by Sean Christopher Dancy
As a young Black kid I naturally adopted the habits of the people that I was raised by or grew up with. While playing with friends or engaging in normal conversation we used slang terms that contradicted the norm of the English language. “Bad” was “good” and “word” was an affirmation or a question that implied a response of shock or surprise. Other than a new start or a farm vegetable, “fresh” was a positive description of a hot hip-hop track, new name-brand sneakers or other apparel. Likewise, as a kid born in ’69 growing up in the ‘70s “nigger” was reformed as a term of endearment or as a reference to another male, irrespective of his race. Although the term originated during slavery and was still being used by Whites as a derogatory term, after the civil rights movement White America used it with added caution, especially when surrounded by a group of Blacks in a given vicinity.
One day when I was about 5 years old, I recall using the N-word for an unknown reason. After overhearing what I said, my mother treated it as profanity and sternly warned me not to ever use that word again. At the time I didn't even know what the word meant. Without question I politely obliged with a “Yes, mom” and never used it again, at least for the time being. Despite her warning, she and other adults continued to use the term with unapologetic hypocrisy. She also had one of Richard Pryor’s stand-up albums entitled “That N****r’s Crazy” which she and her peers found humor in listening to. Like curse words I treated the N-word as ‘adult language’ which was off limits to anyone under 18 who didn’t work or pay their own bills. Since my peers cursed regularly and the N-word sounded cool when used among each other, I used it exclusively among my comrades of color to avoid parental persecution.
When I was about 13 or 14 years old some White male classmates were harassing me in junior high school. I turned around and demanded that they stop and quoted, “I’m tired of y’all niggers messing with me!!” Overhearing what I said while sitting behind me, a White female classmate quizzically asked me to repeat what I said. Since I was talking about the boys I repeated in third person, “I said I’m tired of them niggers messing with me!!” Without malice she matter-of-factly replied, “You’re a nigger too.” In astonishment the last thing I recall doing was turning around and facing the front of the class. She was a loudmouthed bully who wreaked havoc with students and teachers alike. Since she exercised her rebellion without discrimination and our school was reasonably diverse by ‘80s standards, I naively assumed that she had the cultural understanding that whenever a Black person used the N-word he or she was referring to a dude irrespective of race. Since I have never known her to do or say anything racist, I simplified her response as a clapback for my own words and dismissed what she said, so I thought. I internally rationalized that maybe she was really saying “You’re a dude, too” or “As a Black kid how dare you use that term???” To spare myself the embarrassment of denial, I reasoned the latter conclusion. Nonetheless, I still felt a numbness that required deeper introspection.
Like many Black youth raised in the inner city it is commonplace for Blacks and Latinos to refer to another brother as the N-word without hard feelings from the recipient. Quotable exceptions are when a dude is called a "Punk ass n****r!!!!" or "B*tch ass N****r!!!" which are obviously unfavorable references to a male that are apt to challenge his masculinity instead of his race. As long as you have a healthy dose of melanin even people of other nationalities are exempt from scrutiny or, otherwise, a beatdown for using the term. It is universal knowledge that the word came from White slave masters as a derogatory term for enslaved Africans. In the post-slavery era one would practically assume that since White America has general knowledge to refrain from using the term publicly, we would be the last ones to embrace it as anything remotely positive. Since we’ve also heard our parents, women, Black stand-up comedians, and hip-hop artists use the term with impunity, over time it was inevitable for it to be embedded as a permanent fixture in our culture with word and pronunciation modifications to add “creativity” to the word.
The late Tupac’s single “Words of Wisdom” probably set the tone in hip-hop when he redefined ‘N****r’ and recreated it as an acronym: NIGGA - Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. With respect to his notoriety and his untimely demise, the N-word has become a trademarked fixture with commercialized ownership in the hip-hop community, where artists earn millions and entertainment venues earn billions globally. Dababy recently sparked controversy in one of his concerts when he quoted homophobic statements denouncing "n****z suckin’ dick in the parking lot". The LGBTQ community and high profile celebrities such as Elton John and Questlove immediately denounced the rapper’s comments and he was cancelled from performing at several future venues. Jazmyn Cannick, a Black lesbian responded to the controversy in her article by acknowledging Dababy’s homophobic comments, but also held the music production companies accountable for lyrics denigrating Black women and using the N-word.
In her article she fairly noted the use of the N-word as an artistic imitation of life because as a people we’ve indoctrinated the word into our daily vocabulary. Equally, she also holds artists responsible for its commercial use. However, since the companies and venues have the courage to cancel Dababy for homophobic content, Jazmyn contends the same rules shall apply when “n***a” and/or “b*tch” are used to degrade Black women. Here’s the caveat: unlike homophobic slurs and derogatory references to other demographics, because Black people (and most White fans) are the consumers who demand the product it’s hard to blame the suppliers. Especially in the advent of marriage equality and gender preferences, the gay community has intensified their strength against all forms of discrimination against their own. Although no ethnic group is immune to discriminatory comments, I must admit that in my lifetime I have never heard people of other ethnicities or demographics openly defile themselves with hateful slurs that were used to denigrate their humanity, especially in the entertainment industry. When the late Michael Jackson came under fire for anti-Semitic slurs in his album “They Don’t Care About Us” he was forced to change the lyrics immediately. Following that controversy, did Jerry Seinfeld top it off by repeating those slurs in his sitcom or stand-up routines? If I pose the same question for Kevin Hart and other Black entertainers, the answers unequally speak for themselves.
In an episode of All American, while playing football against another team Jordan sustained a concussion following a rough tackle and was ordered by his doctors to temporarily refrain from playing. Instead of listening to his doctors he fabricated his progress by dismissing his symptoms and reentered the game prematurely. As a result of re-exposing himself after another head injury he had another concussion which advanced to a full brain injury, which excluded him from football for the rest of his career. In the aftermath of playing football the long term effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is bad enough as much as it’s practically inevitable. The good news is that knowing the traumatic effects, one has a choice to play the game or not. When we use the N-word we voluntarily re-expose ourselves to the trauma of racism and the genocide that followed it over centuries. When hip-hop made the N-word cool it became the perfect excuse for White-owned media and their cohorts to share the “creativity” of the term and create a market for us to profit from while they reap the greatest dividends. Coupled with sagging pants and bonnets in public (that Mo’Nique eloquently objected to), the same drug that artists profit from is the same one that is fueling our own self-destruction. Essentially, by recycling the N-word and the latter behaviors, the Black community became a liability to itself by getting high off its own supply. Unless someone can show me differently, I have never seen this pattern of buffoonery followed by any other ethnic group be they Latinos, Jews, Asians, etc.
I’ll admit that in the ‘80s and ‘90s Black comedians like Eddie Murphy had me on life support as I was dying in laughter. Unlike them White comedians dared not say ‘n****r’ (except Mike Richards, who was immediately cancelled) but when Black comics used it with curses in their skits, it had a different sting that knocked me off my feet. As I matured and became more analytical of their content, without the n***a overload and excessive profanity, I opine that the material grossly lacked substance. Hence, my tastes in comedy shifted to a more conservative brand of humor that is relatable on subject matters. Equally, many golden era hip-hop recordings I loved back then I now listen to in the clean or instrumental versions.
Former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo highlighted his experiences with discrimination growing up as a Sicilian Italian-American in Queens during a 2019 WAMC podcast with Alan Chartock. Recognizing the potential backlash from the Black community and the tabloids he asked all of his viewers for a pardon before citing the racial slur that he was called: “Nigger Wop”. Since history confirms that Black men mated with Italian women after Hannibal Barca conquered Italy in the BC era, it is obvious why 'n****r' and 'w*p' were used in conjunction to describe Governor Cuomo and other Italians in his youth. Despite the controversy of his career preceding his resignation, he has never publicly referred to himself as either. Despite his explanation the podcast went viral describing Cuomo’s comment as racist, in which the Black community subsequently demanded an apology. Even where there was no clear intent to offend us while merely quoting an example of someone else’s bigotry, despite its ‘creative’ reconstruction it’s evident that heightened sensitivity to the word still prevails when it comes from others, especially White people.
After his trip to Africa and recognizing the damage that it was doing to himself and his community, Richard Pryor pledged to stop using the N-word. Since we are known to pay homage to fallen entertainers, in addition to appreciating their craft the best way for us to honor their legacy is to also learn from their mistakes. Immediately after my junior high awakening I followed his lead and I proudly attest that I am almost 40 years clean. Realistically, I do not portend that abolishing the N-word from our vocabulary will eradicate racism. However, I strongly believe that showing self-respect will minimize the excuses of White America and other nations to disrespect us. Particularly during COVID season, we can only strengthen our own immune system by not reinfecting ourselves with the same disease, especially when we are the most vulnerable demographic.
To those who think we paid a hefty price for our freedom and equality, I have good news: its free of charge.If that’s too expensive, even for those who have earned millions off of it: can you compare the cost to the price of your soul?