Cultural obscenity or badge of honour?
David Dunkley Gyimah explores the myriad meanings of a forbidden word
'Ma niggaz is one thing and the nigger that I hire is something else," asserted Russell Simmons, the man widely regarded as the king of rap: the man who, through his label Def Jam, has done more than any other to steer urban music from the streets of the ghettos to international recognition. "The hip hop industry is a coded industry in terms of language. It's a question of semantics. A lot of the words (like niggaz) that we use, we use as a term of endearment." Simmons was responding to a question in a heaving auditorium of students and staff at the University of Westminster, where word had got around that one of the most distinguished ambassadors of black music was on campus.
"Rap has been responsible for condoning the word nigger," his questioner had said. "Don't you think for the sake of the next generation, for respect, that black men should stop calling black men niggers and black women bitches?" Both the question and the response caused a momentary hush in the crowd. A fuse had been lit. That sixletter word, the pus of racial epithets, which dare not be aired in public, had been pulled out on naked display.
What Simmons was saying had so many resonances for those who use the word for effect, in defiance, perhaps to invert its old meaning and reclaim it as a badge of honour, as well as for those who just accept it as the new ghetto cool. I could see his point, was fully aware of all the nuances. So why did I suddenly feel so uncomfortable?
Vulgar, repugnant, derogatory, unsayable. . . that's been the established and accepted response to the Nword among liberals ever since the civil rights movement in the United States took hold in the 1960s and spread its influence across the western world. Yet when I was watching BBC4's The Race Age recently, I was poignantly reminded how frequently the word was used in 60/70s Britain.
Since then, racially abusive epithets especially that epithet have thankfully been expunged from the mainstream, except possibly at BNP rallies, at a Bernard Manning afterdinner speech, or, most recently, in the unwittingly broadcast stream of consciousness of football commentator Ron Atkinson directed at Chelsea's Marcel Desailly. Even those who routinely condemn as 'political correctness' any attempt to rid our language of what might be disrespectful, hurtful or offensive would not these days be likely to defend that word with all its shameful connotations.
Yet in recent times it seems to have been creeping insidiously into popular youth and black culture, sometimes as a knowing challenge to its earlier meanings, sometimes ironically. But often, just because it's the new street cool. It's this casual adopting of such a highly charged word that concerns me that the word nigger has been plucked from the annals of history and its hideous associations and reduced to a style statement.
Much of the blame is attributed to rap music, ably abetted by the new wave of American black comics and the odd star film maker: In the 80s, a US West Coast hip hop group incurred the ire of many, brazenly calling itself Niggaz With Attitude (NWA); standup comic Chris Rocks' insouciant act was a confetti show of the word although decades earlier Richard Pryor was unabashed at its use. In just one scene of Tarantino's Jackie Brown the black actors Sam Jackson and Chris Tucker uttered the word nigger some 38 times 38 too many for black filmmaker Spike Lee, who made a celebrated attack on Tarantino for appropriating and then abusing it.
Richard Phillips, a 19year old student from South London, is fairly representative of a generation of black British youngsters raised on this strange blend of machismo and masochism. He has taken on the language without a hint of guilt or remorse: "When I say 'wassup niggaz' to my home boy, it's like I'm saying 'wassup dude' or 'like bro'." The Nword for the millions of Richards and their chums has become a term of endearment, a new badge of the urban brotherhood.
At last month's inaugural Prince's Urban Music Festival, Channel 4, who have been criticised in the past, apologised in advance for the strong language ahead. JayZ, a Def Jam artist and arguably one of the most influential rap stars around, littered his lyrics with 'nigger' while his flock of fans, black and white, sang in unison. The transmogrification of the Nword now has white urban boys using it on each other, AliG style.
Harvard scholar Randall Kennedy, in his incisive recent book, Nigger, deconstructs the word's legal and social usage, pointing to its entymology and nuances within different social strata. Kennedy deplores the blanket condemnation of the word which obscures the complexity of its meanings and potency:
"To understand fully, however, the depths and intensities, quirks and complexities of American race relations, it is necessary to know in detail the many ways in which racist bigotry has manifested itself, been appealed to, and been resisted. The term 'nigger' is in most contexts a cultural obscenity but to paper over that term or to constantly obscure it by euphemism is to flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudices that continue to haunt the American social landscape."
Nigger dates back to the 16th century in Scottish and Northern England dialect in the form of neger, originating from the Spanish or Portuguese word negro. But its main association is with slavery and its obscene legacies. The more contemporary users of the word within black culture attempt to distance it from its negative roots with a change in spelling to nigga.
For me this is immaterial. As a black man, a lecturer and a journalist I find the word highly incendiary and deeply offensive. Paul Macey, former features editor of the Voice, is equally unequivocal: "No. It shouldn't be used and those that do are misguided."
But paradoxes do exist and they fuel forms of passionate exchange. Is there really a difference, for example, between blacks using the word nigger about and between themselves and nonblacks using it to describe black people? And if so, should there be a distinction in law?
Joan Mitchell, a partner at law firm Fisher Meredith, is defending a case in which her client allegedly called another man a nigger. The complainant is black, as is Joan and her client could face imprisonment if found guilty.
And what about whigger a portmanteau US word combining white and nigger, disparagingly ascribed to whites adopting black urban slang and ghetto lifestyles or the more British slang white honky. Do they carry the same connotation? Do they pierce deep into the consciousness evoking red rage? Do they carry the weight of oppression and burden through the centuries as the nword? I can only imagine, I'm not white. But that said it should not be used all the same.
Is there a justification for retaining the word in literature from the past, when its use would have reflected common parlance? I would argue against the kind of extremism that would advocate the banning of Huckleberry Finn, say, the renaming of Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus, or the cleansing of Thomas Carlyle's Discourse on the Nigger Question. And what about black literature, from the Harlem Renaissance that produced James Baldwin to the hardhitting crime talk of Walter Moseley? Whether by black or white writers, these works reflect and illuminate and help us to understand the worlds they evoke. They should not be sacrificed on the altar of moral unctuousness. And for me it's just as important that the new generations of black and white kids should understand uncomfortable truths, sacrifices and the raw histories that have created our complex multicultural world.
The word has now become so forbidden and so iconoclastic that we, the editor and I, had to debate whether to include it fully speltout in this article at all. Herein lies a conundrum. I am so repulsed by the word that I can't bring myself to write it in full, preferring instead to use 'the Nword'. On the other hand, I think it essential to raise it in the classroom to the millennium generation who might otherwise have no understanding of its ugly origins and who probably think Jim Crow is the latest pair of designer jeans.
Mr. Simmons defends the use of the word on artistic grounds. The job of artists, he argues, is to reflect where they're from. "I'm not defending its use and I do want to promote positive images, but I don't want to censor those who are speaking about their realities, even if they are ignorant."
But that just doesn't come anywhere near to justifying the casual sprinkling of language so abhorrent. To me, the Nword is synonymous with lynchings and hangings, murders and rapes, the savaging of generations and the continued vicious divisions that lash our society. When a white guy says it to me it's because he despises me. Whenever a black guy uses it with a flippancy that denies its potent force it's because he despises himself.