Nigger: Historical And Current Use Essay

3541 words - 14 pages

Nigger: Historical and Current Use

“Nigger: it is arguably the most consequential social insult in American History, though, at the same time, a word that reminds us of ‘the ironies and dilemmas, tragedies and glories of the American experience’” (Kennedy 1).

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word is at the center of debate because of its controversy. It addresses questions among a diverse audience of students and scholars of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in its quest to discover how and why the word should or should not be used in modern day America.

As a black American male, the word nigger conjures up within me hate, hostility, violence, oppression, and a very shameful and unfortunate part of American History. The word symbolizes the everlasting chains of a people plagued with hate and bondage simply because of skin color. For many black people, including myself, nigger is the most pejorative word in the English language. Even when compared to racial slurs like kike, honkey, cracker, wet back, spic, jungle bunny, pod, tarbaby, and white trash, nigger is noted as the worst insult in the English language. The word nigger suggests that black people are second class citizens, ignorant and less than human.

While many blacks and whites agree that the word should not be censored from the English language, it certainly should not be used by all people because of its historical significance. For example, black militants believe whites should never use the word nigger. On the other hand, the word nigger has been “reclaimed” by black youths particularly in the hip-hop culture. These modern day teens claim that it is just a word and that people give words meaning rather than words giving people meaning. If this were true, the word nigger could be altered from time to time depending on who was using it and where. In other words, youth in the hip-hop culture are arguing that context determines the meaning of nigger.

Kennedy proclaims a similar argument for using the word nigger. He argues that everyone (including whites) can use nigger, as long as the context of its use is clear and appropriate.

However, the historical significance of the word nigger is deeply rooted in American History. For example, Kennedy’s book presents historical examples of nigger in its most pejorative context: “Michael Jordan was suspended from school for hitting a white girl who called him a nigger” and “Tiger Woods was tied up in kindergarten by his older schoolmates who called him nigger” (Kennedy 22). It is precisely because of this history that many African Americans are in favor of banning the word from the English language. Although the historical significance of the word nigger often triggers deep-rooted hostility in the African Americans, it has also progressively evolved into a term of endearment in the modern day African American culture. Consequently, a fine line exists between past and present...

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