Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper’s recent apology for using the N-word during a confrontation with a black security guard at a country music concert last month exemplifies the power of a word rooted in racial slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racism. Cooper, a Kenny Chesney fan, presumably did not learn this word by listening to rap music or to young black men and women using the words among themselves.
Beyond Cooper’s punishment — which so far involves only a fine, although some have called for his suspension or release from the team — is the painful knowledge behind the N-word. Despite black people’s best efforts to redefine the word, it remains America’s racial Achilles heel. In a way this allows the term to stand outside of history as a cultural phenomenon depicting a mood, attitude or posture. In much of contemporary American popular culture, the term “nigger” plays in an endless repetitive loop transmitted in music, films and novels as well as in conversations taking place in posh suburban homes and economically struggling urban neighborhoods.
Indeed, our nation’s racial ironies remain endlessly fascinating and instructive. Perhaps one of the tragicomedies of the Age of Obama is that it exists in an era when people of all races seemingly deploy the N-word now more than they did during the civil rights era. Perhaps it seems that way because we are more connected by technology than ever before, but of late this new normal is punctured only by the inevitable very public display of the use of the term by a white person.
The anger elicited by Cooper’s use of the word is appropriate but does miss a larger significance: The casual use of the N-word by a multicultural cast of young (and not-so-young) people in everyday life is a moral wrong that has become part of the fabric of American life. This phenomenon exemplifies the fact that racial progress is not always linear. Black people’s efforts to redefine the term have not succeeded in erasing its violent and hateful origins, and white people’s use of the term (even when they’re given “permission”) is just racist.
Contemporary generations of whites and blacks remain increasingly removed from the historical context that gave the term “nigger” its power. The word’s potency stems from the way in which it marked black people as a species of property in antebellum America, one with no rights (legal or moral) that whites were bound to respect.
From this perspective a “nigger” ceased to be a human being and became chattel that could be bought and sold, raped and beaten, incarcerated and denied citizenship. Lynching turned ritualized killing of “niggers” into a popular late-19th- and early-20th-century pastime, complete with picnics attended by children and photos taken for posterity that became postcards.
Despite this tragic history, or perhaps because of it, in the aftermath of slavery, blacks frequently used the word among themselves as a term of endearment, humor and criticism. But the word’s most powerful articulators have always been whites.
During the 1960s, Southern politicians gleefully deployed the term when speaking of civil rights activists or admonishing Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP. Black power militants attempted to redefine the word through art and activism. At times they distinguished between conscious “black” people and lost “niggers,” and at others they embraced the N-word as a part of black identity that could be transformed from a symbol of shame into a beacon of pride.
The term’s place within the black community has long been a source of fierce debate and passionate disagreements. The legendary comedian Richard Pryor made a living out of his use of the word before having an epiphany in Africa that made him banish the term from his vocabulary.
Hip-hop artists, both old school and new, build on this complex tradition in their indulgent use of the word, which has in turn been aped by millennials of all races. On this score, Kanye West gave a largely white concert audience several years ago “permission” to use the word, which appeared in a chorus to his hit song “Gold Digger.”
Rap music’s proliferating use of “nigga” over the past quarter of a century has popularized the word globally. Yet its pernicious roots in a regime of racial slavery and white supremacy remain inescapable. Despite Tupac Shakur’s creative acronym “N.I.G.G.A.” (“never ignorant getting goals accomplished”), there’s simply no escaping the word’s tragic origins.
Veterans of the civil rights era cringe whenever they hear young black (and, increasingly, nonblack) people casually tossing the term around like a bon mot they picked up on the playground. Generations of blacks and whites struggled, fought and died in order to transform a society that marked certain human beings as “niggers” because of their skin color.
America, unfortunately, still characterizes millions of citizens as “niggers.” They are the victims of the “New Jim Crow,” poor, unemployed and often incarcerated. Efforts to create distinctions between the words “nigger” and “nigga” ignore the larger historical context that produced the N-word and the endless debates, controversies and discussions surrounding it. There’s no redeeming a word born out of America’s bitter legacy of slavery, violence and dehumanization.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12 and invites all to join in the conversation.