The N Word: (Part 1) An Introduction

Yesterday ESPN aired a special on the N-word. The special was brought on by a proposal by the NFL to penalize use of the word by players. I wonder why the NFL is bringing up the issue at this time specifically. Perhaps I’ll leave my speculation on that for another time and take this opportunity to re-examine and express my own ideas and relationship with the N-word.

At the age of 12 I made a very distinct decision not to ever use the N-word in my speech. This decision was brought on by the coincidence of two very interesting developments in my life. First, I had parents who regularly dropped me off at the library as a means of encouraging me to read. After a while I got bored with the books designated for “young adults” and moved on to more adult books. One of the books I happened to come across was a book on slave narratives, which described the horror of slavery in the words of slaves.  That book exposed me to the awful legacy of the N-word and how it had been used to degrade, enslave, and murder people with black skin.

Around that same time I remember my best friend asking me if I had heard of the new rap group NWA. I responded that I had not and asked him what NWA stood for. When I learned what the N stood for in NWA, I was horrified. Call me sheltered but I could not understand why any Black person, whether they be a rapper or otherwise would want to be in or listen to a group that went by the moniker NWA. I told my friend on the spot that I would never let that word pass my lips. I have been able to keep my word for over 20 years. The more I think about it the more I think that this was really the beginning of my fascination with Black history and the effects of slavery on Black cultural psychology.

Over the years I learned some very interesting things about why and how Black people use the N word. It’s actually very funny that the title of this post and the ESPN special is The N-Word. I can remember when I was 17 in history class discussing the word. I found it interesting that a visiting Black teacher challenged me on my decision not to use the word. She asked me “How can you discuss the word if you don’t ever use it?” The easy answer is obviously that I can use “the N-word” as shorthand but a more critical look at the question reveals the more searching issues about how all of us in general can have a discussion about the effects of slavery, if we refuse to really acknowledge that slavery happened and it has all kinds of effects on our society today.

That being said I am in a lifelong endeavor never to use the word and although I don’t make it a point to enforce that guideline on my friends, I find that those of them who know I don’t like the word, use it less around me and I appreciate that.