Wednesday, May 12, 2010

From PanGaia #46 - "The Notorious N-Word"

To a savvy Magician, words of power are not limited to Barbarous Names of Evocation, Aeonic Utterances or Holy Names. Words which manipulate the group-mind can be far more effective -- and dangerous -- than anything you will read in a grimoire. The words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood) set the French revolution in motion. By creating a demon and naming it “Weltjüden” (World Jewry), Hitler was able to produce one of history’s nastiest genocides.

Every culture has Words of Power. They can be loved (“Freedom”) or hated (“Terrorist”), but they cannot be ignored. To understand a culture, you must first have some idea of the Words of Power which act as flashpoints in that culture. And for the English-speaking world few words are quite so powerful or evocative as “nigger.”

You probably flinched as you read the previous sentence. I suspect a few will complain to my editors because we dared put such a vile word in print. Indeed, most publications treat it like one of George Carlin’s Seven Words you Can’t Say on Television. Rather than shock their readers with its presence, they delete consonants (n----r), or refer in appropriately outraged tones to “the N-word.” Even homonyms aren’t safe.  In 1999 David Howard was forced to resign temporarily as aide to Washington DC’s mayor after he referred to a budget as “niggardly” – a word which comes from the Old Norse for “petty and miserly” and which has nothing to do with the racial slur.1

Our ancestors feared speaking the Devil’s name lest he appear: we treat the N-word with similar trepidation. It is as if by uttering those syllables we will evoke once again the worst parts of our history. The word reminds us of police dogs and bullwhips, of plantations and lynchings. By calling it into being, we put ourselves on the side of the Klansmen and church bombers. But in suppressing the word, have we defanged it – or does it still retain its venom? As any magician will tell you, Words of Power retain their magic -- and often become even more magical -- when they are silenced.

The History of a Epithet
Once upon a time “nigger” was no more shocking than “Russian” or “Czech” is today. Derived from the Latin niger (black), it was a simple description of dark-skinned people. (While typically used to refer to Africans, the term was also applied to Indians, Polynesians and other colonial subjects). There was certainly an implication that those so named were less intelligent and less “civilized” than Europeans. But that was taken for granted, and so there was no need for special words to reinforce the fact.
By the early 19th century, however, the term was firmly established in the American lexicon as an insulting slur. “Niggers” were lazy (but the hardest, most demanding labor was deemed “nigger work” since it was fit only for Blacks). They were shiftless and impoverished; whenever they got their hands on money through gambling or theft they became “nigger-rich” and squandered it. Those Whites who disagreed with this worldview were scorned as “nigger-lovers” while those of questionable heritage like the Irish were derided as “white niggers.” The message was clear. Being a nigger meant being an outsider, a barely civilized savage. The word was a chain by which people of color were kept at the social pecking order, despite the best efforts of some “uppity niggers” to escape their caste. Money, education, religion: none of these could change a Black person’ s essential nature. Magicians will recognize this immediately as a very powerful and effective Binding. The N-word created a role, then forced the target to live within the confines of said role.

From Commonplace to Silence
As early as 1837, Black minister and writer Hosea Easton observed that the N-word was “employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race…The term itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another; but it is not used with that intent…it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure.”2 By the 1840s abolitionists and others were using the terms “Negro” and “colored” in place of the N-word. Later these terms would be deprecated in favor of “African-American,” “Black” and “person of Color.”
It took a while for the N-word to fall out of fashion. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century children could store their coins in “Jolly Nigger” mechanical banks: their parents could enjoy a cigarette rolled from “Nigger Hair smoking tobacco.” In 1939 Agatha Christie wrote a mystery novel entitled Ten Little Niggers. Although it was later retitled Ten Little Indians (a victory for Black activists, if not for Native Americans), editions with the original title were released as late as 1978.3
But slowly things changed. Where once the N-word could be heard in palatial estates and humble shacks, it has now became connected with low-class “white trash.” In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was a social and business organization on a par with today’s Rotary Club or Kiwanis. Now overt White racists are scorned as “rednecks,” “hicks” and “inbreds” – frequently by self-proclaimed Marxists and Socialists whose love for the proletariat and the working poor leaves something to be desired. Many avoid the N-word not because they have any great love for Black people, but because they consider its use akin to breaking wind at the dinner table.
Others have come to equate racism with “using the N-word.” By this standard, one can avoid being a racist merely by avoiding the use of the “N-word,” along with a few other epithets aimed at various minority groups. (If you complain when you heard others use inappropriate words, you even got extra points for being an activist and Working to Stop Racism). You needn’t question the ways in which you benefit from the systematic oppression of people of color. You needn’t stop and think about your internalized preconceptions and prejudices. All you need do is refrain from a few words and you are immediately forgiven for the sins of your ancestors and your fellow men.

But amidst this polite silence, a few Black people decided to reclaim the N-word for themselves. In 1963 Black activist and comedian Dick Gregory released a best-selling autobiography entitled Nigger. (In the forward of the book, he explained to his mother, “Whenever you hear the word … you’ll know (they’re) advertising my book.”)4  Richard Pryor released comedy albums entitled That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976). Later, he would go on to do a famous Saturday Night Live skit entitled “Word Association.” As Dan Akroyd offers synonyms for “Black” like “coon” and “spearchucker,” Pryor repeats “honky” over and over. Finally Akroyd says the N-word … to which Pryor replies “DEAD honky.” By using the N-word and laughing at it, Pryor and Gregory forced people to confront the reality of being Black in America and offered education along with entertainment.
This technique should be familiar to magicians. Gregory and Pryor tried to illuminate what the N-word meant to its users and to the people at whom it was directed. They did not allow their users the soft path of meaningless words. Folks who would never use the N-word in public had to hear it. They had to understand the prejudices which fueled the word – and had to ask how many of those prejudices they still held. By using the Word of Power against itself, they hoped to uproot the ignorance which fed it.
Still other Black men chose to redefine the N-word for themselves. Instead of emulating the degrading “servile darky” stereotypes, they looked to the image of the “Savage Black Brute.” Blaxploitation films like The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and Boss Nigger (1974) presented the Nigger as a hero who stuck it to the [White] Man. The Darky was servile: the Nigger was in charge of his life and unafraid to assert his authority. The Darky was powerless, at the mercy of the White masters; the Nigger could enforce his will with fist or weapon. The Darky was a reassuring caricature created by Whites. The Nigger was a White Bogeyman and a Black Lone Ranger, a cultural hero who rode into town to right wrongs, avenge the powerless and kick some bigoted ass. 
By the 1990s the “Nigga” (also known as the “Thug” or “Gangsta”) had become a familiar figure to music fans. He combined the Blaxploitation hero with a cartoonish brutality. MCs battled among each other to gain the title of “most real Nigga,” regaling their listeners with tales of rape, drive-by shootings, drug dealing and generally unacceptable behavior alone and in the company of “my Niggaz.” Like much punk rock, heavy metal, Gangsta Rap reveled in being shocking and profane. And like those musical styles, it found a ready audience among bored adolescents of all ages. The Nigga did not appear in every hip-hop or rap song, any more than the Cowboy appears in every country tune or Fairies appears in every traditional folk ballad.  But he became one of the figures most closely associated with the genre, a cliché recognized by even the most rap-ignorant. 
Magicians will also recognize this: using your opponent’s fear to your advantage. Lynching a shuffling, lazy old man is one thing: starting trouble with a few large, armed and aggressive Gangstas is quite another. And of course it is usually easier to find common ground with people who share your oppression. If you are all feared and loathed, it is probably in your best interest to band together against your common oppressor. But that fear can also cause problems for you later. Much as many equate all of Norse culture with the feared Berserkers, many people reduced the Black experience to “Niggas” living the “Thug Life.”

… and Appropriation
Above all else, the Nigga is a social pose. A Nigga gains power only in being accepted by his fellow Niggas as “the real thing.”  And as hiphop became increasingly popular, a growing number of non-Black youths took up that pose. They smoked blunts, drank 40s and engaged in stereotypically “Black” behavior along with “their Niggas.” Much as the Beatniks of the 1950s had emulated the “Cool Negroes” who frequented in jazz clubs, these “Whiggers” took on the dress, mannerisms and slang of favorite rappers. In doing so, they claimed they had transcended racism. Not only did they see Black people as equal -- they saw them as role models to be emulated.

All too often their “emulation” descended into a bastard cross between a live action roleplaying game and a minstrel show. They paid tribute to gang-bangers and drug dealers while ignoring Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and other strong, positive Black leaders. When called on this, they often responded with charges of “political correctness” or, if their accuser was Black, “reverse racism.” Sure, they were using the N-word – but they didn’t mean to offend anyone, and besides, Black people use it sometimes. Avoiding the word would seem easy enough ... but for some, even that was too much of a burden!

The White folks who have put on this mantle forget one very important thing: they have the option of taking it off. In “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger,” Patti Smith explained: “Outside of society/that’s where I want to be.”5 And therein lies the rub: she is outside of society because she wants to be there. A Black American growing up in an inner city does not have that option. S/he cannot take off the baggy pants and gold jewelry and pass unnoticed as a White person. Their role is not chosen so much as thrust upon them.

And While We Were Arguing…
We have made the “N-word” an unutterable obscenity, or we have battled for our right to use it. Some have placed it in a deep dark closet next to the Confederate flag and the Pickaninny salt shaker. Others have put it on their mantelpieces as a sign that the underlying hatred which gave it power no longer exists. And as we wasted our breath and our keystrokes the status quo has remained blissfully undisturbed. Today more Black men have done time in prison than have served in the military or earned a college degree: more than 50% of Black men without a high school diploma have been or currently are incarcerated.6  Thanks to poverty and inadequate medical care, American mortality rates for Black babies are more than twice as high as the rates for White babies.7 Nationally, the median income of a Black household is about $30,000, compared with $48,000 for White households.8

In paying attention to a vile and provocative word, we neglect far more pressing issues. Instead of fighting racial profiling or inadequate public schooling -- issues which have a real-time, real-world effect on Black people -- we argue with “White Power” types seeking an attention fix. We try to shield our children from “Nigger Jim” even though Huckleberry Finn is one of the most profoundly anti-racist books ever written. And we complain about “Gangsta rap” and the deleterious effects of “hiphop culture” instead of tackling real social issues. Those magicians who are familiar with sleight-of-hand tricks will recognize the fine art of misdirection applied on a grand scale.

It is as if we tried losing weight by refraining from saying “cake” and “sugar” -- or by declaring that food no longer has any calories. We can hardly be surprised to discover that our efforts have not been so successful as we might have hoped. By and large, we have stopped calling Black people niggers – but have we stopped treating them that way? The evidence suggests we have a long way to go.

So What Can We Do?
If we accept the N-Word as a Word of Power, we must also find ways to engage with it. A Word of Power may be accepted, rejected, questioned or affirmed – but it cannot be ignored. But Words of Power are very slippery things. Like most magic, they can delude us, leading us down a garden path in pursuit of shadows and phantasms.

If you have eliminated this word from your vocabulary, ask yourself what it means to you. Why are you so afraid of using the N-word? Is it because you have a deep and abiding loathing of the word and all it stands for – or because of social pressures. Be honest with yourself. If you are only avoiding the word because you find it impolite, that’s fine. There are many bad things which we avoid because of etiquette. But then ask yourself what you would do if overt racism were to become fashionable again? Would you stand up against it – or would you go along with the crowd?

If you are one of those people who use the N-word for whatever reason, ask “what do I gain from this?” If you are a White person who chooses to refer to your friends as “my Niggas,” you certainly have a right to do this. But try to remember that 150 years ago that phrase was used to mean “my property,” not “my friends.” And if you feel that using the “N-word” regularly helps to take away some of its power, try to explain how this happens? Are the lives of Black people going to improve in some measurable way because you feel comfortable with using a vile obscenity? You may also wish to consider that, after a 1979 trip to Kenya, Richard Pryor declared “There are no niggers here. The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride,” and left Africa “regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren't funny, even when people laughed… So I vowed never to say it again.” 9
And if you are a Black person, I cannot and will not address your use or lack thereof of this term. I am not Black and hence it is not my place to speak to your life choices. I have not been initiated into the experience of Blackness. No matter how much I read, no matter how much I sympathize, no matter how many of my best friends are Black, I will never know in my gut and in my bones what it means to be Black in America. I can examine a word and some of its meanings in our society. But there are things which transcend words, and life experience is often one of these. Those who want to take on the mantle of the N-word for their own purposes are advised to keep this in mind.


1.   Yolanda Woodlee. “D.C. Mayor Acted ‘Hastily,’ Will Rehire Aide.” Washington Post, Thursday, February 4, 1999, Page A1.  Accessed June 20, 2006.

2.   Randall Kennedy. “A Note on the Word ‘Nigger.’” Accessed June 20, 2006.

3.   Dr. David Pilgrim. “Nigger and Caricatures.” Accessed June 20, 2006.

4.   “A Dialogue with Dick Gregory.” Accessed June 21, 2006.

5.   Patti Smith. “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger.” Easter. (Arista Records, 1978).

6.   “More Young Black Men Have Done Prison Time Than Have Served in the Military or Earned a College Degree, Study Shows” Accessed June 19, 2006.

7.   “Infant Mortality and Low Birth Weight Among Black and White Infants --- United States, 1980—2000.” Accessed June 19, 2006.

8.   “Demos - A Network for Ideas & Action - “Disparities revealed in black & white.” Accessed June 19, 2006.

9.   Derrick Z. Jackson.  “Epithet Stung, even for Pryor.” Boston Globe, December 14, 2005.  Accessed June 22, 2006.