying elements integral to the experience of the descendants of African slaves in America are also brought to the surface. The blinding light cast by media scrutiny upon the often misinterpreted and usurped styling of African Americans, and the derogatory word used as a reference, have been a thing of pop culture's whimsical windfall. It's a reminder of the days when paintings often depicted playful pickaninny and sambo babies dancing happily in the Antebellum south with their hands wet and sticky from watermelon. 

As was the case in days of the past, modern ideas highlighting the ongoing dialectic of what it means to be black in American, and the eroding of said dialectic to the point where there is even confusion among blacks as to what is and is not acceptable for a dignified black man to allow in his presence, is front and center once again.

The very idea of African American athletes simply allowing a white American to use the dreaded "N" word with impunity is as sickening a scene to me as those pictures of the happy slave from olden times. How many hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of African slaves and their descendants heard this wretched moniker screamed into their ears drums before being strung up by the hangman’s noose or burned alive?  Now we ignorantly give this privilege to the inheritors of the slave master’s legacy as some badge of honor? Madness.

African American use to know, either directly or indirectly, that the "N" word should be off limits to all, but especially, white people. In his book The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (2007), journalist Jabari Asim writes that the word dates back to at least 1619, when John Rolfe, an early British colonist of what would eventually become the U.S., wrote a diary entry in which he discussed the arrival of African slaves to the New World. Rolfe wrote that "twenty negars" had recently come to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, located in present-day Virginia. 

Worldwide, the sounds and scenes of American pop culture have been filled to the brim with references of this word. In films, music, and increasingly television. It is,  to a great extent, the fault of African Americans. While riding the New York City subway to work it is not uncommon to hear a group of children of African American, Puerto Rican and Dominican descents use the word in earnest as a street tough punctuation of their sentences.  "My n*gga. Yeah n*gga. That n*gga" is all I can decipher. Perhaps it’s the only word that I cannot train my mind to accept as normal. It stands out. I find myself getting angry. But not at these kids. 

Perhaps I should run around the subway chastising its usage? You know how far I'd get? So many use it that being a man, I would likely be jumped, and beaten senseless in less than a day. Perhaps even arrested for harassment.

So who’s to blame? Those kids were taught that the word is okay to use. The instruction most likely came from an African American, either directly or via mostly music, TV, and film.

Rappers, comedians and movie stars of African descent continually spread the word like a pollen of indifference to the black struggle.

And as much as some of us trip and stumble over ourselves to try to put it back in, black America will continually have to deal with our half-assed acceptance of its usage for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come.

This loss points at penalties given from our inability to guard against the constant self-degradation of our own image by using words uttered by slave masters to demean us.

We didn’t co-sign the N word then. Why now?

 

Though it had long been a naughty, ribald thing uttered in night clubs and on street corners, many of my friends, born of Generation X, were taught as children that there should be no exceptions to this rule, no matter what.

Born in the 70s, my generation is the very first one that came of age during the era of rap music and, as many reading this know, the N-word was not used in rap music early on.  It wasn’t until the late 80s that rappers felt safe to use it with impunity in their music. But the Blaxploitation films of the 70s were filled with it. “N***a this” and “N***a that” was uttered repeatedly in such films as The Mack, Superfly, and just about every film Rudy Ray Moore aka Dolomite has ever appeared in. In those films, it was used as a curse word.

The late comedian Richard Pryor used it to comic effect throughout much of his storied career. Years later, clean, gaining sense and citing its history, Pryor eventually stopped using the term and began urging others to do so as well. It was once the highest insult that one black man could give to another.

Now the thing that was once uttered as one-part joke and one-part backhanded insult among us is plastered all over American pop culture. And now, the rules have to be readdressed with the advent of the "honorary black man."

"Honorary black man" is often given to a white person who we’ve become comfortable around, because he is always around. And maybe he engaged in behavior that is viewed as low brow by the conservative mainstream, but acceptable to brothas. Former President Bill Clinton was given the label not only for his ability to play the saxophone,but for admitting he smoked marijuana, and for receiving fellatio in the White House.

There was a joke by comedian Dave Chappelle regarding the lone white guy who hangs with a group of black men. "Watch that guy," he said. "He probably had to do some crazy sh*t to earn those black guys' respect." 

One can only imagine the type of behavior that Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito exhibited to receive his "honorary" status. But a glance at his portfolio reveals the man has documented problems with authority, problems keeping his mouth shut, and the typical behavior of demeaning and objectifying women.

In November 2013, Incognito was suspended for allegedly calling teammate Jonathan Martin the N-word as part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate and humiliate him.

Incognito was a loud, obnoxious brute.  Are these the things that buy inclusion into the black race? Some Miami Dolphins players balk at the idea that they gave Richie a pass to use the "N" word, but that is exactly what was done when he was named "honorary” by his teammates. Although none would come out and say exactly who gave him the name. 

What absolutely befuddles me is how African Americans blame one another for its usage in the modern times as if our using it occurred in a vacuum, like the word just dropped out of the sky in 1970. People of African descent in America have a slow healing wound for this word. The sound of the word stings like the crack of a whip on the back. It’s sudden. Causes a slight jump.

In Oklahoma, during my grandfather’s childhood in the 1920s, the N word was used in advertisements, legal documents, and the media of the day.

 

Our continued usage and acceptance of the N-word is but one manifestation of that mindset. Many would argue that skin-bleaching and hair-straightening are other examples manifest in subconscious action. Internalized racism is the sociological term. But institutionalized racism from our nation’s past was the initial catalyst.

But many will still giggle, snicker, and dance to its very mentioning. We fling it around half-heartedly and in deathly anger at one another. We use it as a term of love, but it really is not. It's actually a back handed self-insult where the joke is on ourselves whenever it's used. 

Last year, I walked into a bodega run by a group of Yemeni brothers on Clay and 170th in the Bronx. I’m familiar with them and had even come to enjoy a brief conversation or two while purchasing a lose cigarette or fried chicken wings. He happily yelled, “Hey, my nigga!”

I had just come from playing basketball and it may have been a particularly bad day as far as winning was concerned, but I was on edge. And the idea of this man feeling so comfortable to call me “nigga” set me off. I turned to him and immediately said, “I’m not your nigga and don’t you ever in your black ass life call me that again!” Stunned and confused, he simply said, “Yes sir. I’m sorry.”

Leaving the store, a few of the dudes I sometimes played basketball with walked in the door. “Yo, what’s good?” My friend said giving me a pound. I smiled, “My nigga!”

The store clerk was more confused than ever, but it is clear that I was the most confused of all.  That was last year. Since then, I have tried to purge myself from using the term but I admittedly still struggle with it. Perhaps I’m too old, too stubborn and too set in my ways to ever fully be free of the N word. Perhaps in this instance being aware of a psychosis isn’t enough to be rid of it. All I can do now is write about it, be angry at its origins and modern-day use. Damn, even my use. So I’ll keep the hope that others will grow to be more disciplined than I. I’ll wish that perhaps one day, in the distant future, we’ll all be done with it, as a race and as a country.

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Ricardo A. Hazell is a veteran journalist with over 16 years’ experience honing his craft.  His works have been featured in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Root, Black Beat magazine, EURweb.com, Bleacher Report, Allhiphop.com, Hiphopdx.com, Black Collegian magazine and scores of other reputable print and digital publications. He excels at long form writing. Versatility and community insight are his specialties. Mr. Hazell currently covers Entertainment, Current Events, and Sports for The Shadow League. You can follow him on Twitter @NikosMightyDad

 

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