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.”