The Strange Career of the N-Word

Whether whites or blacks say it, there's simply no escaping the word's tragic origins.

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Rap music's proliferating use of "nigga" over the past quarter of a century has popularized the word globally. Yet its pernicious roots in a regime of racial slavery and white supremacy remain inescapable. Despite Tupac Shakur's creative acronym "N.I.G.G.A." ("never ignorant getting goals accomplished"), there's simply no escaping the word's tragic origins.

Veterans of the civil rights era cringe whenever they hear young black (and, increasingly, nonblack) people casually tossing the term around like a bon mot they picked up on the playground. Generations of blacks and whites struggled, fought and died in order to transform a society that marked certain human beings as "niggers" because of their skin color.

America, unfortunately, still characterizes millions of citizens as "niggers." They are the victims of the "New Jim Crow," poor, unemployed and often incarcerated. Efforts to create distinctions between the words "nigger" and "nigga" ignore the larger historical context that produced the n-word and the endless debates, controversies and discussions surrounding it. There's no redeeming a word born out of America's bitter legacy of slavery, violence and dehumanization.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.

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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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