U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The “N-word”: Finding Clarity in a Redundant Debate

Guest Post by Professor Tyler D. Parry and Clayton Finn. Part One of this post was posted on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog. Thanks to Christopher Cameron and the good people at AAIHS for running part one.

Americans are often guilty in assuming that N-word usage only applies to populations in the United States. Reconsidering the Buzzfeed video’s inquiry, a better question might entail: “How should the black community respond to the N-word’s global dissemination through hip-hop?” For instance, should we be concerned when a white, French hip-hop fan quotes “Niggas in Paris” indiscriminately? Does one immediately condemn a non-American for employing what is, for them, a term associated with American rap music? Perhaps, hip-hop, alongside the globalization of media, is better attributed for explaining the term’s international dispersion and adoption. It’s easy to find British, South American, or even African hip-hop artists implementing the term into their music. Uprooted from their geographical and cultural birthplace in the Americas, current discussions of the term are often limited in scope or polarized by contested opinions.

For example, some UK rappers who use the term claim little to no understanding of its historical implications and have simply adopted its loose usage from American hip-hop. On the other hand, some artists, such as UK conscious rapper Akala, reject the term altogether. In his early years, Akala utilized the term in his music, but when he was later educated on its oppressive history, he ceased to use it altogether. He claims that regardless of attempts at redefining it as an intraracial term of endearment, the word will always hold its true definition in slavery and racist oppression. Like Akala, UK rap artist Swiss has encouraged his listeners to become educated about the N-word’s history, evident in his song “Nigger?” that discusses historical and current usage of the term, both interracially and intraracially. The song portrays the term in a negative light and implies its use should generally cease.

Rappers are not the only ones outside of the US weighing in on the term’s transnational dissemination. Piers Morgan has famously condemned it on multiple occasions while others, such as David Oyelowo, have openly criticized its intraracial use. In 2013, UK poet Dean Atta released a collection of poems titled I Am Nobody’s Nigger. The title poem includes lines such as “I am nobody’s nigger now / so you can tell Kanye and Jigga / I am not a nigger in Paris / I’m not a nigger in London.” Atta is participating in this cosmopolitan conversation on the term’s intraracial usage, referencing the global audiences of American rap artists and issues of the term’s widespread dissemination and evolving global connotations.

Though anti-black oppression is a global phenomenon, many non-American black cultures lack the long history of linguistic reappropriation necessary to properly comprehend the N-word’s social, racial, and historic implications. With hip-hop’s global popularity, we are beginning to see the effects of the N-word’s transplantation on global racial dynamics and black popular cultures. Such changes are complicating the discourse on the N-word and making the issue so multifaceted that most basic opinion pieces are inadequate in addressing the state of the term through a global perspective.

Both Akala and Swiss assert the reimagined term could be simply replaced with “brother,” but this suggestion misconstrues African American efforts at redefining it. African Americans who use the N-word remain cognizant of the term’s racial power, harkening back to a shared history and culture that has endured centuries of oppression. In deploying the term African Americans recall this history and redefine their position in a country that was, until very recently, loath to recognize their contributions. Simply put, neither “brother” nor any word throughout the Anglophonic world holds the same power.

When one considers these historical complexities, there is a certain irony for those who condemn Larry Wilmore’s concluding statement to Barack Obama, since they are unlikely to denounce Martin Luther King for using a similar form of verbal bonding. British journalist Piers Morgan embodies this approach. Morgan first engaged this debate in November 2014, writing an opinion piece in the Daily Mail that argued black people must “kill the N-word” themselves if they want to see it die. He argued the term was too vile to ever reclaim, arguing it “symbolises everything multi-cultural America has fought so hard to move on from.” Though he obtained support for his position, “Black Twitter” condemned Morgan’s insinuations, arguing that his piece rehashed the same accusations that blamed African Americans for America’s social ills while simultaneously ignoring systemic issues that many feel are more important than debating the use of a racial epithet. Interestingly enough, Morgan responded to his critics by tweeting, “I don’t recall Martin Luther King ever using the N-word.” Of course, King’s use of the word is not broadly known, but Morgan was attempting to suggest that King, a respectable Civil Rights activist, would never degrade himself with such language. But he did use the word, and such revelations should cause pundits and journalists to reconsider how they frame the discussion.

Historical fallacies aside, Morgan continues to defend his position and recently criticized Wilmore’s use of the term in an opinion piece titled “Genocide of the Brain,” posing arguments similar to his earlier condemnations. Wilmore responded, asserting that Piers Morgan misrepresented his word choice by claiming he called Obama his “nigger,” when he actually used the alternate form “nigga.” Morgan countered with a rather ironic statement, especially given his earlier evocation of Martin Luther King: “I don’t need a history lesson to tell me that the N-word…is wrong,” and posted a video of Richard Pryor’s mea culpa regarding his changed views on the N-word. But even if one agrees it is wrong, Morgan’s appeal to history reveals the limitations of his research.

Wilmore’s claim delves into the common, and now rather redundant, “er” vs. “a” debate. It stems from many young people in the so-called “hip hop generation” who believe they have uniquely remolded the hate-filled “nigger” into the comradely “nigga” through rap music. However, Jabari Asim correctly argues that historically the two terms are no different, as white masters, employing a southern dialect, often replaced an “a” with the “er” in many words they spoke. When white masters verbally assaulted their slaves with this racial epithet they likely called them “niggas” or “niggers” interchangeably. Black Americans understood that either term held the same denunciatory connotation. WPA interviewers noticed this unique phonetic manifestation in black southern speech, as their respondents verbalized “nigger,” “nigga,” or “niggah” depending upon their accent.

Of course, words and their meanings evolve. One can defensibly argue that the reimagined “nigga” is different than its hard “r” counterpart and that the term’s linguistic usage, connotation, and overall meaning have evolved, as John McWhorter claims, but many of these debates, as they are currently structured, remain insufficiently grounded in history. Further research needs to be conducted, or else future debates will suffer from the same philosophical redundancy of the past.

But nuanced approaches are gaining voice. Brittany King’s article, “The Weight of the N-Word,” recently posted on Ebony, recognizes the potential for the word’s positive intraracial use. King rightly encourages specificity and historical awareness when using it and claims that it should be deeply connected to racial justice, “You can’t use the n-word and then say black lives don’t matter.” Such a statement echoes the deeper sentiment behind intraracial usage: that it should recall a shared history and imply an ongoing fight for freedom. Compared to Ebony’s 2007 article “Enough: Why Blacks–and Whites–should never use THE ‘N-WORD’ again,” which called for a complete moratorium on the word, King’s piece shows a deeper understanding and affirms the term’s intraracial history. The question lies in whether or not black America’s intraracial usage, at the exclusion of other racial groups, is sustainable in the future. No answer completely satisfies everyone, but Ta-Nehisi Coates shows how this position is intellectually defensible:

“‘Nigger’ is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. ‘Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear.”

Instead of arguing about the term’s suitability, debating its interracial deployment, or condemning it altogether, we must examine both of its American histories, the interracial and the intraracial, and consider the term’s global future. As one of the most powerful, historically weighted terms in the Anglophonic world, it deserves to be understood from all sides. If people recognized that black history is not just confined to hip-hop, slavery, and Civil Rights, perhaps we could engage in productive conversations about power, language, reclamation, and redemption. The N-word provides fruitful ground for this kind of inquiry.

Parry Faculty Profile PhotoTyler Parry is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Parry’s research examines slavery in the Atlantic world. His work has appeared in the Journal of Southern History, American Studies, and Jacobin.com. He is currently revising his manuscript Bound in Bondage: Slave Matrimony in the African Diaspora for publication. Parry previously wrote a review of The Half Has Never Been Told for S-USIH. Clayton Finn is a aaa_8377graduate student of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. His research examines the criminalization and policing of blackness as well as transnational racial language. Finn was recognized as the 2016 Outstanding Graduating Senior in African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.