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.