Much Ado About the N-Word
An ode to my favorite slur.
An ode to my favorite slur.
After a flurry of jabs, feints, and ripostes last year—all signifying nothing—I had hoped the Nigger Wars had finally died down. In the words of The Abstract, it all goes in cycles and whenever the intellect of the black talking class is taxed, they inevitably point to some irrelevant cultural phenomenon as the source of the decay. Almost a century ago, it was the elites turning their nose up at jazz and the blues. Now it's hip-hop, and evidently it's most odious feature—the constant deployment of The Word That None Dare Speak.
Usually the complaining dies down as the talkers and the writers scramble for another scapegoat. Thus, I'd hoped we'd seen the last of buffoonish NAACP officials holding forth at mock funerals, of city councilmembers more concerned with unenforceable ordinances than failing schools, and self-appointed "black leaders" looking to show that Imus was held to no double-standard. But just like Imus, the Nigger Wars are back.
When I saw Nas at the Grammy Awards with his shirt emblazoned with the title of his next LP—Nigger—all I could do was hang my head.
You probably can guess where I stand on this. Admittedly, I'm a biased party—a writer with a vendetta against words, is an archer who resents arrows, or a quarterback who begrudges pass patterns. I would speak in defense of virtually any word's right to be used in the proper context. But when it comes to nigger—and niggers in general—my feelings run particularly strong. Of all my favorite words—among them the conjunction "but," the adjective "epic," the verb "swindle"—I believe "nigger" to be the most beautiful.
I came up in a time when there was a healthy stigma around white people saying nigger. Moreso, I came up like a lot of black people, de facto segregated. Thus even finding a white person to slander me would have been a chore. My point is that it's all about first impressions. The first time "nigger" flew my way, it didn't come from the mouth of a flummoxed racist, but from the full lips of someone who looked just like me. In writing this piece, I tried to remember when I'd first been called a nigger, but it was like trying to recall the first time I'd heard the word "lotion," "run," or "ship." Nigger has been with me for as long as I can remember.
What became clear to me, at some point, was that there was not a more potent and protean word in my vocabulary. The rappers who run around claiming they've cleansed nigger of its worst meanings and its racist past are either ignorant or lying.
And they're missing the point: I've watched black people spew nigger with more venom than any Bull Conner or David Duke could summon. I've watched it deployed with a lovely, democratic neutrality, an unaffected savoir faire. And I've watched it deployed with hot passion and unadulterated love. The beauty of nigger isn't that its meaning has changed, or that's it's been turned into a positive. Words are neutral; it's the author who imbues them with their specific mode or charm. And so it is in our hands that nigger has not simply changed, but has grown and expanded beyond the syphilitic mental faculties of its racist inventors.
This is the essence of who we are. When I consider nigger, I think of Doug E. Fresh pulling the funk of an old Inspector Gadget ditty. I think of the kids I used to watch in Chocolate City who could take a few buckets and turn them into a percussive orchestra. I think of my father, after work, dog-tired in the kitchen making cans of beans do things that they were not meant for. This is what we do.
As I said, this is about first impressions. How would I feel if my introduction came from a group of menacing troglodytes in the backwoods of some Confederate state? Writer or not, I don't think I'd ever be able to hear anything more than evil from the word. Thus to those who refuse to say nigger, and don't want it used in reference to them, I say, Respect Due. But it's another thing entirely to seek to restrict the vocabulary of a group who've come up completely differently.
There is something essentialist about it all, a spirit of "blacker-than-thou" from the word-police who claim that only they may decide how and when to use the allegedly abominable word.
Worse still, blinded by their legitimate pain and anguish, the moralists seek to rob the rest of us of one of the great markers of humanity—a healthy sense of irony. I saw no picket signs when Toby Keith declared himself—on his sixth album—White Trash With Money. I'm still looking for the white Al Sharpton, who'll deign to protest Jeff Foxworthy for his album, You Might Be A Redneck If…While we were hemming and hawing over potty-mouthed MCs, Steven Spielberg was backing a magazine called Heeb.
The corollary argument about why we get upset when a white person calls us nigger should also be dealt with. I'd love to see what would happen to an outsider who walks into a white southern bar slinging "white trash" and "redneck" jokes, claiming that Jeff Foxworthy or Toby Keith gave him permission. Who thinks that Tina Fey's bit celebrating Hillary Clinton's status as a bitch, grants license to sexists everywhere?
I was tempted to say that we should, for the moment, table our complaints about test scores, census data, and other disparities, for some conversation about why we can't laugh at ourselves. But just as I wrote it, I realized that those two things are in fact related. We all can agree that in decades since segregation ended, we wish we'd accomplished a little more. To see black folks laughing at themselves, in the midst of finishing dead-last in almost every socio-economic category, must legitimately strike a few as dead wrong.
But in the 60s, we chose, as Baldwin said, to integrate the burning house. We have chosen a country where people eat insects on television, where a whole film genre has sprung up around the ghastly torture of women, where fake writers appropriate whole lives in their pitch for stardom. Everything around us is profane. Measured against that reality, forgive me if I don't rage and fume, if I don't try to tie the entire future of a people to a word.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic.