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The N-Word: Who you callin’ a ….?

September 10, 2010

"Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch Man-of-War, 1619"

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.

In her book, Talkin’ That Talk, Geneva Smitherman reminds us that,


“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.

African>>>Colored>>>Negro>>>Black>>>African American


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?”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Kyle permalink
    October 15, 2010 1:53 pm

    Interesting…especially this anecdote of the Brazilian! I must say, though, that I’m not clear on who forms ‘the Black community.’ Wouldn’t those who advocated for the term ‘African American’ be part of the ‘African American community,’ and not the ‘Black community’? I mean, I understand that you’re trying to convey that there was something of a change that took place here, or at the least a struggle. But then what community is John McWhorter, who wrote an article entitled ‘Why I’m Black, not African American,’ a part of, I wonder?

  2. Emily permalink
    October 22, 2010 10:57 am

    The idea of using the n-word has always really perplexed me. I understand the concept that by using it, the young African American community might be reclaiming it, but I think that it is still such a charged word that by using it so exclusively and frequently, it might just make the problem worse. How can two young people (lets say high school students) of different races become close friends when they can’t use the same words as the rest of their communities to respectfully describe each other? It might create a feeling of closeness among one cultural community, but it leaves all others stranded.

    Maybe this is just me. I was raised Jewish in a community of politely curious Christian and Catholic kids. So I have no real comparison to help me relate to the issue. Except I do remember hearing the word kike for the first time in high school, in a joke from another jewish person. He had to explain to me that it was a derogatory term used for jews. Because I had never heard it growing up, it didn’t, and still doesn’t really bother me.

    Obviously this doesn’t have the same historical implications as the n-word, so just forgetting about it for a while probably won’t work. It seems like an impossible issue to me, and I think that everyone should choose for themselves what they feel comfortable with, and at the same time try to be as respectful towards others as possible.

    • Caroline permalink
      October 30, 2010 5:48 pm

      In response to Emily I think it’s interesting that you brought up the use of the slur “kike” because while I have no particular emotion to the term, I am always shocked when I hear it used on cable television. In the spectrum of terms out there, you’ll find that for virtually everything racial/ethnic group there is some sort of corresponding derogatory slur. It usually depends on the place and/or context the particular slur is used what degree of controversy it causes, but I think that in this country the N-word has by far the most charge.
      As surprised as I was that you can say words like “kike” and “guinea” on television, I would be even more astounded to hear the N-word. Yet we hear the world in pop culture all of the time. The way in which certain people of a particular race have embraced using the term can be likened in my mind to women who openly use the C-word.
      I have a friend who takes delight in using the C-word as a term of both endearment and ridicule for her female friends. When I asked her about it, she believes it’s powerful. She feels it is such a charged word that has been used to degrade women, but if she assumes command of it, the term cannot offend her.
      Maybe in-group usage of the N-word really does strive towards the same thing. Overtime the word “queer” has seemed to be stripped of some of its charge by its adoption into the homosexual community. I cannot really image a world in which this could happen with the N-word, but it seems clear that its usage in African-American/Black speech communities and media is not meant for offense. Yet out-group members still cannot use this word without it being a slur. I am still offended when I’m called a c***. So does the usage of a derogatory slur by the affected party actually correct the problem? I don’t think so.
      This issue is impossible. I think while political correctness over-complicates and being offended by something is ultimately a personal choice, I still live by a simple rule of thumb: If you’re not in the in-group, don’t use the word.

  3. Christopher P. permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:52 pm

    Much like Emily’s experience with kike, my experience with the various derogatory slurs that could define me (gook, Nazi, frog, etc.) hasn’t been overly negative. While there is definitely a slur out there for everyone and anyone out there who is looking, the slurs definitely do not affect people in the in-group the same way. The issue of multiethnic people like myself is particularly interesting, as one has to not only look at the word itself as it affects the group, but also much look at one’s actual membership in the in-groups, which complicates Caroline’s point a bit: how do we define who is in the in-group?

  4. Adam Van Grover permalink
    April 25, 2011 9:38 pm

    I find this a very interesting issue; how referential language has changed over time to meet the growing needs of communities seeking to define themselves on their own terms, while reconciling the past and placing new boundaries on social consciousness and political correctness. I also understand, how to some degree other groups can be put in similar situations (as the previous comments note, most minority and ethnic groups also have their own struggle in finding a group identity and reconciling this with a past identity, either self-imposed or socially mandated, and then trying to use historical context for forward-looking group-empowerment). Understanding these words, and their charged nature (being able to be positive, neutral, or negative) is crucial as to why different groups are allowed (or not) to use them, and why each individual can have a different reaction based on their own historical understanding and exposure. I think in some ways the Black/African-American community has led the way for other groups in not only the reclamation of, but also awareness of, the uses and misuses of language, and how even the language of oppression can be turned on its head, to express the vibrant vitality of contemporary usage (in the arts, etc.) and the constantly evolving nature of human interaction (especially through language, and slang). In regards, to the ‘in-group’ I think it is a combination of understanding your own history, and those of others, and finding your own ‘comfort zone’ as to how much you relate to your own culture (paternity), how much you embrace other culture(s) (patrimony) and how you express yourself/are perceived by others (phenomenology).

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