When harvard university law prof Randall Kennedy published Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word, he won his Warholian 15 minutes of notoriety by insisting that the disreputable epithet is really an icon of Americana. This Ivy League African American obtained much media cred by insisting that folks should "chill" when the n-word smacks their ears: its usage is not always racist.
Kennedy's don't-worry-be-happy analysis presumes that racial equality has arrived (nearly), at least in the United States, and so a healthy attitude toward "nigger" would recognize that it is 1) a museum piece, 2) a staple of African-American vernacular, 3) a free-speech "test," and 4) a species of pop art, as in hiphop. Missing from Kennedy's squib is any appreciation of the bloody social history that taints the word. But, then again, that is the curious habit of liberals: to pretend that all is well, that the future can only be better and that the past is a mere nuisance.
Yet anyone who deigns to shout "nigger" ought to know that the word arose amid the spirited European operation of the Atlantic slave trade, finding its way into dictionaries and onto the lips of colonial slaveholders and overseers and not just in the American Republic, but in "our" icy monarchy as well as in the Caribbean and Latin American duchies of various empires. The word was handy: a nigger was either a slave or someone deserving of slavery, whatever his or her actual status (free or freed; rich black or poor white).
After slavery ended, white racists and self-hating blacks peppered their invective with the word. And it spiced up popular culture, from Hollywood to Broadway, including many minstrel shows touring the Great White North.
During the era of gung-ho Brit imperialism, "nigger" could apply just as easily to a white Québec francophone (see Pierre Vallières) as to an Asiatic (see H.G. Wells). Since then, the Yanks, revelling in their own blithe imperialism, have seen fit to add on the adjective "sand" to malign Arabs.
Although the word has won fresh devotees among rap performers and their disciples and plagiarists, in the "real world," it continues to provoke gun battles and lawsuits. No wonder. It can be used humorously (check Richard Pryor) and politically (check Nikki Giovanni), but nothing erases the truth that it originated in the wholesale rape and murder that was slavery. Its continued use by diasporic Africans demonstrates not our "liberation," but our co-optation into the world view of white supremacy. (Word up: Martin King and Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey didn't die so we could call each other nigger.)
The word was and is the invention of white power expressed culturally, politically and economically. I offer one personal example. While completing my dissertation at Queen's University, Kingston, I had occasion, one summer night, to buy some groceries and was strolling back to the graduate residence. Along the way, three or four pasty yahoos in a black car drove up, screamed "Nigger!" and then sped into the night.
Now, there I was, a doctoral candidate in English, hip to the ironies of our post-colonial and postmodernist moment. But I dropped my groceries, picked up a rock, chased the fleeing car and hurled that stone with all the force I could muster, knowing that it would accomplish nothing except to expend some of the adrenalin revving my system.
That minor incident, as abject and as silly as it was, underlines my sense that the usage of the n-word is all about power. The cops who yell "nigger" as they pummel some black or brown suspect command all the immediate, credible force in the world, and the kids who fire the word at each other, whatever their class or race, seek only to damage each other.
(I confess that I use the word in a few poems. Honestly, my intent is ironic.)
No more than three decades ago, here in Toronto the Good, rednecks called South Asians "Pakis," francophones "frogs," Chinese "Chinks" and Africans (also termed "blacks") "niggers." All of these ugly ethnic slurs have now more or less evaporated, even from graffiti all, that is, but one.
The explanation lies not in improved social morality, but in increased economic and political clout for all of the above groups (and others) but one. Yeah, yeah, I know: Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean is the Governor General of Canada, a post of great prominence. But her position does not and cannot represent real power. For that we need a black premier (or two), a black Supreme Court justice (or two), a black mayor (or two), a black big-five bank director (or two), a black CBC/Radio-Canada head (or two), a black major newspaper publisher (or two) and, oh yes, a black prime minister.
Yessirree, that the n-word is still so common proves the powerlessness of African-heritage peoples in white-supremacist societies such as our own. (Think I exaggerate? Note the composition of the judiciary, the legislatures, the corporate directorships.... Read John Porter's Vertical Mosaic, his study of Canadian racial and ethnic stratification.)
The correct response to the epithet "nigger" is not to spit back another slur. No, one must reply with an equally venerable phrase, one requiring actualization now: Black power!