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The N-Word and Black History Month


Let’s not allow the N-word issue to be over-intellectualized into a debate that focuses on the style of language. The focus must be on the style of racist subjugation and hatred, including the pathologies of black inferiority and self-hatred.

We need to go back to the relevant beginning regarding the N-word and that is the international slave trade. Slavery begot the N-word. There were no “niggers” before slavery.

Slavery created the ugly, sordid hierarchy of skin which encompassed not just the hue of flesh but also facial and body features. Let’s be absolutely clear about what we are dealing with–an insanity: the lighter or “fairer” the skin, the better; the straighter the hair, the better; the thinner the lips, the better; the pointier the nose, the better.

Speaking of noses, did you grow up having yours pinched?

The working knowledge that guided my father’s path through life was an incredible and incredulous amalgam of street lore and old “nigger” tales. An example is this neatly articulated little ditty guys of my generation thought it cool to recite in the pre-Martin Luther King Jr. assassination era: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice; but if the berry’s too black, it ain’t no use”. So, it seemed quite incredible that my father married my dark-skinned mother until it is remembered that his working knowledge was an encyclopaedia of black male survival instruction full of conflicts and contradictions. Obviously, he knew true beauty when he saw it. Yet, he could not free himself from the intrinsically evil racist hierarchies of skin hue and body type to overcome his fear that as his sons grew up their noses would widen and flatten out. So, he habitually pinched our little noses so that we wouldn’t have “nigger” noses.

Not that the N-word was one that I ever heard at home; it wasn’t. In my family and in my neighbourhood, saying the N-word was considered sacrilegious. It was almost as bad as denying the existence of Jesus. And that was worse than cussing.

The word Colored wasn’t much liked either. That was an ugly word often seen on signs such as No Colored Allowed or Colored Washroom or Colored Entrance. Colored was a truly amorphous designation that relegated black people to a kind of un-existence resulting in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described in his Letter from Birmingham Jail as a “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness'”. At one end of this spectrum of racist and dehumanizing invisibility existed the insanity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. At the other end were black men who worked as railroad sleeping-car porters and were all called George.

Negro was the preferred term, at least, until the mid-60s. It was a very proper noun. Considered sophisticated and politically correct, the name Negro was nevertheless a designation imposed upon black people.

Which brings us to the word black.

During my childhood, to call a black person black was considered an insult. To be black was to be an undignified, uncouth and ugly being of African descent. When there were arguments, as there were in my house between my paternal grandmother and my mother, I frequently heard phrases cast as stones such as “your just a black” so-and-so. Of course, these stones were being hurled at my mother. My practically white-looking grandmother on more than one occasion strongly suggested that my father had made a big mistake marrying a girl as dark as my mother. These arguments would occur within earshot of my brother and I. What were we suppose to think? Well, that being black was nothing to be proud of.

Still, nothing was worse than the N-word. There was hell to pay–guaranteed–if you called somebody a “nigger”. It was an ultimate insult; equivalent to saying to someone that they should be dead.

Within the context of race relations between the African Diaspora and European settler-states, the N-word had been used as a weapon to exact psychological and emotional damage meant to deal a death blow to the self-respect, dignity and humanity of Africa and her Diaspora. That blacks used and continue to use the N-word as self-descriptive and cruel epithets only verifies the past and continuing success of the slave-making process. A people who defile their own humanity cannot expect that others will not do the same. A people with no self-respect and dignity cannot raise themselves out of bondage. What is at stake here is nothing less than the restoration of Africa and her Diaspora to full membership in the human family.

Let’s cut straight to the nitty-gritty of the issue regarding the style of language versus the use of language as a tool of redemption and liberation. I’ll pose a simple question: why are the lyrics of James Brown’s famous anthem not “say it loud, I’m a ‘nigger’ and I’m proud”?

During the Civil Rights and Black Power eras it was a given that success could not be achieved unless blacks were able to “say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud”. It was necessary to transform blackness into a source of pride and strength in order to strive for truth, justice and peace. This required the nullification and condemnation of the N-word.

This was taken up by the Brothers-off-the-block–known variously as Block Boys, the underclass, lumpens or gang-bangers–who, at the height of sixties era Civil Rights and Black Power activism largely forbade the use of the N-word with their milieu.

These days we lament the recurrence of N-word usage among those who style themselves as part of hip-hop culture. The commercial-music genre known as Rap is derived from African oral/rhythmic performance traditions in style though not necessarily in substance. The substance of that tradition is one of passing on inspiration and knowledge for surviving, thriving and driving freedom foreword. It is necessary for them to get off the road leading to shiny metals and treasury notes in order that they may become acquainted with how truly powerful black art can be. Of particular relevance is the art of the god-fathers of rap: The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. I have spoken with kids who have never heard of the Last Poets or Gil Scott Heron.

That said, I haven’t met a single black man during my 2 1/2 year incarceration who has not sworn off using the N-word after I have had the opportunity to sit down and speak with him about it. They really don’t want to self-destruct.

Need more be said?

For more on GARY FREEMAN read Joe Allen’s CounterPunch article “ GARY FREEMAN’s Struggle.”

GARY FREEMAN is currently fighting extradition to the United States from Canada. He can be reached at


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