The N-Word: Who you callin’ a ….?
Who you callin’ a ….
The opening question on the Ebony magazine July 2007 issue. One of the goals of this issue of Ebony was to engage Black America in a discussion of the use of the N-word by folks in the black community and others. But we want to give an historical perspective to how the descendants of American slaves (DAS) have referenced themselves over time.
“For African Americans, the semantics of race have been recurring themes… since 1619, when the first cargo of African slaves landed at Jamestown. The societal complexity of the Black condition continues to necessitate a self-conscious construction of identity.”
The racial nomenclature referencing descendants of American slaves (DAS) has changed over time. This blog is meant to address the oftentimes earnest questions asked to DAS today by those outside of the community regarding appropriate names of reference. We should note that the historical variation and change in self-reference for the DAS community is not specific to just this group.
According to Smitherman, African, Colored, Negro, Black and African American have been the names of self-reference by the descendants of American slaves. And there have been overlaps, such that today both Black and/or African American are used depending on one’s perspective. What is critical to remember is that history matters in terms of when the different nomenclature have been used. We must ask ourselves what was happening at a particular point in time that influenced how the DAS referred to themselves.
While Europeans in Colonial America called the descendants of American slaves ‘free’ or ‘slave’ and then later ‘nigger’ (arguably, not at first as a racial epithet), the most frequent label of self-reference for the early Africans was ‘African’. In the early nineteenth century the name ‘Colored’ entered the vocabulary of DAS who had been born on American soil, and later as a uniting reference for descendants of American slaves united around the goal of emancipation. ‘Negro’ (with a capital N) gained currency during the first half of the twentieth century, a time when ‘colored’ soldiers were fighting and losing their lives for America during World Wars I and II. Smitherman notes that although European Americans were referring to the DAS this way, DAS communities led a charge to capitalize the the first letter in ‘Negro’ as a sign of dignity and respect. Fueled by the Black Power and Civil Right Movements of the 1960s, Black activists called for the rejection of ‘slavery-imposed’ referents and invoked the term ‘Black’. It was time for the Black community to create its own destiny. In an attempt to connect to a more global world, which included the African Diaspora, and at the urging of political and intellectual leaders like Jesse Jackson, John Baugh and Gloria Naylor, the Black community advocated for community members to use the term ‘African American’.
John Baugh points out that depending on generation, other terms of self-reference among African Americans include more colloquial terms like ‘Br0ther’, ‘Sister’, ‘Homeboy’, etc. Perhaps most critical in Baugh’s researchon “The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self-Reference among American Slave Descendants” is that of 226 African Americans (of all ages) interviewed, not one listed ‘nigger’ as a respectful term of self-identification. So what’s going on here? We should not be mistaken. The N-word is present in the African American community and has been for hundreds of years. It can be used negatively, positively or neutrally. It is often linked to the Hip-Hop community, and consequently, to young people. One can imagine that in using it, African Americans are stripping the word of its historical power. Yet, others (like comedian David Chapelle and rapper Nas) are using it for social commentary or artistic power. But for many, the N-word is linked to a past still too painful. Furthermore, the word does not reflect the great accomplishments of African Americans.
We are not sure what will happen with the N-word in years to come, but what is clear is that for the African American community, it is not a label that references the community as a whole. And now a cautionary tale for those of us who may still use it: I met a well-intentioned young adult from Brazil who loved Hip-Hop and was ecstatic to be in a place as diverse as New York. He remarked how happy he was to be in a city where there are all kinds of people like Whites, Asians, and Niggers. When I asked him why he used the N-word, he said, “that’s what they [African American artists] say all the time in the music.” And then he asked me, “What else do they call themselves?”