Journalist, columnist, and professor Frank Harris / photo courtesy Southern Connecticut State University

I’ve been meaning for some time to direct readers to a project undertaken by an acquaintance of mine, the journalist, columnist and professor Frank Harris. Three years ago, Harris, who is black, devoted a column in the Hartford Courant to a peeve of his: the proliferating use of the n-word among black Americans in daily life and popular culture. His take-off point was a comment by ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, who defended his own use of “nigga” and asserted that if black athletes want to use the word with and about each other, “I got no problem with that.”

Frank wrote that he did have a problem with it. Actually, two problems. One was the racial double-standard applied to use of the word.  If whites are to be excoriated for using the word, he wrote, “then Wilbon, hip-hop artists, black teachers and preachers and athletes and other blacks who declare their use of the word must be taken to task.” His second and less legalistic point was that “the n-word should not be the norm any more than any other profanity.” Frank reminded readers that the word, coined in slavery, was a creation of contempt, and noted that it retained this negative charge long after slavery had been abolished. He quoted a 1904 article in the Seattle Republican condemning the persistence of the word “nigger” in the South and attributing it to “a superstition that it is … necessary to administer these verbal kicks in order to avoid the possibility of their forgetting their inferiority." Given this historical background, Frank found it ironic and unacceptable that “blacks are the major architects in keeping the n-word alive.” He closed his piece with a provocative and sarcastic coda: “Ah — the master's word still sings in the head of the slave.” 

Harris’ continued wrangling with this subject led him to a fruitful research project. He began by delving into newspaper archives “to track the evolution of the many names with which Americans of African descent have been identified over nearly the past 400 years.” Looking into the history of “nigger”  and “nigga” sparked another idea: “to hear the experiences and views of a wide array of Americans about this word.” And so he developed a website, The n-Word Project, soliciting and compiling accounts, both written and on video, of hundreds of Americans—of all races, black and nonblack—describing their experiences with and thoughts about that fraught word. Participants were asked to discuss their earliest or most memorable experiences of the n-word, and/or reflect on whether they find its use acceptable – by anyone -- “as the new standard reference for Americans of African descent.”

The result is a kind of social history of a word—an archive of personal stories, within the larger context of race history in the U.S.,  in which individuals bring their own experiences to bear on questions of normative social behavior today. It’s enlightening to hear Americans of good will grapple with this complicated and difficult issue.

Take, for instance, the remarks by Scott Burrell, former NBA player and current coach of the Southern Connecticut State University basketball team. Burrell discusses his decision to ban any and all use of the word by his players, and the punishments he deals out (more sprints!) when it does get used. “I don’t think it’s a word that should be said,” he asserts at the outset of his taped contribution. “It’s a hateful, hurtful word. All it does it promote hate.”

Burrell acknowledges that the n-word has gained common and jocular use among the young African-American players he coaches. He laments that fact, and views it as a form of youthful ignorance that he, as an educator, must correct. “You gotta teach kids what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Back when I was in college, no one used the word. People knew how hurtful and bad the word was. Now people say it more and more in music... people use it to say hello. But ‘hello’ and the n-word are two different words. Society has desensitized people.”  

Burrell finds it painful to hear young black Americans use the n-word “without knowing the root meaning of it, the history of it, and how hurtful it is.” His own aversion to the word is palpable—he can’t even bring himself to say it during the interview – and traces to his upbringing. “My parents never spoke the word,” he recalls, “and I just knew not to say it.” He goes on to tie the n-word’s meaning to the daunting obstacles and insults of racism his parents faced. “I think about how tough they had it—their struggle to get to vote, to drink at the same water fountain. That word was used in anger and hate back in the day, and I feel like there’s no form of that word that should be used at all.... If [kids today] do say it, it’s our job to teach them that it’s not right.” 

Frank Harris has a problem with the n-word. Actually, two problems

It’s impossible not to admire Burrell for his earnest desire to teach young people respect (for themselves and others), historical understanding, and, well, manners. You definitely would want this man to be your child’s coach or teacher. But his remarks highlight a quandary created by a basic property of language—namely, that it does change over time. Grammatical structures wander, and word meanings morph, as people vote with their mouths in a kind of never-ending linguistic referendum. “Gay” doesn’t mean what it did a century ago; “disinterested” is becoming indistinguishable from “uninterested;” and nobody cares any more that the sentence “everyone has their own way of doing things” would have been considered incorrect back when grammar sticklers insisted that “everyone” is a singular subject. That objection has been overridden by actual language users.

The question of what is “acceptable” in language usage socially thus parallels a similar grammatical question. Both reflect the ceaseless battle between prescriptive and descriptive understandings of language. Is it best to understand and teach language by prescribing what words should mean, or by describing (and tacitly approving) what they actually do mean, including changes over time, as “voted” on by millions of daily language users. Regarding the n-word, Harris and Burrell are staking out positions as strict prescriptivists. They acknowledge that the meaning of the n-word has changed—and they reject those changes.

There are good reasons for taking that position, and Burrell cites a number of them. But it is hard—maybe impossible—to stop popular changes in language; to un-normalize a word that is becoming normalized. The irony is that in vowing to do so, Burrell is trying to prevent evolution from de-fanging the n-word; by proscribing it, he insists on retaining its power as taboo speech. In his view, it is a word that should wound. “It’s a hateful, hurtful word,” Burrell says. “All it does it promote hate.”

Yet the fact is that when his young black players use the word with each other, it’s not promoting hate, but friendship and affiliation. This is complicated, because the meaning of language is way more plastic, negotiable, and contextually determined than those who take an absolutist position acknowledge. Context determines so much of the meaning of an utterance. When I drop my young daughter off at school, I’ll say to her, “Have a nice day, alien!” She responds, “You too, Lord Barf-Butt!” Nominally these are insults, yet we love exchanging them. The fact is that one's private utterances with family and friends—whoever is in one’s circle of intimacy—can and do incorporate all sorts of cheeky terms and phrases that, seen “objectively,” might sound pretty terrible. Think about erotic language between lovers! The reality of personal relationships is that in them we powerfully turn epithets into endearments (and sometimes vice versa). Language is transactional; word X simply does not have the same meaning in all encounters and contexts.

You can make the argument that some words, by virtue of their historical and political baggage, are simply so toxic that using them becomes, in effect, an act of selfishness, even solipsism—that individuals who insist on intruding their private, non-toxic use of those words into the public domain end up wounding a lot of innocent bystanders in the act, and/or committing grotesque offenses against collective memory. This in part is what Germany has argued in outlawing the public use or display of various Nazi slogans, symbols, songs, etc. And it is effectively what Scott Burrell and Frank Harris are arguing. They insist keeping the n-word tied to its historical meaning—and on educating young people out of the notion that it’s possible to use the word harmlessly. Only time will tell whether they can prevail.

It’s worth noting that is a far more nuanced argument than the “double-standard” complaint Frank Harris started with. To that point I would respond by noting that language already is a multi-standard phenomenon, and some expressions are effectively proprietary. Who doesn’t instinctively recognize the huge difference between an African-American NBA player using the n-word and, say, Bull Connor doing so? Or a white American like me, for that matter. My view is that I have no say in the question of what black Americans call themselves or each other. For me, me, the n-word word will always be radioactive.

At any rate, I applaud Frank Harris for undertaking the n-Word Project, and I was grateful to participate. Anyone interested can read my contribution to it here. Frank has now expanded the original website compilation into a film, Journey to the Bottom of the n-Word, that is currently making the rounds of film festivals across the country. You can learn about it, and see a trailer, here.  

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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