We’ve already established that I grew up with a daddy who was a Black Nationalist. Oh, sure, he’d given up the berets and guns by the time that I was born, but lots of stuff trickled down to us kids: I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance when I was 8 years old, I openly mocked grown ups who believed Columbus Day was a real holiday and I joined the NAACP in the tenth grade.
Another thing? I never use the N-word, in any of its incarnations, not when I’m rapping along to the hot song of the moment or talking to my cousins on the phone. It’s just not in me. And everyone knows it: In college, when someone would slip and use it around me, they’d apologize like they just cussed in front of grandma.
But it seems that the infamous word was every where last week; from the release of Nas’ new album, Untitled (formerly known as Nigger) to the “revelation” that our boy Jesse Jackson used it in the infamous Fox News hot mic incident. (Though, thankfully, it looks like that was a false leak from some assface in the Fox organization who claimed that after calling for Obama’s testicles on a platter, Jackson said that Barack was “telling nâ€”s how to behave.” Fox News chief Roger Ailes says it never happened.) The fact that a major media organization would release false info doesn’t really interest me; it happens all the time. What does make me think twice is whether Jackson was supposed to have said “niggers” or “niggas,” and does it matter?
You see, I’ve never bought the crap about how, by subbing in an “a” for “er” we could reclaim the word and give it new meaning and take away its power to wound. Exactly what meaning are we trying to impart? And is there a single Black person who feels any less hurt today when someone outside their race calls them the n-word? And why is it supposed to be ok coming from someone within my race?
For real, do we even know what the word really means? Most Black folks will say it means “ignorant,” and their dictionaries will likely back them up. But if we research the etymology of the word (shouts to the hubby), we find that it derives from the Latin word niger (pronounced “knee-ger”), which means black. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that nigger was used to beat down dark-skinned people around the world. But knowing the origin doesn’t take away the sting for me.
So you’d probably guess that I was one of those people who was highly upset when Nas announced that his album’s proposed title last October. I was actually in the audience at Sneaker Pimps NYC last year when he said it, and I thought I’d heard him wrong; it had been a super-long night and the crowd was loud as all get out. But I didn’t join hands with the NAACP and freak out with Jesse when he issued a statement: “The title using the n-word is morally offensive and socially distasteful. I wish he would use his talents to lift up and inspire, not degrade.”
But Nas freaked out, just a little: “If Cornel West was making an album called Nigger, they would know he’s got something intellectual to say,” Nas told MTV. Good point, I said to myself. “I wanna make the word easy on muthafuckas’ ears. To think I’m gonna say something that’s not intellectual is calling me a nigger, and to be called a nigger by Jesse Jackson and the NAACP is counterproductive, counter-revolutionary.” Word? I said to myself. So Nas still finds it offensive to be “called” that which he seeks to weaken?
Flawed though his argument may have been, I still had an inkling that there had to be some reason behind Mr. Jones doing something so incendiary. And after listening to the newly-titled album a few times, I can honestly say that he does drop some real knowledge, with lyrics like: Nigga is still screaming “Paper chasing”/But presidential candidates is planning wars with other nations/Over steak with masons and Aunt Jemima hos historic horse shit/Girls from long time ago stagecoach with the horse, kid/Witch doctors good old pickpockets/Sip moonshine so-called coons, shines and darkies/I love ya’ll/Pyramids to cotton fields to Wrigley Fields/Forgotten men who didn’t get killed.
Bottom line, the original title doesn’t seem so much derogatory as explanatory. Nas discusses how this word has been defined over the years, and tells us we need to move beyond it. While we disagree on how to do thatâ€”I prefer to let it die a painful death, while he somehow hopes to resurrect it as something more meaningfulâ€”I understand where he’s coming from. Do you?
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