The Weight of the Word

I will be using language that may be offensive to some readers in this post. I do this so that I can discuss my blog topic plainly, and openly. If I offend anyone I apologize. And all feedback is welcome.

Words themselves are almost weightless. The way they sound to the ear, their given meanings, and the emotional intention and impact of their utterances is what gives them substance. Some words are so airy in their composition that they are able to drift from meaning to meaning without anyone taking notice. Conversely, there are words whose meanings and sound quality outweigh the intention with which they’re spoken. Nigger is one of these too heavy words that cannot be moved from its original position in our language. Nigger is a word that is beneath redemption. It cannot be made into a good or neutral word as long as the ringing of the perpetual drumbeat of white supremacy echoes when it is spoken and heard.

It has become popular to talk about reclaiming words that are hateful or abusive to a particular cultural group. When it comes to the “N” word, I prefer to use the term reappropriate rather than reclaim. When I think of reappropriation, I think of making another culture’s items (words, art, music) part of your culture to use as you like; but reclaiming means to take back something that was once yours. Nigger never belonged to black people. For more than four-hundred years, nigger was an identity assigned to dark skinned people all over the world by white English speaking cultures. Thus, I do not believe it to be the African American community’s to reclaim. Indians were called nigger, Native Americans and indigenous Australians were called nigger, and Arabs are currently called sand niggers. African Americans did not invent the “N” word. Black people used it to refer to each other, simply because to do so was to speak the English language. So it is more accurate to talk about taking this word, not taking it back.

Word reappropriation is a fundamental part of how language evolves over time. Word reclamation or reappropriation can occur either organically or consciously. Countless words phase in and out of use, invert their meanings, and sometimes change their meanings entirely without people knowing it ever had a different meaning. For example, the word nice use to mean foolish or clumsy, and to flirt use to mean to flick something or to jerk awkwardly. These words now of course have completely different meanings.
These meanings evolved organically over long periods of time, along with the English speaking civilizations in which they were being used.

Conscious reappropriation of a word happens in several ways. One way is that a group decides to use a pejorative word without changing its meaning or sound. This is done with the objective of taking prideful ownership of the meaning, thus changing the original emotional intent and impact of the word, such as with the disability community and the word cripple, or liberals with Obamacare. A second form of conscious reappropriation is when a group rejects the original definition of a pejorative word, and seeks to change the meaning by using the rejected word in an alternative way with a different meaning, such as the LGBTQ community with queer. Changing the way a word is pronounced, and consequently its sound, is also part of conscious reappropriation. For example, the African American community has tried replacing the hard sounding “er” at the end of nigger with an”a.”

Nigger is derived from the Latin word “niger” which means black. There is no pejorative element to the Latin original. It is simply an adjective. Niger became nigger over hundreds of years of evolution through western European languages. The “N” word evolved hand in hand with the evolution of Anglo-American imperialism, the African slave trade, and the general subjugation of people of color around the world. During this period of time the inferior status of African peoples was a scientific, religious, and cultural fact. To be black was to be an insignificant and contemptible sub-human whose best value was working fields, houses, and factories in order to provide for Anglo-American expansion. This is what it meant to be a black person, and so this is what it meant to be a nigger. Major distinctions between a black person and a nigger barely existed until the early 20th century as black people began to gain power and the right to define themselves.

Relatively recently there has been an attempt by some African Americans to consciously reappropriate nigger. They have done so by introducing the word into positive rather than demeaning contexts; by making it exclusive so that only blacks can say it, thus using nigger as a linguistic velvet rope separating black culture from white; by using it as a term of comradery rather than contempt; and by changing the harsher “er” ending to a softer and more open “a.” However, none of these strategies has reached the level of critical mass, in African American or American culture, needed to deem nigger reappropriated. Why not? For starters, many people both white and black still use nigger with its original meaning and intent. Many African Americans use nigger interchangeably with both negative and positive connotations which makes it difficult for the positive meaning to take a strong foothold. Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, black people are still wantonly and egregiously oppressed in this country. Nigger is not a simple adjective that represents a color like its predecessor. It is an adjective that represents the oppression of dark skinned people in this country, and elsewhere. My contention is that a word that describes a dynamic of oppression cannot be successfully reappropriated until that dynamic has dissolved from the fabric of the culture.

The debate over the possibilities for nigger continues within and without the African American community. Recently, the NFL, headed by white owners and a white commissioner, seriously considered making it a finable offense for any player regardless of skin color to say the “N” word on or off the field. Ultimately, no rule was made primarily because of the questionable optics of white owners legislating the use of the “N” word to black players. In an interview on the television show “Iconoclasts,” Maya Angelou discussed with Dave Chappelle the generational perspectives in the African American community around the use of nigger(a). “I believe words are things,” said Angelou, “when I see a bottle…that says poison…I know that it is poison…if I pour the contents of the bottle into Bavarian crystal it is still poison.” I don’t believe that nigger is the poison. I believe that the word nigger is the container that holds within its syllables the hate filled history and present of presumed African American inferiority. The reappropriation of nigger will signify the ends, but can not be the means by which social justice and equality are attained.

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