Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Breakup With the N-word

I don't know if it's the two gray hairs I consistently notice sticking out of my scalp no matter how short I cut my hair. I don't know if it's the soon-to-be five year old running around my house, or if it's the fact that I'm about to finish my marathon of a doctoral program, but some kind of development has occurred over the last few years which has brought me to the point where every time I hear the N-word, it's like someone smacks me on the back of my neck, and yells "Open neck, no respect", like when I was younger and had just gotten a fresh haircut. My reaction then as it is now was to hunch my shoulders in order to absorb the sting. In the name of not developing a permanent nervous tick, I'm going to have to break up with the N-word, for I can no longer defend it's use, particularly in the Black vernacular lexicon.

For years as a lover of hip-hop, I have tolerated the N-word as it was creatively laced through the rhymes of some of my favorite artists. I even tried to convince myself of the argument that through hip-hop culture, the meaning of the word had somehow been changed from a venom-laced word that had the power to send the most serene and tranquil into a rage into a term of endearment as some of my generation have argued. Alas, the two gray hairs, the five year-old, and the nearly completed doctorate have forced me to recognize that at best, my beloved hip hop culture has altered the definition in the Webster's Dictionary from meaning ALWAYS offensive to USUALLY offensive. It cannot be denied that hip hop has been instructive in helping to engage the use of the word, however too often, the attempts at social commentary are drowned out by reckless use of the word. A Tribe Called Quest's Sucka N***a and Mos Def's Mr. N***a stand out as texts which have helped the world understand the complexities of the relationship with the word while also understanding the historical baggage that the word carries. Almost twenty years ago Q-tip rhymed:
"See, nigga first was used back in the Deep South Fallin out between the dome of the white man's mouth It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy Other niggas in the community think it's crummy But I don't, neither does the youth cause we em-brace adversity it goes right with the race"
I remember as a first year teacher laying the song for my first class of HS Seniors so that they could understand the tension over the use of the word, and as I examine the lyrics almost a decade later, I realize that the definition that Q-Tip put on himself and the Black "youth" of embracing adversity (read: negativity) because it goes hand in hand with Black people is limiting.  It is a nod to the idea that Black people have always been and always will be the oppressed.  This is a notion of Blackness that I would never want the five year-old to have, and it is a notion that I try to get the high schoolers I work with to resist because embracing negativity limits aspiration.  It's the negativity that creates the stinging sensation like the "Open neck no respect" slap, and it's what Mos Def so eloquently rhymed about in Mr Nigga:
"They stay on n***a patrol on american roads And when you travel abroad they got world n***a law Some folks get on a plane go as they please But I go over seas and I get over-SEIZED London Heathrow, me and my people They think that illegal's a synonym for negro"
Whether the commentary comes from Mos Def or Chris Rock, the negative connotation to the N-word is never far away.  So when it comes to fighting against racism, that endeavor becomes more difficult when it appears that Black people are more than willing to indulge in self-hate through music and other popular forms of expression.  Most ethnic groups have similar derogatory terms that they grapple with, however, few words have the same historical legacy of hatred attached to them as the N-word, and we therefore need to let it go.  There are more than enough other words in the lexicon to describe the ignorant, and the N-word doesn't need to be one of them.  You can't name  me one song that is enhanced by the use of the word, and while I don't advocate for erasure of the word from historical texts like Uncle Tom's Cabin, which we use to provide context for the word's sordid history, I don't think the word needs to continue to have a life in some of our most cherished art forms.  Perhaps if more people start to breakup with the N-word, then those who are not Black will not have such a fascination with it's usage (yes you Quentin Tarantino, J-Lo, and Michael Richards).  
Now that I have broken up with the word, I'll be buying a lot more radio edits, and talking to a lot more young people, because the more people can understand not only the history of the word, but also the history of the people for whom the word is intended, then they would be less apt to want to use the word.  The gray hairs, the five year-old and the doctoral degree won't let me do anything else.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Birthdays and Milestones JC style

Tuesday marked 34 years of living for me and while I usually do very little on my birthday beyond my normal daily activities, this year I decided to change my approach to April 19th slightly. My first change was to tweek my Facebook settings and see what all the hoopla was about in terms of receiving birthday shout outs from the friend base. Since creating my Facebook page, I'd been skeptical about shenanigans so I restricted the ability to post on my wall. Three years in, I've come to realize that 1. It's not that serious 2. I can delete foolishness quickly, so I threw open the gates. The other thing I decided to do was take advantage of the fact that Mom (aka Grams the Child Spolier) is in town and get out for a change, so I invited some folks to join me and the Mrs. for a night of Live R&B, food and drink. Both decisions proved to be worth their weight in gold. The number of posts on my wall, messages, and texts far exceeded my expectation. Yes, Facebook interaction is not the same as picking up the phone, but it's something, and I know how busy people are so I was touched and made sure to respond to every birthday wish I received. I do not consider myself someone who has a large circle of friends, so to hear from so many folks was an affirmation that the folks I'm connected to are quality folks, and that I'm at least important enough to warrant some key strokes on the computer or phone when 4/19 rolls around. So again I say thank you to those who hit me up this week to wish me well on my birthday. Your thoughts along with typical California weather made for a great week and have been like a cold cup of Gatorade that energizes as I'm in the midst of a run.

The way I look at my birthday has also forever been changed because of the proximity of it to my man Fran Crippen who tragically passed this October while competing in and Open Water race that had no business being contested in the UAE. In a cruel twist of fate, I got the horrible news via text while getting ready to celebrate the marriage of my Fraternal line brother. It had been almost 12 years since I met Fran when he was a sophomore at Germantown Academy. We developed a relationship over those HS years where we kept in touch as he compiled numerous accolades at the University of Virginia and as a member of the Mission Viejo Nadadores. The last time I saw him is the perfect snapshot for my memory. He had just won the Open Water Nationals 10k event, and helped a teammate win the 5k race two days later. I met him and some of his closest friends and family at a Long Beach restaurant to celebrate his victory and the marathon I had just run. He was truly at the top of his game and I looked forward to his eventual coronation as an Olympian, which was his dream. The fact that that opportunity was taken away from him, means that for me, enjoying the milestones takes on a new meaning. They are not moments to be played down, but instead should be given their proper recognition. When my son danced all over the house Monday as he presented me with my very own Star Wars light saber, all I could do was watch and take it all in. The fact that my wife, parents, and mother-in-law chipped in to surprise me with a computer, two weeks after my laptop died moved me to the point where my eyes were "sweating". The motto of the Elevation Foundation, created in Fran's memory, is "Live Your Dash", and for me, the emotion generated by people's large and small acts of kindness is what that mantra is all about. Fran embodied that in all aspects of his life while he was with us, and he leaves it behind as a valuable reminder to us all.

As I move beyond the celebration of my birth this week, the countdown begins to the end of my doctoral program, a milestone five years in the making. I have no idea the emotions I will feel as I defend my dissertation, participate in the Hooding Ceremony, and walk the stage at graduation, but I know that I will be surrounded by family and friends who have supported me the whole way. It has been a process that has not only developed my skills as an educational researcher, but has also cemented my commitment to use the entirety of my skill set to have an impact on the lives of as many young people as possible. I have been blessed with much, and have had a privileged life in many ways. The friends that I have developed over the years have been a huge part of that along with my family. I'll be checking in here on the blog more often now that there is a functional dissertation with my name on it. I feel that the most exciting part of my journey is just beginning, and it's not fun if you can't share with those who you not only care about, but have played a role in making it happen.