This time, we are not talking about Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Dog the Bounty Hunter, John Mayer, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Paula Deen, or Riley Cooper.
With major lawsuits recently of black-on-black racial harassment through use of the infamous N-word — “NY Case puts N-word Use among Blacks on Trial” and “$1 Million + Verdict against Alabama State University for use of ‘N’ Word” — many are once again trying to figure out why this word continues to wreak havoc on our American popular psyche.
In New York, “a federal jury has rejected a black manager’s argument that it was a term of love and endearment when he aimed it at black employee.” From the Alabama case came this pronouncement: “It is important for employers in Alabama to understand the nature of the use of the ‘N’ word, that is not acceptable in any work environment, and that failure to act responsibly when it is reported can lead to extensive damages and adverse publicity.”
American adults know the N-word’s history of violence, intimidation, and disparagement of black bodies, and most folks know that it has not shed its inherent connection to black/white racial bias and hatred even today. Entire websites are devoted to mocking and brutally attacking blacks across the globe and daily Google Alerts verify that the word is prevalent in public and private circles. The word travels across oceans in the form of hip-hop music and a hip-hop store in Malawi carries as its name this single word. Recently as a radio panelist on this “unforgiven” word, I was lumped with the old folks who can’t understand how the word has allegedly been coopted or appropriated by some younger folks to take its sting out, to be a “term of endearment.” My young accuser was right. It is impossible for me to imagine that this word — deemed “the most toxic in the English language;” “the most inflammatory, shocking and historic word in the English language;” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language;” the word that “occupies a place in the soul where logic and reason never go;” “six simple letters that convey centuries of pain, evil and contempt” and “the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets” — can be termed one of endearment, and if the word is like “homey,” “man,” or “dude,” why is it used instead of these words?
What the two recent court cases tell is that there really is no double standard in which Paula Deen can’t say the word, but any black person can. I know well the power of words to shift and shake meanings, and African Americans have led the way in making “bad” be “good,” or “phat” be “dope,” or “sick” be “ridiculous.” No matter the spelling variations in print or pronunciation — er, a, ah — the root of the word is remains violence-laden and inextricably intertwined with American racial tensions both past and present.
Since I have been teaching my course on the N-word, lecturing across the country, giving radio and television interviews, and publishing on the word, I find that folks want to know more about how to combat the rampant use of this word in popular culture across borders and boundaries, nationally and internationally. I don’t think that folks are confused though. If they are, then I am confused about their confusion. Without a doubt, the N-word continues to sting those attacked by it. Whites know it, blacks know it, and everyone knows it. What is it about this word that continues to hold such power that it cannot be buried, petitioned away, or erased from the dictionary? The answer is individual choice. Knowing history and paying attention to what is happening around us all gives us the basis for choice. Once we know and live history, we cannot unknow or unlive it. This struggle continues. Continuing to put this word under a critical microscope underscores ideas about language and identity, about language and public performance, and about language and American race relations that connect youths and elders, blacks and whites, males and females, children and adults, the international and the domestic, past and present, public and private, and the personal, the political, and the professional. A luta continua.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.