Saturday, July 04, 2009

Should Black People Try to Own the Rights to the Word Nigga?

BENEATH THE SPIN • ERIC L. WATTREE
 
Should Black People Try to Own the Rights to the Word Nigga?
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While I generally refrain from the frivolous use of what has come to be called "the N-word," I only do it in deference to the sensibilities of Black people who have made the abolishment of "The N-word" (I feel silly even writing it) a major issue in their lives. Personally, I find the effort totally superficial and silly, since if you refer to "the N-word", you might as well say it. After all, it's not the word that's disparaging, it's just a word, it's the concept that it describes that's vulgar.
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If your child said, "F you, dad," are you going to give him a pass because he didn't actually say the word? Of course not - you're going to come down on him like a ton of bricks, because you know what he meant. The same is true of "the N-word" - we can start referring to it as grapefruit, but in the final analysis, it still means nigga. So, when we say "N-Word," it's just another silly way of sublimating an issue that needs to be addressed head on.
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Thus, by trying to abolish a word - which has never been accomplished, to my knowledge, in the entire history of mankind - you only serve to give the word more power. By trying to demand that the word is never used, you're not only acknowledging a unique association with the word, but you're giving your enemies a more powerful weapon to use against you. First, your effort alone tells your enemy that it's use is painful to you, so do you think that's going to make your enemy less likely to use that weapon, or more likely? More likely, of course. When have you ever heard of an enemy refraining to use a weapon because it hurts the other side's feelings? Never! And secondly, now that you've told him that you don't like the word, you've it even more potent as a weapon. Because now when he uses the word against you, he's not only saying to hell with you, but also, to hell with your sensibilities, and your campaign to abolish the word, so the insult is magnified.
A more constructive way of approaching this problem is to first define exactly what a nigga is, then teach your children to live above that definition. That way you turn a negative into a positive.
My definition of a nigga is any person of any race, creed, or color, who takes pride in his or her ignorance, and/or stupidity. After I had a working definition, I made sure that my kids understood that definition, then taught them to carry themselves in a way where they wouldn't associate the word with who and what they are as individuals. In short, if you're not a nigga, the word should be meaningless to you.
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I taught my son, for example, that there might come a time in his life where some racist might point at him and tell his son, "See that guy over there, that's a nigga." But while warning him that he should be prepared for such a event, I also used it as an opportunity to instruct him on why it's important for him to always strive for excellence.  I taught him that he should always carry himself in a way that if that should happen, he should make sure that he's invested enough in himself where the racist's son will look at him, and then look back at his dad, and say, "Daddy, I want to be a nigga when I grow up." I assure you, that's what the sons of racists all over America are saying right now, after seeing the grace, dignity, and intelligence of Barack Obama - that's what's driving Rush Limbaugh, and many others, crazy.
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That's the way you fight negative aspersions - you don't put all your energy into saying don't call me names, you invest your energy into making the names they call you both remote, and irrelevant to who, and what you represent. So if a racist calls Barack Obama a nigga, he now has to prove that he's superior to our president - and if he's sittin' in a beat-up pickup truck with a pack of Marlboro's rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve, he's going to find that an extremely daunting task.
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I adopted that philosophy quite by accident early in life. The only reason that I'm sitting here with the ability to write this article today is one night, as a high school dropout, I was talking to my mother about the dreams that I had for myself in life, when my step-father - a drunk, a gambler, and philanderer - started laughing, and said, "Nigga, all you gon ever be is just another nigga standin' on the corner dealin' drugs - until you get your brains blown out."
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He did more for me with that one remark than all of the counseling and juvenile facilities combined. He was a big hulk of a guy, so at 16 I still wasn't able to kick his ass, as I truly wanted to, but with that remark he planted a seed that spawned one of my primary philosophies in my life - never let anyone else define you or your capabilities. And just as importantly, always use negativity as a slingshot to enhance who you are.
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It's a gross waste of time putting all of your energies into a campaign begging people to be nice and not call you a nigga, because it's a campaign that's dead on arrival. A much more productive use of your time and energy would be in initiating a campaign against being a nigga. I mean, wouldn't your time be better served in trying to get young men to pull up their pants, straighten their caps, educate themselves, and become responsible fathers? I think it would.
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Common sense should tell you that if a person hates you, the most valuable weapon in his arsenal is what you've told him causes you the most pain. But the only way a word can cause you pain, is if you embrace it. Thus, if you're not a nigga, why do you feel that you own the rights to who can use the word?
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So, as much as I want to accommodate the sensibilities of my brothers and sisters in this matter, as a writer, words are the tools of my trade, and I have absolutely no intention of giving away any of my tools - especially one as graphically expressive as the word nigga. Because the fact is, there's a lot of niggas in this world - both Black and White. If you're a White man who's not supporting your kids, you're a nigga. If you're a forty year old Black man walking around in untied tennis shoes, with your cap on sideways, calling women bitches and whoes, and your kids wouldn't recognize you if they passed you on the street, you're a nigga. If you're a preacher who's pimpin' your flock, and preachin' a sermon that you're not livin', you're a nigga. If you're a politician who's putting your career ahead of the people you're suppose to be representing, you're a nigga. And finally, if you're a president or vice president who lied a nation who trusted you into a senseless war for profit, you-are-a-nigga.
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So there are far to many niggas walking around here to be talking about abolishing the word. Words are to thoughts what notes are to music. Would you have asked John Coltrane to go through his entire career without playing B flat, or a painter to never use the color blue? In the same way, by abolishing words, you also abolish a writer's ability to fully express his thoughts. How could I have related the thoughts that I just have without using the word nigga?
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And finally, here's a question directed exclusively at Black people - and please, answer it honestly. Is there any way that I could write a perfectly accurate portrait of Clarence Thomas without using the word nigga? Sure, I could manage to crank something out, but without the word nigga, an indispensable element of his character would be missing.
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Thomas sat perfectly mute through the wholesale disenfranchisement of Black voters during the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle. He never uttered a word. Then after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, he took the virtually unprecedented action of lobbying his colleagues to accept a case challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the first Black man to ever be elected President of the United States. There's only one word appropriate for such cultural treachery, and that word is nigga - and we all know it.
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Black people refer to Thomas as a nigga in private all the time, because in the Black vernacular the word has an entirely different meaning. So, the word does have its place - in fact, the doctrine of political correctness, along with the word's racial associations, prevent us from using it enough. Perhaps if we'd used the word nigga more liberally relative to previous acts of cultural treachery, Clarence Thomas might have avoided becoming its poster child.

Well, in any event, so much for my little excursion into the realm of raw truth. I'm sure I won't be applauded for my stance - even though I'm just as certain that many of you secretly agree with me. But as we all know, hypocrisy trumps truth in polite society, so I should have known better than to even broach the subject. But I just can't seem to smooth out those rough edges - you know, that overwhelming need to call a hat a hat. I guess it's a throwback to the street in me - but at least I'm not dealing drugs.
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And speaking of which (the irony of ironies), my son that I was telling you about, he grew up to become a federal agent with the DEA (the Drug Enforcement Administration). And while we're on the subject, I went by my mother's house one day about ten years after my step-father made the remark about my dealing drugs. Naturally, he and his friends were in the garage drinking, laughing, cursing, and gambling. When I walked through the door one of his friends said, "My man! I want to be just like you when I grow up." Then without even looking up from his cards, my step-father said, "Man, you ain't gon never grow up enough to be like him . . . you have to be born that way."
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I guess that was his way of apologizing.

Eric L. Wattree

Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

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