“I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse,” Copeland said in an excerpt from an email he sent to his fellow police commissioners acknowledging his remark and then forwarded to O’Toole. “For this, I do not apologize — he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
Copeland also wrote: “While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic.”The common tendency when a black person is called a nigger is to rush to their defense. The citizens of Wolfboro have already done so. An equally common reaction is to write nigger off as not important. Black people use it. Mexicans use it. Filipinos use it. Even whites use it. No big deal.
- Nigger as insult: “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”
- Nigger as a paradigmatic slur: “it is the epithet that generates epithets.”
- Nigger as the trump card: “the most hurtful, the most fearsome, the most dangerous, the most noxious.
- Nigger as a form of protest: “the only legitimate use of nigger is as a rhetorical boomerang against racists.
- Nigger as a term of respect: “James Brown is a straight-up nigger.”
- Nigger as salutation announcing affection: “This is my main nigger.”
- Nigger as compliment: “He played like a nigger.”
Last week, riding the 4-train from Harlem to Brooklyn, a group of young, black teenagers boarded, joking, laughing and talking that nigger shit as we used to call it. As the train doors closed, I scoped their gear: fresh Jordans, denim jackets, sweatpants. A few wore jeans and graphic tees. All pants fell below the crack. They all spoke the code language, which is to say they slung around niggers and fucks and shits and pussy’s. They recalled what they “woulda did” if the girl with the tight jeans wouldn’t have had headphones on (they would have made a pass at her) and whose spot was the meet up location for the weekend’s activities. A middle aged white couple tried to ignore their antics. A Chinese delivery man minded his business, staring down at the car’s dirty floor.
Noticeably, the white couple kept sneaking scowls at the teens. Their discomfort with the nigger language was seeping out of their pores. As soon as the group of teens exited the train, the Chinese man waited a moment, then looked around, his eyes no longer glued to the floor. The middle-aged white man leaned toward the woman, appalled. He whispered that those boys shouldn’t just throw “that word” around so frivolously. What he meant was: they shouldn’t have been calling each other niggers at all.
I believe their concern was likely genuine, albeit it misguided. They believed in the popular definition of nigger as insult. They believe that the teens on the train were using nigger the same way Commissioner Copeland was. That, even though the circumstances may have been different, those young teens were perpetuating a culture of hate. That they carried with them, in the words of New York’s Jonathan Chait, a “cultural residue” of oppression that they remain entangled in. That, as Kennedy identifies, “blacks’ use of nigger is symptomatic of racial self-hatred or the internalization of white racism.” That nigger is a reminder of that pathology.
Undoubtably, such a possibility may exist for certain members of the black community. Racial self-hatred surely exists somewhere for someone. But certainly not for everyone. One black reaction to nigger won’t necessarily mirror the next. Moreover, a group of black teenagers talking to each other clearly do not have the same mindset as Commissioner Copeland, nor is it the same setting or weighted in the same way. Kennedy comes to a similar conclusion:
Self-hatred, however, is an implausible explanation for why many assertive, political progressive African Americans continue to say “nigger” openly and frequently in conversations with one another. These are African Americans who, in their own minds at least, use nigger not in subjection to racial subordination but in defiance of it. Some deploy a long tradition, especially evident in black nationalist rhetoric, of using abusive criticism to spur action that is intended to erase any factual predicate for the condemnation voiced.
Kennedy goes on to provide a number of examples in the text to support this claim. One such example he offers as evidence comes from the illustrious catalogue of the Last Poets, a group formed in 1968 that synthesized politics, poetry, and music, entitled “Niggers Are Scared For Revolution.” The use of nigger is an exercise in lyrical gymnastics. It subverts the language of the oppressor by taking control of it and spitting it back:
Niggers are scared of revolution but niggers shouldn’t be scared of revolution because revolution is nothing but change, and all niggers do is change.
I’m reminded of Sly & the Family Stone and the similar subversive usage of nigger they implore on their 1969 hit “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” from their album “Stand”:
Don't call me nigger, whiteyDon't call me whitey, niggerDon't call me nigger, whiteyDon't call me whitey, niggerHere, nigger is a direct rebuke of racism and the growing divide between whites and blacks. The lyrics chanted by the band, comprised of white and black members, “Don’t call me nigger. Don’t call me whitey, nigger” are deliberately distorted and bent around the melodies of the synthesizers and bass, meant to befuddle and agitate. There’s urgency in Sly’s repetition, repetition, repetition, too. More emphasis on the slurs is added each go around.
Well, I went down across the country
And I heard the voices ring
People talkin' softly to each other
And not a word could change a thing
…what they [White Americans] see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history, known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since, in the main, the seem to lack the energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it.
Indeed, some blacks, too, may feel burdened by that history. Nigger easily falls under the appallingly oppressive and bloody history, to be sure. And it’s a tough history to look back at. But, as Baldwin notes, history should remain with all us in the present:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.This is a beautiful defense, not against history but, of history. It is also, implicitly a defense of nigger’s rightful place in the mouths of black teenagers. Not explicitly, of course. But Baldwin does not seek refuge from history’s burden. He accepts it:
In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.Baldwin is not making a case for changing historical record. On the contrary, he wishes to master it and write it anew.
…there is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists, to subvert its uglies denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation. This process is already well under way, led in the main by African American innovators who are taming, civilizing, and transmuting “the filthiest, dirties, nastiest word in the English language.” For bad and for good, nigger is thus destined to remain with us for many years to come—a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience.Here, Kennedy is not arguing to liberate the future generations by protecting them from the burdens and complexities of their past. Instead, he suggests a more modern approach. That is, embracing the fluidity of nigger and keeping us attached to its history in all its phases—from its Latin etymology, niger, to its racial denigration, nigger, to teens ebbing and flowing with their niggers on the subway. To change history requires bringing it with you and keeping the conversation that keeps its painful, complicated, and beautifully ambiguous memory alive.
“When you're called a nigger you look at your father because you think your father can rule the world—every kid thinks that—and then you discover that your father cannot do anything about it. So you begin to despise your father and you realize, oh, that's what a nigger is.Baldwin clearly rejects someone calling him a nigger with malicious intent. Yet, embedded within his rejection of others labeling him is a fortitude, a resiliency etched into the fabric of black identity that cannot be stripped away. It is something he was born with, that is his to maintain on his own. Sure, it may be easy to get caught up in Baldwin’s words and ignore the source that gave them their strength. It certainly is easier to focus on words, and more convenient to do so as well. But James Baldwin’s spirit lives in President Obama. It also lives in the teenagers on the train. And, for the record, it also lives in me.