N-word Futures

The future is coming. Will the n-word come with it? In the wake of Kramer’s meltdown and public penance, Jesse Jackson and company are calling for a ban on the n-word. And it’s hard to disagree in principle; the word is powerfully hateful. But is an outright ban the answer?

After all, some would argue that when we black folk use the n-word, it can be subversive — an attempt to re-appropriate it, to take away its power, to defuse it. That approach seemed to work out alright for the LGBT community and “queer”.

And what about reporting? Take, for instance, a recent Wired article that quotes a myspace post by a woman whose boyfriend was murdered:

Soon after, police formally charged Handy – not for the Sixth and South Union murders, but for the other shootings he was allegedly involved in. The charges were two counts each of assault in the first degree and unlawful possession of a firearm. Foley posted a note to Varo’s page: We caught ‘em baby! Fuck that nigger.

The quote is factual and speaks to her character and her emotional state, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the trend of using the n-word to convey authenticity in gangland films. For a recent example, see The Departed (Nicholson drops it inside the first minute) and Reservoir Dogs had characters spew it every other sentence some 15 years ago. This is how these people really speak and the use of the language is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Still… Did I really get anything from hearing that the only black character in the Wired story is a nigger? What does it say that the person who speaks the word is portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner for the rest of the article? When does it stop being reporting and start being comment? (Not to mention Wired is a bit more suspect than most; I’m still reeling from seeing the n-word featured alongside the first black face to grace its cover, but that’s another story…)

Similarly, many gangland films end up creating a dark appeal for the bad guys and with it, an appeal for using their language. At what point does the use of the n-word stop speaking to the character and start speaking to the screenwriter’s character? (Is it me or does the n-word seem to be used more often in white-directed films these days than black ones?)

All this is to say it’s complicated. So perhaps the only thing everyone will understand is that they should just never say the word under any circumstances. I certainly would be happy to never hear it again. But part of me still wonders if making the word even more taboo really solves anything. After all, making things less accessible often makes them that much more desirable.

A thoughtful history of the n-word can be found in the Jim Crow Museum.

3 Responses to “N-word Futures”


  1. 1 Aparna

    As a foreigner to this country my perspective is limited at best. Racial prejudice is pretty blatant in the US and for that matter anywhere in the world (perhaps just more subtle in some places) and anyone who thinks otherwise is blind. But coming back to the n-word I think the power of the word is not just in its subversiveness but also in someways weirdly it can be poetic. I have to agree with the critic at the New Yorker about a play by August Wilson “Two Trains Running” – the lines he quotes are:
    “A nigger with a gun is bad news,” Holloway says. “You say the word ‘gun’ in the same sentence with the word ‘nigger’ and you in trouble. The white man panic. Unless you say, ‘The policeman shot the nigger with his gun.’ ”
    I couldn’t put it better than John Lahr when he says
    “That’s magnificent writing. I left the theatre exhilarated, glad to have been alive in Wilson’s time”
    Now substitute the n-word with ‘black man’ or ‘african american man’ it just doesn’t convey that same sense of injustice or maybe thats because we have been desensitised by those phrases and not yet de-sensitized by the n-word – since it is in some ways banned.

  2. 2 Jason

    Good points! I agree the word can be quite poetic when used in the right context and your example is a fantastic one. It’s too bad that more people don’t have the same thoughtfulness and discretion using the n-word as August Wilson. I wonder if that will change someday.

  3. 3 Tom W

    (Is it me or does the n-word seem to be used more often in white-directed films these days than black ones?)

    This jsut goes back to the amount of whites verse blacks in america… simple census issue. If there were more blacks in the US, there might be more blacks in film, if there were more blacks in film, id imagine it would be more blacks using the N word in their movies…

    just a thought.

    maybe im just playing devils advocate, but I really dont think this is a problem.. like someone said, it wont give blacks more rights or mke more jobs available or take away racism… Constatnly bringing up “injustices” like these only widen the gap between races…

    Im not racist, but when I see things like this, it makes me feel like im hated by the black community or that there really IS a difference… I know there isnt, but it creates this sense of “Well, blacks want to be in games, (blacks are different) so we should work towards (blacks are different) that sort of equaly portyrayed wolrd (blacks are different)”

    anyway, its just getting later and im sure i sound racist as all heck, please, dont take it this way, im just brainstorming by writing… i hope you take this all as a way to brainstorm yourselves…. :) g’night

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