Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nigga, pleez!

Everyone who read that title reacted differently. Every one of you. I can guarantee it. The reactions were probably as widely varied as the cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of my reading audience. I had second thoughts about the title, but the very discomfort it engenders goes a long way in striking the tone I wanted to create.

I was six years old when I was called a nigger for the first time.

That was 1978 and I’ll never forget it. We had just moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Raleigh, North Carolina, and I was looking out the front door at nothing in particular when he appeared. I saw this teenager walking across MY grass, and for whatever reason, I decided he needed to know where he was. “Get off my grass,” I yelled, my tiny little voice booming as loudly and as menacingly as I could muster. Without skipping a tenth of a beat, this kid – normal white guy; no different than any of the older neighborhood kids I knew and played with in St. Louis - screamed, “Shut up, nigger!”

Excuse me? Offended that he rebuffed the way I was protecting MY grass, I shot back and said, “You shut up, nigger!” Clearly, I didn’t understand what I was saying.

Thirty-one years later, and I still don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s used. I don’t understand why there is a double standard around who can use it. I don’t even understand the nonsense around funeralizing something that apparently will never die. You may or may not remember the funeral the NAACP held for the N-word:

(http://www.naacp.org/events/convention/98th/funeral/index.htm)

It was done in a ceremony during the 1998 convention in Detroit. Seems like it did a hell of a lot of good, huh?

I ask myself, “Just how black do I have to be in order to not only use the word, but to feel comfortable with it falling out of my mouth, or effortlessly sinking past my inner ear – and not react?” (Hell, the whole what’s black enough topic carries enough drama and historical venom to have its own post.) People of all backgrounds – and I’m talking black folks – use it freely. In his attempt at defending the use of the word, Ludracris (in an appearance promoting the movie ‘Crash’) just about made Oprah’s head spin on its axis. Is he blacker than me? A guy at my second job the other day told me he had to ‘nigger rig’ something. Is he blacker than me? Jesus Christ, president Obama used a Jay-Z song during his campaign that – surprisingly as hell – didn’t censor the N-word. You should have seen the deer-in-the-headlight reactions on the faces of the audience. Is he blacker than me?

Or is that even the issue?

Racism is never going away. People should come to that conclusion, if they haven’t yet. People should also realize that the use of the N-word isn’t limited to the rural South, but spread internationally thanks to an ever-expanding global community. However, to legitimize anything that has divided races and cultures – and you cannot tell me that we, as a black collective, have not legitimized this word – is questionable, at best, and shameful, at worst. Some of my friends use the word, and my perspective may irritate the hell out of them. I can’t help that.

And I can’t blame them because I’m also conflicted in a way. I don’t use it, and I cannot fathom my child using it, but one of my favorite artists of the day, Lil Wayne, couldn’t write a song without its inclusion. I bob my head to his songs, rapping along with him as best I can until one of the N-words creeps in, and gets blurred out. I know what he said. Everybody knows what he said. There inevitably comes a moment of reflection about it, and then I start bopping my head to the music, and rapping along with him as best I can – until it happens again….and then the song is over. Am I perpetuating the use of the N-word by not crying out against artists whose every day vernacular would be void without it? Do I shame myself and make moot my argument that the N-word does nothing to positively contribute to our society – let alone define our society? Does it count it if I’ve only said it in my head, but not out loud? “What do you mean, ‘you people’?”

When I hear that word – not always, of course, but just sometimes – I think about my parents, growing up as teenagers and young adults in the fifties and sixties. They lived in Kansas City (one in Kansas and the other in Missouri). My parents and grandparents were witness to some of the most horrible treatment one person could dole out on another. And they survived. When I hear that word – not always, of course, but just sometimes – I think about Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordering dogs and firehouses to tear into black men and women and children in Alabama. And the way president Kennedy only intervened when politics came into play. When I hear that word – not always, of course, but just sometimes – I think about my son, and how the world has changed in so many ways that he’ll never be able to fully understand or appreciate. I think about how lucky we both are that times have changed. I wonder how many sons saw their fathers fight back after being called a nigger, only to be beaten down and hanged in a throng of excited witnesses murmuring about how “he got what he deserved.”

I hear variations on a theme every day. Every day. It’s on the radio. It’s in movies and on TV. I hear it as I walk through the crowds of young men at my second job. What up, my nigga? Nigga, pleez. That nigga crazy. You my nigga. Each occurrence, no matter the context, no matter how it’s pronounced or even spelled, boggles my mind. And makes me angry at the same time. How black does that make me?

Or is that even the issue?