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November 30, 2006

N-word Futures

Posted in: Race

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.

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