Six letters and five centuries have manifested into a gargantuan issue amongst two worlds of people, one who introduced the word into the lexicon of mankind and the other who have continued to be plagued and demonized by this word. As time has passed by, my fellow Black brothers and sisters have come to embrace this pejorative term- 'nigger' and it's child, 'nigga'-used by Whites to demonize us and we have brought it into our communities and households. Alas, the time has arrived for us to rise above this unflattering word.
To understand the history of the n-word, one must venture back to the 15th century, when Blacks were widely portrayed as subhuman and their accomplishments deemed as inconsequential and miniscule. The etymology of the word spawns from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger, which means black. The terms of negro, noir, nègre, and nigger derive from nigrum.
Some historians will say this word wasn’t meant to be derogatory from the outset, but I challenge that notion. The n-word was introduced as way to keep the Black man in his proverbial place, a place where only second-class citizens reside. John Rolfe first referred to African slaves brought to Jamestown as "negars" when he wrote back to his homeland in England in 1619. For historians to say that initially the word never had negative connotations is simply foolish and inaccurate. Our descendants came from a proud continent full of history and they were relegated by greedy and blood thirsty Europeans as a people with no place and no history worth mentioning. They were African not Negar, Neger, Nigger, Negro, or Colored. All of those terms are all equally as offensive to a person of African descent.
Here in 2012, the United States has a Black commander-in-chief and our society has supposedly become more post-racial, but recent actions have turned the clock back both politically and socially. It seems some of our White counterparts have become more open in their disdain for people of color and the racially charged language meant to demean and belittle has resurfaced to the forefront of the conversation. These numerous incidents have prompted many people to take an in-depth look at how the n-word is being portrayed in today’s society and why people of both color and non-color feel so comfortable in saying it without thinking of the consequences.
Some will say the first person to truly popularize the n-word in mainstream culture was Richard Pryor, but it was used by old Hollywood before he even existed. Present day Hollywood and hip-hop culture have come under mass scrutiny over the past 20 years for embracing the word. Black casual usage of the term have made even non-Blacks comfortable in saying it across the world, due largely in part to the globalization of Black youth culture. I’ve encountered situations where I was placed in an uncomfortable position of having to explain why we use the word as a term of endearment and why Whites and other people of color simply can’t say the word without expecting a forceful reaction.
Having to address this painful word with both my own people and with folks from other backgrounds has left me very perplexed and frustrated on a number of occasions. How can we call this a'term of endearment' when it was once used to hurt us? How do we lovingly call our folks the same word we use when we are angry and disgusted by them?
When I ask my peers about this, I always seem to get the same stock answer about how when "-er" becomes "-a", the meaning changes. But, I honestly don’t buy into that ideology. Other ethnicities that are also known by derisory euphemisms have never turned one of those colloquial terms into something they refer to themselves by on their daily interactions.
There are hip-hop obsessed kids across the planet calling themselves 'niggas', including youth in our ancestral homeland…the site of our original vicitimization at the hands of the European colonial structure. We have nothing to lose but a slang term and perhaps a few shackles if we decide to finally denounce this ugly word and instead, cultivate a better way to address and love each other affectionately.