Nigga, Not Nigger?
Overtime, we’ve witnessed the semantic change of the N word from a term primarily used as a racial slur into what many would now consider term of endearment. While conducting thorough research attempting to discover reasons behind the sudden change in context when using the N word, I struggled tremendously. I instead chose to research the etymology of the N word as it pertains to the context in which it is used and who exactly is using the word. While analyzing the variation nigga (in modern urban context) from nigger, it is important that you recognize this change has taken place in more recent times.
In accordance with the rise of Rap in pop culture, the historical contextual use of the word has sparked controversy in the overtly diverse U.S. about whether the use of the word nigga by non-Black American persons is considered inappropriate regardless of context. In their scholarly journal Epithet or Endearment?: Examining Reactions among Those of the African Diaspora to an Ethnic Epithet, authors Carol M. Motley and Kellina M. Craig-Henderson asserts within page 948 that “Understanding the language used by a people facilitates understanding that people.” When understanding the language of a people, particularly Black American people in this instance,you must first understand that the N-word initially served as a tool in the institutionalized and social oppression of Black persons here in the U.S.
According to a Youtube video uploaded by The Washington Post titled “The n-word through history”, the narrator expresses how during the early 1900’s “you could do a slow 360 turn and everywhere you turned your eyes would land on the word nigger. From your stove polish,to the trade names for your fruits and vegetables, to the penny bank that your child has,…”. From this direct quote and the images presented in the video, we are given insight as to how deeply rooted the use of the N-word was in pop culture during the early 20th century, but the popularized word had a different contextual meaning because it was in the possession of the oppressor.
Part of this oppression included not only controlling Black people through physical force, but controlling their identity as well. Nigger was not simply uttered to describe Black bodies, it was then as it is now a term to designate a people (Black people) to a particular socio-experience along with the negative connotations and behavior that society had attached to the term .
Identity– the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or condition. – Dictionary.com
Despite counter arguments with implications that are somehow internalizing or embracing bigotry and the negative connotations of Nigga, it is vital that we understand the embodiment of modern Hip-Hop culture/Urban Black culture and its constant usage of the N-word is not this. Black Americans have established a culture for themselves that takes ownership of what was meant to dehumanize and desist any social progression, turned it into medium for artistic expression and redefined the term nigga as a person who is affected by oppression but does not succumb. Despite the amount of outrage and calls for a desist of the word, it will forever live through the freedom of expression in the urban Black arts.