You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
Sung by Bing Crosby, I was taught the words of this song as a child and it came to mind when I began thinking about this subject. With race, there seems to be no in- between. While there seems to be some words that are both positive and negative, even the consensus upon who can say it, brings discomfort and uncertainty. Some argue that racialized words are both good and bad; it simply depends on who is saying them. I have heard it said that African Americans have the habit of taking what is negative about a word or experience and making it positive. An example of the creation of soul food through the scraps of food provided during slavery is often offered. But, I don’t know if that is possible when it comes to words.
Can the scraps of words like nigger, redskin, cracker, oreo, Gook, Chink and now towel head be redeemed? Can the meaning of a word change based on the mouth of the person that it comes from and if so, how? Does a particular tongue wash the word of its history?
This is the nature of race; there is no middle ground, no gray area. It’s either black or white, in or out. You’re either with “us” or with “them.” We have assigned roles and we have a common, though not always mutual, understanding of who can do and say what. For example, it is agreed that the word nigger is a bad word. Some may find it offensive that I have even written it and would prefer that I write the N- word instead. Nevertheless, nigger is the only word that has this designation. Other slurs, though not encouraged to be used, are not abbreviated in this way. So harmful is the word that it is best left unsaid or if necessary, be referenced by the letter “N.”
Today, we call it hate speech: words employed by a person that disparages a cultural group or a member of a cultural group based on the social construct of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and the like. But, what of its impact when African Americans begin to call each other nigger? What happens when we turn a slur into an identity? What do we say when we embrace a word that has been used as a means of attack?
Some have argued that nigger can be a good word, a positive word depending upon the group that uses it. It seems that the meaning, intention and affect of the word changes dependent upon the cultural group that employs the term. Somehow, the word has become a term of endearment for some African Americans and is often heard in the lyrics of popular rap songs by persons of this same cultural group. Mos Def, a hip hop artist, has a song titled “Mr. Nigger” that serves as a sort of musical commentary on the word. It was employed by comedians like Richard Pryor though he later denounced the use of the word. Recently, the inclusion of the word nigger in the American classic Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brought the debate to the forefront again. It was the word that was used at the time and captures the reality of that time period. The same can be said of the word Colored, Negro and Black to which persons also made good in their use of them.
In the 1970s, the term African American as the new identity of those whose ancestors came to the American shores in chains was added to list of those one could choose from. I prefer this one because it roots me in two soils as I am both African and American. Still, there are those who say that they are not African, partly because of the negative and stereotypical association of the word with behaviors and thought- patterns that are uncivilized and uninformed.
These and other words like it continue to trouble us because they are and never were good. They were not born of good intentions. And no matter who says it, the meanings behind all of these words will always be negative because of their origin. It doesn’t matter who says it or how it’s said. Throughout the Bible, we are warned against the usage of irreverent, godless and perverse speech: “Don’t let your mouth speak dishonestly and don’t let your lips talk deviously” (Proverb 4.24); “Avoid irreverent, empty speech and contradictions from the ‘knowledge’ that falsely bears that name” (I Timothy 6.20; see also II Timothy 2.16); “Avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3.9).
The writer of Proverb 18.21 says, “The power of life and death are in the tongue.” How would you describe conversations that involve race and its progeny? Do the racialized words bring life or death? Or, is it still a gray area? Placed beside the Word of God, will we continue to attempt to make a negative a positive?
Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers
Jabari Asim,The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why
Ivan Hare & James Weinstein, Extreme Speech and Democracy
James Hartigan,What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race
Steven Heyman, Free Speech and Human Dignity
Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Frank I. Luntz,Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear
Mari Matsuda, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment
Samuel Well, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Version of “Huckleberry Finn” to remove the “N” word