COLUMN

An Unacceptable Word No Matter Who Says It

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The word "nigger" keeps dancing on the high wire of the circus of race in America.

Paula Deen, Rachel Jeantel, Riley Cooper have sparked all matter of debate this summer about who can and cannot say the word and whether it is ever right, regardless.

CNN's Don Lemon jumped on the wire to discuss, only to have hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons also jump on and try to wrestle him off with name-calling and insults.

Students in my summer course discussed the word in relation to freedom of expression, having learned, as hateful as it is, the word is protected by the First Amendment.

Americans have the First Amendment right to say "nigger."

Crazily, the ones brazenly carrying out that right are black.

Two of the three blacks in the class were OK with blacks saying it, but not whites; the nonblacks in the class were opposed to anyone saying it and could not understand why blacks would say it.

Context matters — yes, but no. White Philadelphia Eagles player Riley Cooper's tone and demeanor when saying "nigger" echoed what one would hear from a lynch mob: hate. Yet, for all the love that brothers claim to have when calling other brothers "nigga," the casualties of brothers killing brothers belie this.

Just as white mobs uttered "nigger" as less than a term of endearment during lynchings, "nigga" rolling off the tongue of a black as he shoots another black is hardly brotherly love.

The word is like a bullet in a gun. Doesn't matter the color of the hand pulling the trigger.

My ongoing research on the many references to Americans of African descent reveal that "Negro" was the standard name of reference through the Civil War, until "colored" challenged and overtook it — whereupon "Negro" reclaimed the mantle. It wasn't uncommon, though, to see both words in the same newspaper story. "Negro" and "colored" shared the spotlight until "black" took over in the late 1960s and made them both passe.

At no point was "nigger" the standard, acceptable reference.

One of my black students said perhaps "nigger" might become like "black" was to the older generation in the 1960s, which had been accustomed to the word "Negro" or "colored."

I thought about that and all I can say is this:

If "nigga" or "nigger" should ever become the standard word of reference for Americans of African descent so that blacks old and young say it and hear it without blinking an eye; and whites get to say it openly in front of blacks and the nation's media without losing life, limb, reputation and endorsements; and the news media's only debate is on whether it should be a small "n" or capital "N"; and the dictionary cites it as "formerly a derogatory word of reference to descendants of Africans but now an acceptable word of pride"; and February becomes "Nigga History Month"; and "nigger" fails to drum up images of lynchings, degradation and dehumanization; and young blacks who reason that "we say it with an 'a' and they say it with an 'er'" are unmoved when informed that for years whites used "nigga" and "nigger" depending on where they stood in relation to the Mason-Dixon line; and clergy start talking about "nigga heaven before a colorless God"; and sports teams fine players for using the word "black" or "African American" instead of "nigga" or "nigger" — then I shall call on the angels to come take me because I will be ready.

In the meantime, I'd like to see this: a poll on Americans' use of the word — who, how many, how often, when and why; the nation's journalists calling out the brothers who use the word and making them face the same questions as nonblacks; schools cracking down on the word as they do other profanities; sports teams sanctioning every player who uses the word; lastly, the entertainment industry and performers taking a stand against this as they do homophobia and bullying.

Yes, I'm not calling the angels without a fight.

Frank Harris III of Hamden is a professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. His column appears every other Thursday.

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