Hey Nigger—The Power Of A Word

It was a cool October evening, 1997, when the following incident occurred. It seemed like a page torn from history. I was standing on the corner of Chorro and Higuera in San Luis Obispo, California, a small college town on the Central Coast, waiting for the light to change when a car full of young adults turned the corner. A young man yelled out, “Hey, Nigger!” I froze. Instantly my mind became a storm of memories of each time in my life I had been called a nigger. My anger was overwhelming. I felt the collective rage of my entire race boiling inside my body. Why did this word slice through my flesh like a razor? Why did my body become stiff with anger? It’s just a word. Isn’t it?

I remembered the first time a white playmate called me a nigger when I was five. I ran home crying.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

“Billy Tibbs called me a nigger,” I cried.

“Do you know what a nigger is?” she asked.

“No Mommy but it sounds bad,” I replied.

“You are not a nigger sweetheart. Now go out and play.”

Currently there is a controversy taking place between the NAACP and Merriam-Webster over whether the dictionary’s definition of the word nigger should be “a black person” or “a racial slur referring a to a black person.” I think it might be difficult for a non-black person to understand how I felt that evening because there is no other word in the English language which is as offensive and hurtful as the word nigger. There are words which are racial slurs against white people too, but their impact is different because their history and usage is different. W.E.B. DuBois said,

The white man may not intend nigger to be derogatory — but to the black man it is always derogatory and demeaning.

The word nigger is a variant form and pronunciation of the Latin word niger and the Spanish word Negro both meaning black. The early Portuguese slave traders collected most of the slaves from the Niger River valley in what is now called Nigeria on the west coast of Africa. The first recorded use of the word appeared in Samuel Sewall’s Diary, spelled with a single “g” around 1700. Joseph Conrad used the word in the title of his book The Nigger of the Narcissus as did Dick Gregory in his autobiography simply titled Nigger. Some people want to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of Mark Twain’s use of the word. Newspapers won’t print the word unless it is in quotation marks and TV newscasters won’t even say it. They call it the “N” word in an attempt to make it less offensive but it does not change the context of the word.

I educate some friends when they use words like blackball and blackmail by interjecting, “Don’t you mean whiteball or whitemail?” It reminds them of the sensitivity attached to the word black as always being negative. You’re “behind the eight ball” when you’re in trouble not the cue ball. Good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. When the stock market crashed ten years age it was called Black Monday. Until the sixties the only positive references to the word black were “black gold” for oil and “in the black” for a company making a profit. During the sixties black people began to give this negative term positive meaning. Black became beautiful and no longer ugly. “Say it loud, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’” became the passphrase of a people beginning our own self-identification.

Maybe now it’s time to make another attempt to span this corridor separating the races. In the study of martial arts I learned to disarm my adversary by turning his own flow of energy against him. My adversary in this case is not the young white man who yelled out, “Hey, nigger,” but my reaction to his epithet. True, my reaction is founded on historical as well as personal experience but after all, it is just a word. I am responsible for how I interpret and react to the word.

Of all the possible ways this young man could have chosen to interact with me, why did he choose this way? He didn’t want interaction. He wanted to create a reaction and he succeeded. He drove safely away in the car while I’ve thought of nothing else for the last three days. As a race, we changed an entire country’s perception of the word black by first changing how we ourselves perceived the word. “Hey, black man” yelled from a passing car today would have resulted in my laughter instead of my contempt. Thirty years ago, it felt the same as “Hey, nigger” did a few days ago.

I know this transition is going to be more difficult than the one we made in the sixties because it’s not part of a movement. I don’t think James Brown is going to compose a song to give the word nigger a positive image. I still don’t like the word. It still “sounds bad” but any change of consciousness must be the result of personal transformation. All I can do is understand the energy I give to this word and then disarm it. I can take away its razor edge as best I can. I can remove its demeaning quality while still recognizing it as derogatory. I can take away this word’s ability to create the reaction it did and no longer be its victim!

“You are not a nigger,” I kept repeating after the incident as I reached out to friends to help bring some order to my rage. I still don’t know what a nigger is other than a noun. Like all nouns it represents an object without containing that object. There is no heat in the word hot, there is no coolness in the word cold, and there is no anger or hatred in the word nigger unless I put it there.

Thanks, Mom. I’ll go out and play now.

Note: First published October 30, 1997. New Times Magazine. San Luis Obispo, CA. Although I consider myself more of a poet than a writer, this essay was the start of my writing life. Republished today to kick off Black History Month 2018.

Listen to Donny Hathaway sing To Be Young Gifted And Black here.