A Cure For The N-Word

Our-Legaci-Baby-Small

At only 7 days old, a baby was called “N–ga” for the first time. I witnessed it as I visited a friend that had just given birth. The father of the new baby boy held him in his arms, smiled and said “This is my little n—a.” In my knee jerk reaction I blurted out, “He’s only been here for a week and you’re already calling him that!” The new father then corrected himself and said, “Oh, I mean he’s my little man.”

I knew what he meant. When he said that word, he was genuinely thinking loving thoughts towards his new son. Perhaps, that’s why I was so disturbed by it. His expression of love was laced with derogatory language of habit. A father has love for his first child and he articulates it by using the word N–ga.

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Black people saying the N-word is not the most surprising or troubling attribute of American lingo.  This is not a “Black” problem. To believe so, only further contributes to criminalizing the Black experience. The English language is ripe with coding, words and terminology that dehumanizes the “other.” Martin Luther King once stated, “Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for the word black. It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister.” We are not the problem, our environment is.

Much like other modes of oppression, the N-word was used against us, to the point that some of us have become accustomed to and often perpetuate it ourselves. Almost without a choice, it becomes a stamped phrase lingering in our minds.

The phrase “My n- -ga.” is more complex than it seems. When it’s used within the African American community, it signifies a recognition of a shared experience. It’s almost like an inside joke or inner laughter is taking place towards the dehumanization. It’s like laughing to keep from crying while at the same time saying, “But I’m still here.” Within this seemingly unrecognized state of despotism, we’re surviving. Which is why for some, the song “N–gas in Paris” is triumphant. I’m not advocating for the usage of the N-word. I’m just saying, I understand. And this is what I believe many people are trying to articulate, when they say they’ve taken the word back.

This is why when perceived outsiders like Paula Deen, Madonna or John Mayer say the N-word, it’s automatically rejected. This is not done in some vacuum of hypocrisy but instead out of an often unspoken understanding that these people, do not share the lived experience of being boxed into the “n–ga” identity by main stream society. Therefore any attempts to interject within this subjugated space is viewed as appropriation or as a mechanism to further exacerbate their subjugated existence.

But how do we stop people from using it? It’s almost impossible to forcefully erase a term from common language. If people continue to identify with it, rather misguided or not, it will still be used. However, much of our concerns could be solved if we use our own legacy as a guide.” There are words much more powerful than the N-word will ever be. One of them is called Sankofa.  It’s a West African term that means “go back and fetch it.” Sankofa is often symbolized as a bird reaching back carrying an egg.The word and symbol serves as a reminder to use your historical compass to find your freedom. It’s like following the North Star.

Another word is Ubuntu. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu is  a South African term meaning, “I am because you are.” It reminds us that the humanity of one person is dependent on the humanity of others. We are all interconnected.

I’ve used these words and ideals on students before and noticed a considerable difference in attitude. My 3rd grade students, went from calling each other names to reading Langston Hughes’ “I Too Am America.” So has activist, Jarrett Mathis, who launched a full campaign on educating youth about African American history. I’ve found that once people, especially children know their history…their real history, they are less likely to think of themselves within the confines of the N-word or any other oppressive language. Their world becomes greater and expanded by the thought that finally, they can be something more than a “N–ga.”

So the next time, you hear someone call themselves by this term, try not to engage in respectability politics. Because simply being “respectable” won’t save us and never has. Instead, if the person is open to it, use it as a learning moment. Find some type of way to remind this person, who they really are. Even if they reject it initially, at least the seed will be planted.

“When n–gas become Gods, walls come tumbling.” – Erykah Badu

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

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28 thoughts on “A Cure For The N-Word

  1. I’m still stuck on ole’ dude calling his baby the n-word. Like how ignorant can he be? Thanks for bringing up this topic. Especially, bringing in a different perspective.

      • I write all the time, but I have a hard time tailoring it to a Black audience. My nonfiction website tends to be more general ideas around technology, politics and general commentary.

  2. What a powerful commentary. I understand what it is to consider this word, a word of what we as a people live in and experience. Other cultures don’t get it. But with that in mind we need to understand what this word was created for: to undermine, destroy, degrade a race of people. It’s sad that this generation really feel that our history is so in the past but they must understand that if we don’t know what that history is we are deemed to repeat it. thanks so much for this wonderful and thought invoking discussion.

  3. Jessica, thank you for saying so eloquently what many others have tried and failed to say. I have a question, based on your exhortation to create “learning moments” – any suggestions on how I, as a white high school teacher, should address the issue, since I too am an outsider who doesn’t share in the “boxed” experience?

    • I think that teachers all over the world have the opportunity to teach our Black youth about there Legacy and the importance of knowing how words and situations came to be. Our youth are well versed in the use of the internet. Share this article and website with your students. Have them comment on it. Start a discussion. Open their eyes to a more positive way of thinking of themselves, their friends, and their family.

  4. Interesting and educating.. back in the days when I use to have a fb account I was privilege and lucky to meet lots of African Diaspora otherwise know as African American and interestingly they conveniently referred to themselves as Africans simply because they know their history. And frankly speaking they frowned at the N-word but people of all African descent are yet to decide which nomenclature to choose Africans or Blacks?

  5. When young black people use the N word, it’s a sign that they shall repeat the history of people of our ancestry using referred to by the slave masters to belittle them. The sad thing about today’s young blacks is that they think that it’s cool. If someone other than another black person say the N word in their presents. They often blow up with angry and want to fight. Black people that use the word against themselves and their people are their own enemy. They don’t realize that respect starts with the respect that one have for themselves.   James Davis

  6. I can’t sit here and say that I’ve never used that word because I have in my younger days. In my mid to late twenties I started to better understand the meaning of history and the role it played in my life. I started to understand the sacrifices that people before me made…and as I got older I stopped using the N-word completely. I say that to say this…Kids will never stop using the N-word until we as a people teach them the true meaning…not enough parents care enough to discipline their kids in that way. Whenever someone uses the N-word in conversation with me I politely ask them to use better vocabulary. Some times it works and some times not but it’s a start. Certain segments of white society want our kids to be totally ignorant of their historical past but It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. The N-word will never be a term of Endearment.

  7. Wow! This is an insightful and unique perspective on this issue. So many times, individuals attempt to debate this word from a a place of intolerance, but you’ve done so from a place of understanding for African Americans who use the term; and understanding opposing views is the best way to find common ground and start changing the ideas of those who possess those views. Thank you so much for this, and I will utilize your approach in relevant situations to come.

  8. Thank you for this most insightful article. By taking the opportunity to bring this man’s attention to the use of the disparaging term he was addressing his child with. Your wisdom in this experieced served to further assist with the dismantling of the vestages of a heinous American History. Instead of being angry this man chose to learn from his interaction with you.

    The white teacher who commented on how she could approach this issue would do well to just say, if she hears the term being used, ” The n word was a derogatory word invented by White people to belittle and demean Black people. I would also have her teach herself and her students about H.R. 40. A resolution presented to congress( by John Conyers)every year since 1989 to study the affects of slavery on its descendants and the proper redressing of same.

    My personal opionion is that the word needs a proper death and burial but won’t have one until there is first a national public appology followed by reparations for American slave descendants.

  9. The use of the label niggar by Africans is symptomatic of our cultural crisis and advanced stages of self-hatred. Each day we swim in the ocean of repetitive negative images, libels and slanders. Through this filter we try to live our lives and raise our children. I believe that we need to have our own vision for ourselves and for our future, based on our thousands of years of bringing civilization to the planet and not the 500 years of slavery, servitude and self-negation. We are continuously focused by the media to be stuck in bondage and servitude: The Butler, The Help, Django Unchained, Years in Slavery ad nauseum… Where is the movie about Hatshepsut or Nzinga or Tutmose ad infinitum? Let us see and recreate the African of today.
    Our lack of knowledge of our great history renders us like the person who reads the book from the middle or sees the movie from the end credits. No knowledge of what came before, causes confusion about what we are currently experiencing.

  10. Pingback: A Cure for the N-Word - MEGASABI
  11. At happy hour recently, I blurted out “that Ni***…….”while speaking to my white friends. I stopped in mid sentence, apologized and corrected myself. I was stunned that the word had even crept into my vocabulary. I really had not used the word intentionally. I know better. I studied African dispora and spent some time studying in West Africa. My generation grew up using that term as a term of endearment. Although I understand how that word has evolved, I am still uncomfortable using it. That moment made me more aware of the fact that N-word must be banned from my vocabulary.

  12. I have always felt that there is a more involuntary response I get to this word. Whenever a white person has said the word, my face gets flushed, my heartbeat increases, I feel upset…

    However when a black person has said it, I don’t have the same physical reaction. I think that has a large part of the why we react to the word the way that we do. We can’t help how we react because it’s all a sub-conscious type of thing. It’s part of the reason I never get upset when a black person has used the word and why I can’t tolerate someone who’s white using the word. The negative reaction isn’t one I feel when a Hispanic, Asian, or other minority uses the word, just when white folks say it. Does this show some bias on my part sub-consciously?

    I don’t think so, growing up in the 70’s-80’s in small town Illinois racism was still very much alive and well. White kids would taunt us with that word to the point it would come to blows. I tell my son and other young black kids these days, “the reason white folks stopped using the n-word is because of the beating that my generation put on them daily.” Whether this is true or not, doesn’t matter. the main point is that we met this de-humanization with less than human reaction. In short, we beasted on them and they became afraid really quick of what would happen if a black person heard them saying that word.

    • I’ve learned not to give the word any power over me. I will not fight any white people over the use of the N-word anymore. If someone uses the word around me…black or white I simply ask them to use better vocabulary or I’ll have to disassociate myself from them. Kids today need to be taught better by their parents. Fighting over that word is a double negative for blacks. You could possibly go to jail for assaulting someone and it keeps the word alive.

  13. Thank you for this perspective. I too used to use the word. However, once I got a couple of black studies classes under my belt, I swore to never use the word again. I was around 19 years old when I came to the revelation that it’s really NOT cool. Whenever I get the opportunity, I tell people my own perspective, which is “my n—-” is equivalent to “my ignorant friend”… So often people want to use the “a” versus “er” argument, that an “a” at the end justifies the use of the term and changes its meaning to a term of endearment. The root of the word is still there: “nigg” so “nigg” plus “a” just means ignorant plus friend. Ignorant I am not, so I politely ask people to respect my wishes and not use the word around me. If they do not comply, I remove myself from the situation.

  14. I’m also really glad that this article was written. Among my own peers, I find that many young people are desensitized to the word. They don’t find it harmful because they feel that the meaning has been erased over time. When other ethnicities use this word, I find that they typically mean it in a way that is just as endearing as we do to each other. Personally, I believe that eliminating the word from any vocabulary is the way to go. Why should I attach history when you say it and not when I say it?

  15. Pingback: Be Careful What You Believe About Yourself‏ | Our Legaci

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