John Nelson feels very strongly about the N-word. Here’s why.
I hate the word “nigger” because of what it reveals about the person using it. Black, white, or brown – you’re lazy. How’s that, you ask? Well what have you, the N-word user, attempted to learn about this volatile shape-shifter of a word? Do you know its etymology? Have you taken the time to read any Richard Wright or August Wilson? Who were the Little Rock Nine? Do you know why Malcolm X or Richard Pryor swore off using it? Doesn’t matter. Regardless of who you are, you weren’t born with the right to use the word, so don’t even go there. You have a choice. And if you want to debate whether or not cultural perspective should govern its meaning, you’d better find out more than what you heard someone say, sing, shout, or slur.
I hate the word because it whispers its right to be among us, forcing its users to make excuses for it. It’s a chunk of broken cement that has, for too many people, disguised itself as a Fabergé egg. Which people, you ask? As Clarence Major wrote in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), “persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.”
Having been to prison and therefore temporarily disqualified from societal participation, you might think my own learning was limited to how to survive and/or how to become a better criminal, not unlike the claim that college merely teaches one to be a better student. While there may be a basis in reality for both assertions, for me prison wasn’t a School of Crimethink: it was an ungodly wake-up call. And since the phrase “wake-up call” is grossly overused, I’ll share a quickie example from my first prison breakfast, wherein I infuriated a cluster of Aryan Brotherhood wannabes by accepting uneaten food from an older black inmate.
Sitting a table over, the old guy had caught my eye and held out his uneaten slices of toast. An always-starving 20-something, I eagerly reached for them. Let me tell you, you’ve never seen humans move faster than the speed at which five pale, ink-covered arms, each holding bread, plunged into view. For an instant no longer than a lightning strike I thought, “How generous!” Then I realized these “do-gooders” were simply driving me away from something the old man had touched.
Outside the chow hall, I naively told my would-be-protectors that everything was okay—I didn’t mind if he’d touched the bread. “I’m not like that,” I think I said. Which is when they turned into a snarling pack of pit bulls, jamming their fingers into my throat and cheeks and chest.
“If you ever eat or smoke or drink after one’a them niggers again, we’re gonna’—blah-blah-blah.” It was Orwell’s Two Minute Hate stretched out ’til one guy reluctantly stepped in and said, “Enough! I’ll take responsibility for schoolin’ ’im right.” Finally the monosyllabic Peckerwoods backed off, went their separate ways, and scowled at me for the next three weeks.
What followed is a four-year journey in which I experienced first hand the physical, spiritual, and psychological effects of racist anger on young men. From every skin color I must’ve heard the word “nigger” a hundred times a day, every single day. I saw Hispanic, White, and Black men (and essentially boys) hit the Yard sans tattoos only to become fully inked with imagery many didn’t really understand. Often, it wasn’t even from direct pressure to do so—just fear and loneliness and joy that their pointless narrow-mindedness now had a target.
I wish it wasn’t so, but that prison sentence was the first thing I ever started and finished. Now I can’t escape those four years if I try, and believe me I have. I created this blog when I finally realized how much more important it was for me not to escape it, but to share it instead. In all the years I’ve been out, the lessons learned during that time have never stopped applying to my life or the lives of those around me.
I’m not claiming wisdom here, just experience. And when it comes to the N-word, I demand experience from others. I demand that you not be “insufficiently attuned.” I demand respect for the word, not just defiance or humor from someone who thinks he’s funny or educated or cool or Black enough to use it. Once more, its volatility isn’t inherited—it is learned. Its ugliness is beyond measure.
The experience I claim includes having heard every imaginable excuse and rationalization for the N-word, in part as a teacher’s assistant in the prison’s education building. Each eight-week cycle of student-inmates would be given a written and verbal assignment in which they were asked to break down commonly used racial epithets, chiefly the word “nigger.” From the contemptuous mispronunciation of the term “Negro” when American slavery was in full swing, to the insistence on repossession by anyone claiming the right to take it back and turn it around, no stone was left unturned as men of every color picked the word apart. For once, not a single inmate remained silent on the matter (while the more infantile guards, doubting the usefulness of the assignment, stood giggling opposite the classroom’s security glass). Fists were thrown only twice during my duty there, a rare levelheadedness owed to the genuine human potential the exercise laid bare. For a few hours during those class periods, the fellas were free to acknowledge each other as men before resuming their roles back out on the Yard.
The N-word means a lot of things to a lot of people: from those who claim it’s a term of affection to those who think it should be stricken from the English language. To me, the former is just an excuse for a double standard, and the latter is plain censorship. I believe that, just like the excuses we make in our lives, the N-word—and any other racial epithet—has an important job: to serve as a rung on the ladder of character.
This post originally appeared at Where Excuses Go to Die