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NAACP aims to bury the 'N-word'

The Baltimore Sun

DETROIT -- The NAACP held a mock funeral yesterday for one of the most inflammatory terms in the English language: the N-word.

With the fervor of a civil rights-era demonstration and the passion of a rousing church service, NAACP members and their supporters pledged good riddance not only to the derogatory word but also to other disparaging expressions they say have gone tolerated for too long among some African-Americans.

"Today, we're not just burying the N-word, we are taking it out of our spirit, we are taking it out of our minds," Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said to thunderous applause of hundreds who gathered at the city's riverfront Hart Plaza. "To bury the N-word, we've got to bury the pimps and the hos and the hustlers. Let's bury all the nonsense that comes with this."

The participants, ranging in age from seniors in scooters to babies in carriages, arrived in droves at the city's Cobo Center and made their way to the riverfront, where politicians, civil rights activists and religious leaders delivered eulogies as part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 98th annual convention.

"Let's say good riddance to this vestige of slavery and racism, and say hello to a society that embraces all its people," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.

Leading the procession was a horse-drawn carriage carrying a simple pine casket, blanketed in wilted flowers. At the Hart Plaza amphitheater, the crowd gathered for two hours under the punishing sun, waving signs reading "Bury the N-Word" and "Gone forever."

It wasn't the first time the nation's oldest civil rights organization had staged a funeral to symbolize the death of a tool of discrimination. In 1944, the NAACP put to rest Jim Crow during a service, also in Detroit.

This year's event attacked the slur's usage by some African-Americans.

In a 1997 article about the dictionary definition of the N-word, Julian Bond, as a professor at American University and the University of Virginia, told The Sun that while derogatory, the N-word is also taken as a term of affection among some African-Americans. Other scholars have said such usage is intended to take the sting out of a slur used for so long to oppress blacks.

But yesterday, Bond, who became the NAACP's chairman in 1998, said those days must end.

"This is not an acceptable term for anyone to use," he said. "We need to make sure that no one denigrates people no matter who they are. We need to protect the denigration of our people by our people."

To that end, the NAACP's youth component launched a national Stop Campaign to end the prevalence of racist and sexist language and images in the media. The project gained steam after radio shock jock Don Imus enraged civil rights leaders this spring when he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy headed hos."

"I know people who use it [the N-word] as a term of endearment, with the idea that if you use it yourself, you can ease the pain of the word," said Crystalee Forbes, 17, an NAACP member from Uniondale, N.Y., who participated in the procession. "But in reality, the weight of the word is not gone. And it's insulting to the older generation."

Young people aren't completely to blame, said Kenneth Curry, 58, who said he remembers decades ago comedian Richard Pryor used the N-word frequently in his stand-up acts.

"Older people haven't been educating younger folks about the power, the negative power, of that word," the Detroit resident said.

While some faulted hip-hop culture for the recent proliferation of the N-word, one of rap's founding fathers told the crowd that music can be popular without being offensive.

"I've been in hip-hop for about 35 years, and I've never used the N-word," said Kurtis Blow. "You guys buy the rap records. They wouldn't make the rap records if you didn't buy them. Stop supporting stuff you don't want to hear. People go around and say 'hip-hop this,' 'hip-hop that,' well, it ain't about hip-hop -- it's about you."

The rapper-turned-minister linked the slur's usage to a lack of self-esteem and urged the audience to look inward.

"The conditions of our society, of our world, of our 'hood, is a direct representation of the condition of our minds," he said. "We need to change the way we think."

Some of the most poignant remarks came from young members in the NAACP, who organized the burial.

While most speakers referred to the slur as "the N-word," Victoria Lanier and Erica McLaughlin warned the audience that they would use the full term, to drive home the power behind it.

They read an obituary that traced the word's history from its ugly origins to its adoption by some hip-hop stars -- giving the word cachet among young fans hoping to emulate the language of their role models.

"To be a nigga was about keeping it real," Lanier said. "It made it hard for young NAACP members like myself to fight for justice while being a member of the hip-hop generation."

"But today, we lay the word nigger to rest," McLaughlin said. "We will no longer make [it] familiar or a member of our family. ... We promise we will be creative in our rap lyrics and respectful of our heritage."

Baltimore resident Cheryl Banks Boston, 54, was on vacation visiting family in Detroit this week and heard about the funeral. She decided to take part.

"This is such an important statement, and it shows we can empower ourselves," she said. "I'm so pleasantly surprised to see young people leading this. I'm impressed."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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