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The N-Word: Past Meaning and Contemporary Questions

Julia Smith's picture

            One thing we have discussed in class has captured my attention due to recent events on campus. We have talked about the evolution of morality and the evolution of language as separate entities, but we have not discussed the evolution, or lack thereof, of tabooed words. But have these words themselves evolved, or have we just evolved around their static position? I would like to specifically look at the word “nigger”. I am going to focus on the evolution of the word, or our evolution around the word, and discuss whether its meaning comes from the evolution of the word itself, or whether it has remained the same, hurtful word throughout the history of the United States. I would finally like to study how contemporary university events relate to the potential un-evolution of this word, how staff and students have dealt with the complexity and heaviness of the word, and how we as students can promote safe college spaces through the understanding of its “evolution”.

            Exactly when the word “nigger” became an offensive insult is unknown. However, we do know that it was already considered a huge slur in 1837 when Hosea Easton wrote The Condition of Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them. He claims that the term would be perfectly harmless in theory: it should be used only to distinguish social classes. Yet, it is used with the intent to deliberately make black people feel inferior (Kennedy, “Who Can Say”, 87). Today the word has the same connotations; it is considered one of the most hateful words in the English language. Does that mean that the word has not evolved at all, from 1837 to now? It is true that during Easton’s time the word was used much more frequently, and that less people were aware of how offensive it actually was. But is that a change in people, or a change in the word itself? I believe that people have evolved around the word; they have realized over time how vile it can be, while its meaning has remained static.

            On the other hand, some experts on slang believe that the word has evolved greatly. In the Encyclopedia of Swearing, Geoffrey Hughes states that the term has evolved through three stages throughout history. The first is a descriptive, non-offensive term used roughly from 1574-1840. The second stage is a highly offensive form, used from 1840-today (Hosea Easton says otherwise), and the third form is a “reclaimed” use of the word. Clarence Major, a writer and slang analyst, goes so far as to say that there is a fourth use of the word: that people of other races can now be called “niggers” as well. He cites an example from Queen Latifah in Newsweek magazine. She says, speaking about the United States government, “Those niggers don’t know what the fuck they doing” (320). On this point, I disagree with both Hughes and Major. I believe that the word has one primary meaning that has not evolved as much as they assume. Although it is ignorant to say that the usage has not evolved at all, today the term is still a derogatory one meant for people of African American decent. It has been used that way, perhaps unintentionally, since it originated. If someone uses a term to describe someone of a lower social status, especially a term based from slavery[1], then it is going to be derogatory just because it is was contrived in a way to describe someone thought of as being lesser. When Queen Latifah uses the word, she is drawing upon the harshness of it to use it as an insult. Although she directs it toward white men, she is using it as an insult, and with that insult comes history.

            Many people agree that there are at least two modern definitions of the word. There is an extremely negative one and there also is another “affectionate” (Hughes, 328) one used among the black community. Some sources cite that a spelling change differentiates “nigger” from “nigga”, the first being the pejorative use, and the second being the colloquial use within the black community. “Nigga” became more widely spread due to the emergence of hip-hop and rap music in the 1970s and 1980s, and thus a new movement, using “nigga” in a positive way, emerged (Judy 214). It is an unspoken rule that black people can freely say “nigger”, especially in a familial way, because it expresses a common history and oppression that binds this community together. I believe that this is a variant of the same derogatory definition of the word. If members of the black community use it in relation to their past as a community, then each time they use it, even if it is in a positive light, they are drawing on the past negativity of a word. While they may be reclaiming it, it is coming from the same definition. White people, however, because they originated the word and spread the use of it in a derogatory manner, cannot use it under any circumstances. Now, of course, this is not the view of every person. Many believe that it should be wiped from the vocabulary of every individual, regardless of race. The question remains, can we wipe out a word so deeply rooted in historical and cultural identity? And if we are successful, does that mean we have to ban it from all historical and literary documents so that our children don’t learn of its significance? First, I do not believe that it is possible to completely wipe out a word that is still being widely used both maliciously and socially. Secondly, I do not believe that we should ever destroy a part of history if we expect our society to mature. We have to assess situations and learn from them rather than to try to be cautious and erase them. We need to continue to learn about the history of this word so that our children can better understand where we came from, where all of us came from, and where we are today.

            This brings up a common debate within both secondary and higher education systems: banned literature. Huckleberry Finn is a novel is usually attacked because it contains the word “nigger” 215 times (Kennedy, Nigger, 138). In 1948, the first college-text edition was published introduced by Lionel Trilling (Arac, 110). According to Jonathan Arac, Trilling’s essay labeling Huckleberry Finn as a classic introduced it permanently into the college curriculum (110). Today there is still great debate about whether the book should be taught in any kind of classroom, whether it is unintentionally or intentionally racist, whether it is racist at all, or whether, if it is racist, it can still be taught in the right way to educate and not hurt students. My personal opinions match very well with Stacey Margolis’s, but first I will provide an overview of the debate.

            There are those who believe that it should be wiped out of the curriculum entirely. One of these people is Jane Smiley. She insists that it is racist not because of the many uses of the word “nigger”, but because of the relationship between Huck and Jim, especially in the last twelve chapters. She believes that throughout the novel, Jim becomes more subordinate, more like a sidekick than a main character. She says, as opposed to Huck freeing Jim at the end, that “Twain thinks that Huck’s affection is a good enough reward for Jim” (2). She concludes by saying that if this novel is taught it schools, it is promoting racism. On the other hand, Randall Kennedy defends Twain in his book Nigger. He insists that because Twain developed into a defender of the Civil Rights movement, that even if the characters are racist in the novel, that is only reflected upon the characters, not upon Twain or the novel itself. Kennedy does not come to a direct conclusion. He simply believes that people need to see the novel as not being racist before they decide whether or not to include it in the classroom (141). I agree with Kennedy. I do not believe that the book has to be labeled either racist or not, and I do not think that it is fair to label it. We cannot ask the author, and consequently, we can never arrive at a definite conclusion. Therefore, we should stop worrying about it. In her essay “Huckleberry Finn; or, Conseqences”, Stacy Margolis also takes this stance. She states, “one of Twain’s implications is that no reading of the novel can put an end to the debate it has engendered” (340). We have to look at the effects of the novel rather than the novel itself. I’m not saying that we don’t have to be cautious when teaching material containing this word, I’m not saying there’s a wrong way to teach it, and I’m certainly not saying that it isn’t racist. I am saying that it needs to be taught regardless of all this because it’s an important piece of history, and, if it is taught correctly, it can further the education of students to become more culturally aware of themselves and others.

            Obviously, there are right ways and wrong ways to teach books like Huckleberry Finn, but the hardest part is that no one is quite sure what those are. A teacher or professor has to be cautious to not alienate certain members of their classes, but they also must direct attention toward controversial issues contained in the material. There is an interesting article by Carol Ricker Wilson about her personal struggles in teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in the classroom. She was careful to approach the novel first by giving the students handouts to inform them both about the historical context of the novel, and also about the controversy surrounding its depiction of black life. She encouraged her students to keep journals talking about the interaction between characters, and held class discussions about Harper Lee’s intentions (68). However, she says that no matter how she framed the talks, the black students still felt demoralized, like they were a lessen to the white students about racism. She goes on to say that she will keep teaching it. She says that although some students felt demoralized, in other classes books like Taming of the Shrew are still taught although many female students feel offended. She thinks that it is helpful to have a curriculum that includes many kinds of diverse texts with diverse points of view so that every student has a chance to see himself or herself in at least one novel (70-71).             I agree with these theories. Too often I have heard at Bryn Mawr, “We are a school for strong women. Where are the classes about women? Where are the classes about female scientists? Where are the classes about me?” I think that books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird need to be taught because it is important to embrace our history as a country. It is important to learn about where we came from so that we can think intelligently. I also think that in order for these books to be most successful in the classroom, they need to be taught alongside other books with diverse authors. Students need more than just a white point of view, which is missing in many of America’s schools. I think that the discussion points springing from both these novels and other racially diverse novels will help solve the problem of ignorance in the United States.

            Moreover, controversial events surrounding the N-word on college campuses are far from curricular. One of the most cited events happened in 1993 at Central Michigan University. The coach, Keith Dambrot, was giving his team a pep-talk during half time. He used the term “nigger” only after asking them if it was okay.  He wanted to use it as motivation for the team because he had heard them saying it to each other, and he wanted to make a point using their language. Through a series of events, the news of the locker room talk spread through campus, leading eventually to Dambrot’s termination. Dambrot then decided to sue Central Michigan University under the violation of his First Amendment rights: a case he failed to win (Kennedy, Nigger, 141-143). This event was subject to so much controversy. It is extremely fascinating, in my opinion, because Dambrot did not understand why he was in the wrong. Perhaps if he had been more educated on the matter, things would have turned out differently. This is a prime example of how the word has stayed static while events have changed around it. Although Dambrot’s team members may have used nigger in a friendly manner among themselves, when Dambrot used it, it conjured up the ugly meaning it has had since the 1800s (and probably before.) Some might argue that, if nigger had been eliminated from colloquial use, then Dambrot would never have been in the wrong in the first place. I would disagree. I think the elimination of the word in colloquial form would have to lead to elimination in historical form, and then that would have just built up more ignorance. Furthermore, I think that if Dambrot did not use it because it was eliminated, others would have just because they would have been more uneducated about its connotations.

            Another case, at Jefferson Community College, is similar. In his introduction to interpersonal communications class, Professor Ken Hardy brought up the subject of taboo words. Students came up with many words, such as “faggot”, “lady”, and “bitch”. When a student brought up the word “nigger”, he used it as a springboard to start a class discussion about the linguistic and social levels of the word. However, one student was offended. She then sought aid from a local Reverend, Reverend Louis Coleman, who was also a social activist. Coleman discussed the issue with the Jefferson Community College president, and Hardy was fired. He, like Dambrot, sued the college for breech of his First Amendment rights. He too lost the case. Today, Coleman still believes that Hardy is not racist and was not intending the use of the N-word to be racist (Colin, 1-3). This brings up a different major point of discussion, because this issue was so academically rooted. Can white people say the N-word when they are talking about it academically? Am I allowed to use it in this essay? Is it offensive no matter how it is used and no matter who is saying it? I believe, because it is such a static word related tightly to history, that no matter how or when it is used it will conjure up hurtful sentiments. In the state that the world is in right now, we cannot expect no one to be offended by something so powerful as the N-word. Like Wilson felt about Taming of the Shrew, people are always going to be offended by certain things. Does that mean we should not discuss them? Certainly not. Humanities chairman of Jefferson Community College, Tom Sabetta, in response to the Hardy case said, “If we’re not free to expound these issues, we can’t do our job. If these things can’t be discussed in the classroom, where can they be discussed?” (Colin, 3). I think, like both Hardy and Wilson, because of the fixed meaning of the word “nigger”, that we have a responsibility to discuss it to educate our youth. We have a responsibility to take risks. Because it is such a controversial topic, there may be some consequences. But which is better, banning a word and banning a history, or talking about a contentious word in an academic setting?

             Kennedy addresses another interesting university event in Nigger. In 1990, Sabrina Collins, a freshman at Emory University, was reportedly terrorized by racist threats and graffiti using the N-word. It was later found that Collins had made up the entire event. What is most fascinating to me, however, is that in response to the event the president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, Otis Smith, claimed that if Collins intended to draw attention to the larger social issue of blacks in predominately white schools, then it did not matter what method she had used (Kennedy, 119). Is Smith claiming that the word “nigger” can be used by blacks to promote black history and study? Would he therefore agree that the word could be used the way that Hardy used it, in an academic setting? Is the awareness of the hatefulness of the word so powerful that it should be taught by any means? Although this whole time I have been advocating teaching the history of this word, I also want to promote caution. Because this word is so explosive, we need to be careful as well as take risks. We need to draw an academic line. We should not demonstrate, we should educate. While discussing Smith’s position on the Collins issue could be potentially fruitful in the college classroom, students can use the discussion to educate themselves and others, so that, by understanding the origin and meanings of the word, there is not a need for Smith anymore.

            Each situation is different, especially with the many uses and ignorance surrounding the history of this word. I think this paper has raised more questions for me than has answered them. I have been witness lately to a variety of opinions about this word and the racial issues surrounding it. I, as well as many members of my community at Bryn Mawr College, feel that this kind of controversy, in many cases, could have been prevented with the right kind of education. I believe that the word “nigger” is static, and that we have an obligation to teach people about its history so that they are less ignorant in their own lives. Perhaps one neglect of our course was to overlook some things that carry too much meaning to change. Perhaps as well as focusing on evolution, we should have discussions about those things unable to evolve.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. “Putting the River on New Maps: Nation, Race, and beyond in Reading             Huckleberry Finn”. American Literary History, Vol. 8, No. 1. (Spring, 1996), pp.             110-129. JSTOR. <            7148%28199621%298%3A1%3C110%3APTRONM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V>


Colin, Chris. “The N-Word”. <   >


Hughes, Geoffrey. An Encyclopedia of Swearing. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 2006.

Judy, R. A.T. “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity”. boundary 2, Vol. 21, No. 3.             (Autumn, 1994), pp. 211-230. JSTOR. <            3659%28199423%2921%3A3%3C211%3AOTQONA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A>


Kennedy, Randall. Nigger. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.


Kennedy, Randall. “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’ and Other Considerations”. The Journal of             Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26. (Winter, 1999-2000), pp. 86-96. JSTOR.             <            3711%28199924%2F200024%290%3A26%3C86%3AWCS%22AO%3E2.0.CO            %3B2-W>


Major, Clarence. Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang. New York:             Penguin Books, 1994.


Margolis, Stacey. “Huckleberry Finn; or, Consequences”. PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 2. (Mar.,             2001), pp. 329-343. JSTOR. <            8129%28200103%29116%3A2%3C329%3AHFOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5>


Smiley, Jane. “Say It Ain’t So, Huck”. Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 292, Issue 1748.             (January, 1996), pp 61.             <            ey_abbr.pdf>


Wilson, Carol Rickard “When the Mockingbird Becomes an Albatross: Reading and             Resistance in the Language Arts Classroom”. The English Journal, Vol. 87, No.             3, Teaching the Classics: Old Wine, New Bottles. (Mar., 1998), pp. 67-72.             JSTOR. <            8274%28199803%2987%3A3%3C67%3AWTMBAA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V>








[1] Hughes also claims that there is a “vital” link between the word nigger within the context of slavery “since it embodies an intensified fashion the demeaning roles of servitude and of being an outsider that have characterized the early roles of black people in Western Society” (327).  


Vanessa Linda Haggstrom's picture

I am Interested

I think now days if a African American, of a mix of African or someone was raisedin a Black Neighbourhood, take my Husband for example that Comes from South Chicago and everyone ther weather Black or Hispanic or sometimes white the say negga, to there brothers and homies and there closestfriends. And my family from the country and suburbs don't like it. But you can't change someone that's happy about themselves and how they was raised. It just society it American

Danny Khatz's picture

the "n" word

i feel that it is right black people are only allowed 2 use the "n" word its a part of my vocab and i use it about 10 times day!!! its all about how u say it if u put the er on it ur gettin slapped but if u say it with an a then u gud unless i dont like u ur tryin to insult me and ur white!!! thatz just like white ppl puttin the er on cracker and us blacks sayin it to offend them with an a ex: stupid crackaz!

Serendip Visitor's picture

reply to Danny Khatz

Cracker is to believed to be the term for white slave owners who would whip their slaves. In my opinion both terms should not be used, not with an er or an a. Yes, for over a hundred years Americans then should not be proud of what they did but none of us was alive then and because of that we all have a chance to adapt and make this generation a more respectable one. You and the rest of Americans (not African American) need to have respect for yourself and others. Why did I call you an American, because as long as you live in the untied states I will consider you as my equal, I will cause you no harm and I expect the same. Yes I know some people use the N word and are filled with racial hate inside them, but you know what I see and hear when I am exposed to that? Ugliness, plain and simple.

Janie's picture

You need to research further back

Romans conquered England. The English picked up the Latin word for black (niger) from the Romans. The spelling was changed to match English spelling rules. The likes of Rudyard Kipling and others started the notition that it no longer meant black but was more of a reference to an attitude.

aisha 's picture


I'm writing a paper for my english class on who the word is not rigth to used at anytime because looking at history it is painful and hurtful word

Gregg's picture


Will I get in trouble if I call someone a Ner?

Anonymous's picture

if ur white yes u will but

if ur white yes u will but not if ur black. I fell that nobody should use the "N" word anymore.