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Gary Freeman Exposes the N-Word

8 April 2011 No Comments

By Gary Freeman

Let’s not allow the N-word issue to be over-intellectualized into a debate that focuses on the style of language. The focus must be on the style of racist subjugation and hatred, including the pathologies of Black inferiority and self-hatred.

We need to go back to the relevant beginning of the N-word and that is the international slave trade. Slavery begot the N-word. There were no “niggers” before slavery. Slavery created the ugly, sordid hierarchy of skin that encompassed not just the hue of flesh, but also facial and body features. Let’s be absolutely clear that we are dealing with an insanity: The lighter the skin, straighter the hair, thinner the lips, pointier the nose, the better.

Speaking of noses, did you grow up having yours pinched? The working knowledge that guided my father’s path through life was an incredible and incredulous amalgam of street lore and old “nigger” tales. An example is this little ditty that guys of my generation thought cool to recite in the pre-Martin Luther King Jr. assassination era: “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. But if the berry’s too black, it ain’t no use.” So, it seemed quite incredible that my father married my dark-skinned mother, until it is remembered that his working knowledge was an encyclopedia of Black male survival instruction full of conflicts and contradictions.

Obviously, he knew true beauty when he saw it. Yet, he could not free himself from the intrinsically evil racist hierarchies of skin hue and body type to overcome his fear that as his sons grew up their noses would widen and flatten out. So, he habitually pinched our little noses to ensure that we wouldn’t have “nigger” noses.

But it’s not that the N-word was ever used in my home — it wasn’t. In my family, and in my neighbourhood, saying the N-word was considered sacrilegious. It was almost as bad as denying the existence of Jesus. And that was worse than cussing. The word “coloured” wasn’t much liked, either. It was an ugly word often seen on signs such as, “No Coloured Allowed” or “Coloured Entrance”. It was a truly amorphous designation that relegated Black people to a kind of un-existence resulting in what Martin Luther King Jr. described in his Letter from Birmingham Jail as a “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’”

At one end of this spectrum of racist and dehumanizing invisibility existed the insanity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. At the other end were Black men who worked as railroad sleeping-car porters and were all called George. Negro was actually the preferred term, at least, until the mid-1960s. It was a very proper noun. Considered sophisticated and politically correct, the name Negro was nevertheless a designation imposed upon Black people.

Which brings us to the word “Black”. During my childhood, to call a Black person Black was considered an insult. To be Black was to be an undignified, uncouth and ugly being of African descent. When there were arguments, as there were in my house between my paternal grandmother and my mother, I frequently heard phrases such as “You’re just a Black” cast as stones. Of course, these stones were being hurled at my mother.

My practically white-looking grandmother, on more than one occasion, strongly suggested that my father had made a big mistake marrying a girl as dark as my mother. These arguments would occur within earshot of my brother and I. What were we supposed to think? Well, that being Black was nothing to be proud of.

Still, nothing was worse than the N-word. There was hell to pay — guaranteed — if you called somebody a “nigger”. It was equivalent to saying to someone that they should be dead. Within the context of race relations between the African Diaspora and European settler-states, the N-word had been used as a weapon to exact psychological and emotional damage meant to deal a deathblow to the self-respect, dignity and humanity of Africa and her Diaspora.

That Blacks used and continue to use the N-word as self-descriptive and cruel epithets only verifies the past and continuing success of the slave-making process. A people who defile their own humanity cannot expect that others will not do the same. A people with no self-respect and dignity cannot raise themselves out of bondage. What is at stake here is nothing less than the restoration of Africa and her Diaspora to full membership in the human family.

Let’s cut to the nitty-gritty of the issue of the style of language versus the use of language as a tool of redemption and liberation. I’ll pose a simple question: Why are the lyrics of James Brown’s famous anthem not, “Say it loud, I’m a nigger and I’m proud”?

During the Civil Rights and Black power eras, it was a given that success could not be achieved unless Blacks were able to, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud”. It was necessary to transform Blackness into a source of pride and strength in order to strive for truth, justice and peace. This required the nullification and condemnation of the N-word. The cause was taken up by brothers off the block — known variously as Block Boys, B-boys, the underclass, lumpens or gang-bangers — who, at the height of ’60s era Civil Rights and Black power activism, largely forbade the use of the N-word within their milieu.

These days, we lament the recurrence of N-word usage among those who style themselves as part of hip-hop culture. The commercial music genre known as rap is derived from African oral and rhythmic performance traditions in style, though not necessarily in substance. The substance of that tradition is one of passing on inspiration and knowledge for surviving, thriving and driving freedom foreword.

It is necessary to get the mind off the road leading to shiny metals and treasury notes in order to know how truly powerful Black art can be. Of particular relevance is the art of the godfathers of rap: The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. I have spoken with kids who have never heard of them. Those masters of the spoken word knew that in the begging was the word and the word did not begin with the letter N. It began with the letter F, as in freedom.

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