When I was running PR for the BRC, I can’t remember “nigger” or its variations being used between Black folks in the scene. Maybe it was a strong sense of community. Perhaps it was gratitude for that sense of community that was forged out of the rejection by both the mainstream and African American culture at large. Maybe it was the fact that there were white people around and we didn’t want them to feel comfortable enough to use the word.
What we hear in the streets and in popular Black music is, unfortunately, indicative of a general coarsening of society. Now, I understand that with changing times can come changing norms and values. But I’m concerned that it’s only us American blacks who still hang onto the hateful word that’s been used to erase our humanity. And, we’re the only group (tell me if I’m wrong here) that is trying to “evolve” the word. Are Jews trying to evolve “kike”? Are Italians embracing “wop”. I’m sure Latinos are not working to take the sting out of “wetback” and “spic.” I mean, we’re putting a lot of effort into explaining and justifying the difference between “niggers” and “niggas”. Unfortunately, neither occupies a linguistic space far from the other and the connotation of the latter will always be the former.
Yes, you will find those of us on both sides of the issue, including Mos Def. I mention him because I saw a recent episode of Def Poetry, where he was using “nigga” much more than I’d ever heard him. It was disheartening because 1) he’d never been so casual with the word on previous seasons; and 2) he’s on HBO, which means there are a lot of people around the country/world—and not all of them Black—who heard him say it, and formed an opinion about many things, not the least of which is a conception of what it means to be authentically Black.
Let’s face it: Naming is framing. How we refer to ourselves defines our boundaries and it certainly impacts how others see and think about us. If we’re serious about full embracing the things that are ours by right, we have to work harder to ensure that we’re not using language to limit ourselves or to limit others’ expectations of what or who we can be.