I grew up in D.C. and attended predominately black schools throughout my youth. Within that limited cultural enclave I heard and used the word “nigga” a lot. There, the connotative or colloquial usage is very dynamic, in that a slight change in context can change from one of extreme endearment to that of disdain. “My man Goose from high school, that’s my nigga.” Or as Chris Rock most notably expressed in a standup routine, “I like black people, but I hate niggas.”
I remember coming to college and being apprehensive of playing any of my rap CDs too loud during move-in. I had the unedited versions and didn’t want to introduce the uncensored vocalization of the word “nigga” 20 times per song per 12-track album. That would be 240 “niggas” in the span of just over an hour. That was until my neighbor began playing his copy of the latest Wu Tang album. He’s Irish, I’m black, and we both love the Wu. But I couldn’t help but be irked by his reciting some of the more choice lyrics of the songs. Was I wrong for being sensitive? Was he wrong for not reciting the radio edit?
I wanted to look further into the historical usage of the word to get a sense of the etymology as opposed to how it has changed through time. In 1897, Joseph Conrad published “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” which, from what I gather, is a novel about a seafaring crew aboard a ship called the Narcissus with one black deckhand, James Wait. Sometimes “nigger” was used in the same context Conrad used to speak of the two Scandinavians also on board. In one particular instance, in describing Wait, the narrator remarked that he had “a head powerful and misshapen with a tormented and flattened face – a face pathetic and brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul.” That, for me, was a little troubling.
Its usage is not so much an issue of present-day bigotry as it is a subsequent development following the dissolution of boundaries between what I referred to earlier as my “limited cultural enclave.” Gloria Anzaldua, in her book “Borderlands,” discusses these contact zones, or “borderlands,” as being the space – either geographically, socially or intellectually – where aspects of two or more cultures are brought together. From that intimate proximity, each is influenced – sometimes peaceably, sometimes not quite so harmoniously. The idea of a mainstream pop culture isn’t as excluding and markedly white as it once was, but it now embraces the influx of concepts and ideas from other cultural tributaries.
At a recent cheerleading competition, the music of many predominately white cheer squads consisted largely of hip-hop mixes and the occasional sound byte from “The Chappelle Show,” of all things. In a sense, we are paying witness to the erosion of such distinctions as hip-hop as “black music” and shows like Dave Chappelle’s as “black shows.” While the target audience is growing broader in scope as these media forms garner wider appeal, the subject matter is largely entrenched in aspects of “the black experience” in America. I think the trouble lies in that people wrongly infer that such shows and music provide a total cross-section of black culture, which is not the case. What may be appropriate for a bald-headed rapper from Yonkers to yell out amid his “dogs” might not be the best course of action for someone else in the wrong context. For this reason, I think Dave Chappelle should do a skit called “When Trying to Be ‘Down’ Goes Wrong” that chronicles the outcome of dropping the N-bomb in inappropriate circumstances. At least that way, his audience can weigh the potential gravity of a given situation.
This is not to say that only blacks are capable of properly employing the nuanced usage of the word, but I still find it inappropriate for non-blacks to use it. It carries a tone of condescension and presumptiveness – you either assume that I won’t take offense or don’t care if I do. Either sentiment is insensitive and objectionable. The underlying racial and historical significance of “nigger” is brought to the surface more readily when a non-black uses the word. And one could argue that it stems from an outdated sensitivity that many blacks, myself included, need to get over. But until such a time as some resolution has been achieved, I think it would be prudent to reflect on how your perhaps well-intentioned speech may be received as quite the contrary.
-The writer, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.