steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*I’ve never smoked cigarettes. I’ll have alcohol only occasionally, don’t eat to feed some emotional quirk and I’ve never been hooked on any drug.

Yet, with deep and abiding respect to those for whom abuse of these things are troubling compulsions, I imagine kicking my particular habit is the same battle. After all, those fixations and my own won’t ultimately emanate from the same dark hole.

And so, it is with renewed dedication that I announce–again, dammit–my determination to stop using the word nigger. Or as blacks pronounce it, nigga.

The original version of this column, which first appeared  in 2007, was inspired by my not having uttered the word for a solid two weeks. For someone who used the word liberally, those fourteen days marked triumph.

My celebration didn’t last long, though. Pretty soon I was back on that word. Every time I said it, I was aware that I was doing something wrong. That I did so in spite of those feelings speaks to the level of my dysfunction. OUR dysfunction. I have to stop using this word.

I learned nigga, along with your basic four letter word group, when I was a child. I vividly recall walking home in the late ’60s with black middle school classmates and using every foul word we knew. Nearly every sentence was laced with “nigga.” To us kids, it seemed mature to curse as some adults did, and back then, funny enough, nigga was considered a curse word.

I compare my casual use of the contemptuous word today to the same reasons I used it as a child. There was no good reason for it then, and none now.

Every black person who uses nigga knows its unspoken rite. For example, as easily as I say the word among blacks, I never use it among friends of other persuasions, by mistake or otherwise. It’s not even in my consciousness then, unless, of course, I am talking about how
terrible a word it is to use.

The argument popular among blacks who use nigga is that, by saying it among ourselves “endearingly,” we defuse its hateful power. Really? Then why does the word suddenly develop the force of an atom bomb when used by a person of another race?

We don’t allow others to use it even affectionally. So how is it that blacks and blacks alone can mystically transform a word that, out of every other mouth signifies hate, into a bouquet of roses? How does that work? It is what it is. A turd, bronzed, polished and hanging from a chain, is still a turd.
The nobody-can-use-it-but-us philosophy sounds like madness, but there is a method even to twisted, industrial-strength dysfunction: the child who was molested, often grows up to molest. Men and women often unwittingly seek romantic suitors who possess the qualities of their parents, and correspondingly, the oppressed often end up imitating their oppressor.

“We sick, masa?” often went a slave’s doting query to his keeper. What might have been an innocent misuse of English also illustrated a slave’s subconscious willingness to take on his master’s emotions. If master was ill or having a bad day, so was his slave.

Likewise, our use of nigga is rooted in our desire to emulate our former master–at our own emotional expense. That might be difficult for many blacks to grasp, especially when they are thinking of anything but a slave master when they use the word. However, there is no denying where the bread crumbs ultimately lead.

Consider this bit of sheer nonsense: blacks protest bitterly the very notion of whites–who invented the word to no good purpose–using nigger in any capacity. However, today whites are not the ones applying the word ad nauseam; they’re not allowed to. We’ve reserved that
honor for ourselves.

Whites could use nigger on national television every day of the week and not hurt blacks more than we’ve hurt ourselves using it. Ironically, the word is more dangerous in our hands, because what whites use in hate, we actually think we can transcribe into love.

We routinely lambaste white racists, but it is the black American, not whites, who valiantly keeps nigger alive in popular culture, on recordings, film, clothing and in the media–through which we have introduced the word to all corners of the globe. Our incessant use of the word reflects the perilous depths of our self hate.

Almost as embarrassing as our very public use of nigger is our impassioned debate before the world–among ourselves, no less–over the right to use it. Kind of like fighting for the privilege to a spoonful of cyanide. Or lining up to catch cancer. No matter how cool or empowering we think it is, every time we use nigga, we demonstrate our emotional bewilderment and weakness of spirit. And every group of people knows how utterly pathetic the argument is but us.

Interestingly, in my lifetime, no white man has personally called me nigger, ever. Only black people have called me this.

However, I vow, as I have before, that there is now one less black person saying this word. I mean it. Using it makes as much sense as working out at the gym–and afterward lighting up a cigarette. Or devouring a three course meal, then promptly throwing up. Or, eloquently explaining why this word, the bane of a people and the nagging thorn in the side of a nation, is horrible–UNLESS it comes out of the mouth of an American black man, the very person it was designed to hurt.

As with any illness, healing involves patience and courage. I’m taking it one conversation at a time.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]