Why I Hate the Word “Nigger”

THE N-WORD_Where Excuses Go to DieI hate the word “nigger” because of what it reveals about its user.

Blue, Black, White, or Brown – you’re lazy.

How’s that, you ask?

Well for one, what have you, the N-word user, attempted to learn about the volatile word? ‘Cause it’s a shape-shifter: one that can be used rightly and wrongly, ironically and seriously, congenially and maliciously, of necessity for the sake of realism and impishly for the sake of comedy.* Do you know its etymology? Have you taken the time to read any Richard Wright or August Wilson? Who were the Little Rock Nine? Do you know why Malcolm X and Richard Pryor swore off using it?

It doesn’t matter. And regardless of who you are, you weren’t born with the right to use the word, so don’t even go there. You have a choice. If you want to debate whether or not cultural perspective should govern its meaning, you’d better find out more than what you heard someone say, sing, shout, or slur.

I hate the word because it whispers its right to be among us, forcing users to make excuses for it. It’s a chunk of broken cement that has, for too many people, disguised itself as a Fabergé egg. Which people, you ask? As Clarence Major wrote in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), “persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.”

Having been to prison and, therefore, temporarily disqualified from societal participation, you might think my learning was limited to how to survive and/or how to become a better criminal, not unlike the claim that college merely teaches one to be a better student. While there may be a basis in reality for both assertions, prison wasn’t a School of Crimethink for me: it was an ungodly wake-up call. And since the phrase “wake-up call” is grossly overused, I’ll go a little deeper.

California Prison TowerDuring one of my my first prison breakfasts, I infuriated a cluster of Aryan Brotherhood wannabes by accepting uneaten food from an older black inmate. Sitting a table over, the guy caught my eye and held out his uneaten slices of toast. An always-starving 20-something, I eagerly reached for ’em.

Let me tell you, humans have never moved faster than those that group of inmates. Immediately five pale, ink-covered arms –each holding bread– plunged into view.

For an instant I thought, “How generous!” Then I realized these “do-gooders” were simply driving me away from something the old man had touched. I looked at the old man, thanked him, then turned to the ugly, biker-lookin’ bastard next to me, took his bread and ate it. No one said a single word after that; the tension was awful. I knew I was in trouble, but not 100% certain why.

Fine Dining With FriendsOutside the chow hall, I naively told my would-be-protectors that everything was okay: I didn’t mind if the old man had touched the bread.

“I’m not like that,” I think I said.

Which is when they turned into a snarling pack of pit bulls, jamming their fingers into my cheeks, forehead, and chest.

“You ever eat, smoke, or drink after one’a them niggers again, we’re gonna – ”

It was Orwell’s Two Minute Hate stretched out ’til one guy reluctantly waved a hand and said, “Enough! I’ll take responsibility for schoolin’ him right.”

Finally the monosyllabic cabbage-heads backed off, went their separate ways, and scowled at me for the next three weeks.

What followed is a four-year journey in which I experienced first hand the physical, spiritual, and psychological effects of racist anger on young men. It was “nigger” this, and “nigger” that a hundred times a day –not humorously, not lyrically, and not among friends.

Peckerwoods-1

I saw Hispanic, White, and Black men (and essentially boys) hit the Yard sans tattoos only to become fully inked with imagery many didn’t really understand. And it wasn’t always from direct pressure to do so. Often these guys’ own minds would go to work on ’em first. Some were desperate for the outward appearance of one who targets, rather than gets targeted.

Now, I’m not claiming wisdom here, just experience. And when it comes to using the N-word, I demand you not be “insufficiently attuned.” I demand respect for the word, not just defiance or humor from someone who thinks he’s funny or cool or Black or Tarantino enough to use it.

Think I’m nuts? No problem. But sit for a moment with the idea of going to sleep to the N-word and waking up to it every single day for years. Those thinking they were using the word on their terms were fooling themselves, because two feet away, someone else believed the word’s usage conformed to their rules. Nothing’s different out here except that we’re spread further apart.

Modules Photo - LATFrom the 3rd floor modules of the Los Angeles County Mens Central Jail, to the “old Yard” of Level 4 Folsom Prison, the experience I claim includes having heard every imaginable excuse and rationalization for the N-word.

From the contemptuous mispronunciation of the term “Negro” when American slavery was in full swing to the insistence on repossession by anyone claiming the right to take it back and turn it around, no stone was left unturned as men of every color picked the word apart.

The N-word means a lot of things to a lot of people: from those who claim it’s a term of affection to those who think it should be stricken from the English language. To me, the former is just an excuse for a double standard and the latter is plain censorship. I believe that just like the excuses we make in our lives, the N-word  –and any other racial epithet–  has an important job: to serve as a rung on the ladder of character.

Wanna learn more without eating prison food?

Straight Talk about the N-Word

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

Nigger and Caricatures by Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology, and Dr. Phillip Middleton, Professor of Languages and Literature, Ferris State University 

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why

 *Adapted from Fires in the Mirror: Essays and Teaching Strategies, WGBH, 1993

SYSTEM OBSTRUCTED_Where Excuses Go to Die

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One Response to “Why I Hate the Word “Nigger””

  1. Mary says:

    The word is the word. In the opening song from the movie 12 Years A Slave, they used the N word so many times, (WAY beyond the point of making a point) it gave me a nauseating migraine that lasted the entire day. I don’t get migraines…

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