The Strange Career of the N-Word

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

Screenshot of Riley Cooper (USA Today)
Screenshot of Riley Cooper (USA Today)

During the 1960s, Southern politicians gleefully deployed the term when speaking of civil rights activists or admonishing Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP. Black power militants attempted to redefine the word through art and activism. At times they distinguished between conscious “black” people and lost “niggers,” and at others they embraced the n-word as a part of black identity that could be transformed from a symbol of shame into a beacon of pride.

The term’s place within the black community has long been a source of fierce debate and passionate disagreements. The legendary comedian Richard Pryor made a living out of his use of the word before having an epiphany in Africa that made him banish the term from his vocabulary.

Hip-hop artists, both old school and new, build on this complex tradition in their indulgent use of the word, which has in turn been aped by millennials of all races. On this score, Kanye West gave a largely white concert audience several years ago “permission” to use the word, which appeared in a chorus to his hit song “Gold Digger.”

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.