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A word like no other

Tempting as it is, abolishing the n-word is not the best answer.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published December 3, 2006


It has been called the world's worst racial slur. The nuclear bomb of epithets.

And yet, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson last week used the scandal of a TV star brandishing the word repeatedly to push his plea that black artists no longer use the word n-----, I had to disagree.

Not because I fail to understand the 350 years of once-legalized oppression wrapped up in those two syllables. And not because I value a Chris Rock punch line or Spike Lee joint more than my self-respect as a proud, antiracist black man.

But there is a tangled history wrapped up in that powerful insult, and it encapsulates pride, power, cultural identity and shared struggle right along with degradation and oppression.

Just ask Paul "Breeze Brewin" Smith, lead M.C. for the underground rap group The Juggaknots. Smith, now 30 and teaching eighth-grade English at a middle school in his native Bronx, had already been trying to curb his use of the n-word before Seinfeld actor Michael Richards' racist tirade in a comedy club sparked a national conversation.

But even as he acknowledges that the word's painful power has made him try substituting tamer terms like "brother," Smith also admits feeling there are times when no other word will do.

"It's ironic that such a painful word is so melodic to us," said the teacher/rapper, who made his bones with hip-hop fans by appearing on megaproducer Prince Paul's classic 1999 record, A Prince Among Thieves. "It feels like it rhymes with everything, even when it don't. Other words ... they don't have the same speed, they don't turn the same. I'm not gonna lie. ... It's unnatural to stop using it. It's going to take a lot of deprogramming."

One reason Smith decided to tone down the n-word in his work is the success of rap itself. When he started in the game, years ago in high school, slinging the word was a way he and his black friends separated themselves from white people - turning a word other races wouldn't dare use into a synonym for black power, friendship and solidarity.

But now, with rap culture exploding across the globe, a gig in Japan or Europe might bring thousands of nonblack fans shouting the n-word at him from the crowd - because it's in his lyrics. And as he watches groups of fans of all ethnicities sling the word at each other without malice, Smith wonders if something isn't being lost.

"At the end of the day ... if our banishment of the word would help clearly define the enemy or avoid periods of discomfort ... I think it would be something (worth doing)," he said. "Would we lose something? Yeah, I would. When I see my man in the street, the word 'friend' ... it's not strong enough. We are creatures of habit and this one is deeply rooted."

An odd analogy surfaces: Black people have taken the scraps they were forced to eat as slaves - pig's feet, neck bones, collard greens, chitterlings and more - and turned them into delicacies, reminding themselves of their cultural history every time they eat another serving.

And in a strange way, the n-word serves that purpose for some black artists; a special word that reaches back decades to the work of Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Ice Cube and beyond. For them, the word can transcend its awful, core meaning in the right context: Shouldn't they be allowed to explore that terrain without fear of social censure?

Citing artistic work that uses the n-word, from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcom X, linguist Randall Kennedy made the argument against removing the n-word from our cultural lexicon in a 1999 paper titled "Who Can Say N-----? And Other Considerations" (dashes added by me).

"What ... others who wish to eradicate n----- fail adequately to recognize is the term's linguistic richness and the extraordinary extent to which it has insinuated itself - for bad, but also for good - across the wide expanse of the American cultural landscape," wrote Kennedy.

"To eliminate n----- from the American language would require erasing too much from too many valuable pages."

As a linguist who strives to keep an objective view of the language, Stanford University professor John Rickford declined to give his own opinion on whether black entertainers should refrain from using the n-word.

But Rickford did cite a 1972 essay by linguist Grace Sims Holt on the idea of inversion - converting the meaning of words once used to demean a group to "verbally turn the tables on an unknowledgeable opponent."

"Context is everything; among friends and with the right tone, you can say just about anything," said Rickford. "The idea that you use language to gain some power over those who hold power over you. ... I think there's an element of that in many different cultures."

Indeed, Kennedy cited appropriation of the words "queer" and "dyke" by gay people as badges of honor; women may use the b-word among themselves in ways men never could. And many of us refer to our relatives in ways we would never tolerate coming from a stranger.

A redeemable word?

But none of this persuades those who are convinced the n-word is so steeped in oppression of back people that it can never be redefined, only excised.

"Whenever we use this word to one another, we are triggering a response in our subconscious mind," said H. Lewis Smith, 67, a retired marketing executive who wrote a book on his position called Bury That Sucka: A Scandalous Love Affair with the N-Word. "Back down through the centuries, when our people were being burnt alive and hung and tortured, the last word they would hear is the n-word. We are showing no honor towards our ancestors and what they went through by using it now."

And the argument that this question is more about artistic expression - a belief that artists need access to such hurtful words, even if there are legions who abuse the privilege - didn't convince Keith Woods, an expert on race and media and dean of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the St. Petersburg Times).

"Whenever I get into one of these mindless discussions with someone who asks 'Why is it that black people can say n-----, but nobody else can?' I ask a question of my own: 'Why do you feel the need to use the word at all?' "

My only answer: That it is part of our painful, triumphant history as black people. And shutting the door completely to the word feels like shutting off an important part of our cultural saga.

Even for black artists, exploring these themes can be like juggling dynamite.

Chris Rock's legendary "Black People vs. N-----s" bit was hailed by black fans who applauded using the term to refer to a certain type of no-good black person (an approach that felt far more sinister when black pundit John Ridley tried the same thing more seriously in a piece this month in Esquire magazine).

But when Rock appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in blackface, the laughter stopped. Eventually, many artists tire of the weight and move on - either by renouncing use of the word as Pryor and Paul Mooney did, or by walking away from the mainstream like Dave Chappelle.

So now the issue before black artists - and their fans - is a potent question: Is the n-word is a relic from an older, more destructive time, or a complex symbol black performers can't afford to ignore?

"At the (high school) lunch table, that word was our force field. ...We were going to get real black and forcefully isolate ourselves from the white students," said the Juggaknots' Smith.

"We were going to have our code and you ain't invited. Now, it's to the point where everyone is invited. And I'm not sure what that means."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.