The enduring use of the N-word

Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe

In this political climate hate speech is becoming common use. And there has been an up tick of the use of the n-word, even from the mouths of people one would not expect it from.

It came as no surprise to most people of color in Boston last month when Orioles outfielder, Adam Jones, said Fenway fans hurled the n-word at him. Much of America, however, was shocked to learn the “n-word” was sprayed on international basketball great LeBron James’ own home in Los Angeles.

No African American is immune from the epithet, irrespective of their station in life. “No matter how much money you’ve got, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you,” said James, “being a Black man in America is very frightening.”

However, when the word slips from the mouths of race conscious allies like Bill Maher, the comedian, and political commentator of HBO political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher — a lot of shock, and hurt is felt.

When responding to his guest Senator Ben Saase of Nebraska’s question, “Would you like to come work in the field with us?”  Maher mockingly replied, “Work in the fields? Senator, I am a house n—er.”

Nowadays it’s often difficult to discern in some instances if the n-word is being used as an epithet or a term of endearment. And, the confusion illustrates what happens when an epithet like the n-word, once hurled at African-Americans in this country, and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance among some in our society.

For example, two renowned African American academics embrace the use of the n-word. While many of Maher’s guests rescinded their appearances on the show last week, Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson pinch-hit for him.

“I’m emotional about this. I love Bill Maher. He’s a very dear friend. But as I’ve made plain through the years, the n-word should be reserved for black use. Period,” Dyson wrote on twitter.

In 2002 Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, who wrote N—-r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, said that while the word has been used to “terrorize and humiliate black Americans, it’s also been used as a term of endearment, and a gesture of solidarity.”

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to use the n-word with each other, yet it is considered racist for others to use it, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Language is a public enterprise, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is an absurd and narrow argument. The fact that African Americans have appropriated the n-word does not negate our long history of internalized self-hatred.

Shortly after Maher dropped the word, many on Twitter chimed in defending him stating he used a modified n-word, meaning it ended in an “a” rather than an “e.” Many today argue the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “a” ending, and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending the term can morph into a term of endearment.

However, I contest you cannot conjugate the n-word because it is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. Moreover, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920’s many African Americans use the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class difference among themselves.

Is there ever an appropriate context to use the word? In 2015 news broke when President Obama used the n-word during the pod cast interview WFT with Marc Maron about America’s racial history, sending shock waves. Legal analyst Sunny Hostin said that Obama’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office, and given the history of the word itself. However, New York Times columnist Charles Blow countered Hostin’s assertion, pointing out that Obama used the word correctly: as a teaching moment.

If the word was used by Boston native, and bestseller Dennis Lehane as a teaching moment, was he wrong when he used the n-word at Emerson College commencement last month?

In talking about Boston’s 1970’s bussing crisis Lehane highlighted that white opponents of school desegregation shouted, “n—–s out” at protests. Twitter blew up attacking Lehane, and he apologized immediately.

Another failed teaching moment was in January 2011. The kerfuffle concerning the n-word focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as Mark Twain, in the New South Books edition of his 1885 classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the original edition of the book, the epithet is used 219 times. In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic, and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders. Alan Gribben — editor of the New South Edition, and an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama — replaced the n-word with the word “slave.”

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster Lexicographers to change the definition of the N-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans, but instead a racial slur.

Unfortunately, controversies continue to erupt regularly over this epithet — no matter who uses it. For example, in July 2008, during a tapping break of Fox & Friends news show, the Rev. Jesse Jackson used the n-word to refer to Obama, in his displeasure with how Obama appeared to be condescending towards African Americans. Jackson stated that Obama was “talking down to black people, telling n——s how to behave.”

Jackson, and a cadre of African-American leaders conducted a mock funeral a year earlier, in 2007, for the n-word at the NAACP convention in Detroit. Jackson encouraged the entertainment industry to ban artists who use the n-word in their songs highlights. But the fact that the word slipped so approvingly from his mouth, illustrates its lingering power.

In my opinion, our use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech, and more about how we as a people, both white and black Americans, have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets.

Reclaiming racist words like the n-word neither eradicates its historical baggage, nor its existing racial relations among us.

Rather, it keeps the hate and hurt alive.

Rev. Irene Monroe can be reached via her website