Can We Ever Really Reclaim the “N” Word?

The Black Institute: Can We Ever Really Reclaim the \

The English called Black people Moore's and then Black-a-Moore, before settling on Negro, a word which in Spanish means black. The English brought Negro with them when they came to the Americas, and from Negro came the epithet “Nigger.” After the word was created it was used for over 5 centuries in the United States of America to denigrate, belittle and shame the very population of people on whose backs this country was forged. Yet somehow, in the last 50 years, this word which carries incalculable pain of ancestors past, has become a basic fixture in the Black vernacular. Some say the softening of the ending, nigga/ah versus nigger, changes the meaning of the word. This logic seems ludicrous given that the origin of the word is clear; a slight dialectical change in pronunciation does not change the word in its entirety. Another argument is the idea that we can somehow “reclaim” the word.

In theory, the idea of reclaiming the word may seem appealing. A world where that word no longer holds power over Black people, seems like something worth supporting. Is this possible given a word with such a long and complex history? Would it not be more effective to put efforts toward eradicating the word, rather than finding new uses for it?

It is impossible to talk about the current colloquial use of the “N” word without talking about hip hop. Hip-hop culture has been the strongest vehicle for normalizing the use of the “N” word to date. Rappers and hip hop artists use the word in their lyrics, interludes and interviews. Given the tendency of the masses to emulate those in the lime light, the trickle-down effect into our communities should be expected. Children now grow up hearing the word, and in turn, use it themselves. Perhaps in a world where children grow up using the word, the shock and the hurt is removed if someone uses it toward them as an insult. However, are our children losing some of our history when we make the use of such a 'formerly' hateful word commonplace?

The “N” word is still considered an expletive in the world of TV and radio, which is indicative of its power, considering the list of four letter words not allowed on TV and radio is continually shrinking. Radio and TV edits censor nigger right along with all the other words deemed most foul in the English language. When listening to radio edits of certain songs, that have been recorded with the absence of offensive language, versus the songs that are manually censored, sometimes so much so that whole chunks of the song go into radio silence, it makes you wonder, if it is possible to make a song without the “N” word, why keep it? What about the word enhances the track, more so than the word used in its place after it has been edited down?

How can we reclaim a word that can still cause us pain when it comes out of the wrong mouth? Along with reclaiming the word, wouldn't we have to announce a world-wide, universal cease fire concerning the word, so that all parties across race lines would know, this word was no longer to be used to injure? Until that time comes when the word nigger has been neutralized and can no longer be used to diminish, demean or otherwise torment Black people, reclaiming it seems simply impossible.

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commented 2013-12-29 14:16:19 -0500 · Flag
Thank you
commented 2013-06-21 23:28:36 -0400 · Flag
so, I have a half black niece, so can I say " what’s up my nigger?". Of course nobody remembers all the Indian relatives the english and Americans shot and took all the land and everything they had. Wheres my pay back or reciprocation for all that.
published this page in Black Ops 2011-08-13 18:46:30 -0400
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The Black Institute shapes intellectual discourse and impacts public policy from the perspective of Black people in America and people of color throughout the diaspora.