Thursday, October 19, 2006

The N Word

When Mark Twain's famous novel, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," was published in 1884, readers didn't blink an eye at the liberal use of the word "******."One hundred years after its publication, it began being pulled off of school bookshelves and removed from curriculum -- all because of that dirty little word. Some parents argue the word isn't fit for young eyes. Defenders, though, maintain that the book's overwhelmingly anti-racist plot -- about a white boy, Huck, and his adult friend, Jim, a runaway slave -- make it a worthwhile read for everyone. But the time Huckleberry Finn lived in was much different than the one we live in now. Back then, "******" was a household word. Say it in today's politically correct world and it's going to stir emotions. Arguably, no other word in history has caused so much pain and controversy. So should we still use it today? Understanding its originIn his 2002 book, "******: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," black Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy explores that question. According to Kennedy, a person who is ignorant of the meanings and effects of the n-word is endangered. He wrote that the term is derived from "niger," the Latin word for the color, black. In the United States, the word was not originally considered derogatory, but merely denotative of black, as it was in much of the world. In 19th century American literature, such as with Huck Finn, there were many uses of the term with no intended negative connotation, Kennedy writes in his book. The perception of the n-word as derogatory is related to the fact that the Negro race was -- and still is by some whites -- regarded as inferior. During U.S. slavery, white slave owners further dehumanized their slaves by calling them "niggers." And because they wouldn't respectfully call blacks by their names, whites continued to use the word during the Jim Crow days. After the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, the word became taboo as blacks started to gain more privileges in America, and whites became more engulfed in black culture. Over the years, "******" was replaced with "Negro," and then "Afro-American," and later "black," before today's politically correct term, "African-American.” The late Richard Pryor used the word freely during his comedy shows during the 1970s, perhaps in an attempt to take the sting out of it, Kennedy notes. Why, his 1974 Grammy award-winning album was even called, "That ******'s Crazy." But after a trip to Africa in 1980, a newly enlightened Pryor vowed to never say the n-word again, Kennedy writes.For blacks onlyWillie Dixon, 74, of Momence, has always considered the word "extremely insulting" -- but only when it's used by whites. He understands why blacks frequently use the term today, however. Dixon, who teaches African-American history at Kankakee Community College, said blacks have endured a history of overt racism and discrimination in America. As time passed, and African-Americans gained more rights, he said blacks started using the word to take power away from whites who used it to break their spirits. For instance, blacks commonly greeted each other by saying, "What's up, nigga?" using it in place of the word "brother" or "friend." This helped promote unity among blacks."(Whites) don't share our intimacy. There are certain privileges that blacks have among themselves that outsiders don't have," Dixon said, referring to the use among blacks. Blacks also have turned the slur into a term for adoration and respect. Dixon gave the example of calling Michael Jordan "a bad ******," meaning a great black person on the basketball court. But not all blacks believe it should be used so casually.Thesley Beverly of Hopkins Park believes that blacks who were burned and lynched while fighting for freedom and equality, would "turn over in their graves" if they heard African-American people call each other niggers.A change of mindAs a teen, Rashad Marshall, 26, of Kankakee, who's black, said he used to call his black friends, "my niggas." But since he's matured, he now refers to them as "my brothers.” Marshall also wanted to avoid the hassles of worrying about using the word in mixed company. Typically, he said it's all right for non-blacks to use the word if they have a "ghetto pass" -- meaning they're "accepted" because of their understanding and embracing of black culture. But if a non-black should use the n-word in a derogatory context, watch out -- the dividing lines aren't always so clear. Jennifer Lopez used the word in one of her songs, "I'm Real." But it was used in its casual, least racially charged form. Perhaps her growing up in Bronx, N.Y., around blacks made her feel at ease with the word. Yet, white rapper Eminen said he's never felt comfortable using the n-word, reports a 2004 Rolling Stones article. Despite being immersed in popular black culture, he just won't cross that line.A double standard?Marshall understands that not using the n-word can be difficult for non-blacks -- particularly white teens, the biggest consumers of today's rap music -- because the word is tossed all over many hip hop albums. But the double standard will always exist, Marshall said: Blacks can say it; whites can’t. Amanda Butts of Kankakee, who's white, learned this the hard way. Several years ago, she unintentionally offended one of her black girlfriends by nonchalantly using the term.” I stopped using the word because I knew I was hurting her, and I didn't want to hurt anyone else," said Butts, 15.Because "people can always take it the wrong way," Butts said she wishes the word could be banished from our vocabulary altogether. Dennis Kent, 62, of Kankakee, thinks otherwise. Kent, a Caucasian, dislikes the term and feels no one should use it negatively toward blacks. But eliminating it from history books, dictionaries and other reading materials is far-fetched. The word is too powerful in American history to be wiped out of our minds altogether, he said. If it were eradicated, perhaps we'll forget the history so entwined in those letters. Professor Dixon feels the same way."(The n-word) is here to stay -- whether people accept it or not. It will always be with us," Dixon said.Written By Antonio Young of the Daily Journal

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