The N-Word

by Juan Thomas
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“It’s the ugliest word in the English language” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s character in The Boondocks

Once upon a time, I was a young teenager in Birmingham…a kid of 14 and 15 years old. We’re talking about the back end of 1999, just before the millennium kicked in. Back then, I loved baseball the way I love it now. I loved watching wrestling…seeing my guy Stone Cold Steve Austin do his thing on WWF Raw or seeing the legendary Macho Man Randy Savage do his thing on WCW Monday Night Nitro. I loved being a freshman at Parker High School and showcasing my academic talents. I loved spending time in the computer lab at the Linn-Henley Research Library, playing all of the computer games, and surfing the late 90s Internet. I loved all of those things but I also loved music…Black music, in particularly rap music. I listened to it all back then, too. But I found myself being particularly fond of the New Orleans-based music…the No Limit Records and Cash Money Records stuff. One of my favorite rap albums of all-time is B.G.’s Chopper City in the Ghetto. In the Fall of 1999, I listened to this album religiously. My favorite tracks on the album were clearly “Thug’n” and “Uptown My Home” but a 3rd track—“Real N***az”—definitely got considerable rotational play because of the beat. A couple of other tracks that interested me back then was “We on Fire” off The Hot Boys’ Guerilla Warfare and the Snoop Dogg collaboration with C-Murder and Magic on “Down 4 My N’s” off his No Limit Top Dogg album. All of these tracks heavily used the word “n***a”. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was normal for the music. Hell, every rap album of that time had heavy use of the word. I became desensitized to it, I guess. I used the word in casual conversation with friends, with my sister, and even my father. As I grew older, my exposure to the word became more robust. From more music to films to television shows on premium cable to books and magazines I read to even the chat rooms on Yahoo! Messenger and Geocities forums. At the same time, I was learning a lot about the other N-word: “n***er”. I learned a lot about how it was such a negative connotation for Black Americans and even just Black people, in general. That version was branded as racist word while the other version that I used was a socially acceptable term in the inner city Black community.

Today, I’m 35 years old. I live in a very connected world with the advent of social media, video conferencing, and text messaging. Unlike when I was a growing teenager, I look at the N-word differently these days. I hate it, to put it simply. Let me be more specific: I hate all versions of the word. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t listen to a lot of the new rap music. In fact, the most current stuff in my Windows Media Player from the genre is the Rising Down album The Roots released in 2008. I’ve become seriously disillusioned with the genre…almost exclusively because I’m not a big fan of the unnecessary and questionable use of the word “n***a”. I feel the same way outside of music. These days, you can find me on Twitter at @TheIssacharMan and every day, I wonder if I’m going to just ice the account. The casual and obscene use of the word is just so off-putting. You got users with the word in their handles and nicknames. You got men referring to themselves as such and you got women using it as a term of endearment to describe their men or the type of men they desire. At the same time, you got non-Black people using the word in a derogatory manner. It’s all just ugly and it’s everywhere I look these days.

In the last 7-8 years, I’ve become uncomfortable with its use…in any context. I’ve always had an issue with non-Black people using it or being called a “n***er”, which I have been on 6 occasions that I know of by a non-Black person. But now, I just have an issue completely. I don’t even like it when people who look like me use it. I went through a bit of a phase out period where I used the word “ninja” instead of “n***a”. It’s debatable if I’m actually still in that phase out because I’m pretty sure I used the word “ninja” in a “n***a” situation yesterday. It’s a work in progress, I guess.

You know, it’s funny. I remember this one track from maybe 2000 or 2001. I think it was by Talib Kweli or maybe Mos Def…definitely one of the conscious rappers from the turn of the millennium. Anyway, the track was about a woman who was like 100 years old and I was floored by the lyrics, which described a circle of life she went through just being a Black person…something like n***er to Negro to colored to Black to Afro to African-American to n***a. The 15, 16, 17-year-old version of myself probably didn’t think much of that but as a man of my mid-30s and one that has worked so hard to move past my humble beginnings in life, it hits a bit differently now. Many, if not all, of my ancestors lived their entire lives in the 17th, 18th, and 19th and 20th centuries dreaming of a day where they wouldn’t be seen as “n***er” and he were are, some 20 years into the 21st century and people have literally taken ownership of the word “n***a” and protect it like it’s gold. I know, for me, we don’t say it my household. I try to stay away from music and from television series and films that use it in abundance. At my core, I don’t want to expose my son to it. Even more, I just don’t see myself as a person who can be described by that word…whether the so-called racist version or the Black version. My personal thought is that the N-word should be completely eliminated from the English language. Of course, that’s far easier said than done…kind of along the lines of ridding the United States of guns.

And since today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, what better day than to start a blanket discontinuance of such an ugly term.

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