Debating the “N” Word

I am spending the week at the University of Denver where I am presenting the second of four European history conferences. It is my goal to get some writing done every night while here in Denver. While editing and adding a few additional pages to my paper on Atlantic history, my mind conflated recent news about the death of the “N” word and Peter Gay’s depiction of the period known in the Atlantic world as the Enlightenment. Although this paper deals very little with the nature of race in North America, it would be very difficult to write about European mercantilism and colonization without touching some on the birth of neo-racism and the institution of slavery. After reading a few of my notes on capitalism and race, I thought more about the transformation of the European term niger — which was Latin for black. However, the occupants of British North America quickly realized the profit margin of free black labor as an institution designed though not intended by some scholars to replace indentured servitude.

As I stated in an earlier blog piece: In Karl Marx’s historical modes of production, he contends that neo-racism did not emerge until the rise of Atlantic market labor systems. As the need and desire for more labor increased to help expand capitalists’ notion of mercantilism, exploitation became the premise of enhancing one’s wealth. Before the rise of this paradigm, slavery had yet to be juxtaposed to racism. Ancient slavery was a product of group defeatism. Furthermore, issues of debt and family pride contributed to this institution. By the early middle ages, slavery in Europe and aspects of Asia took on a more feudal identity. I teach that the term “racism” was transformed at the same point that the term “slavery” was transformed via the 16th century Atlantic market. This market gave rise to a newly created North American state that used racial exploitation as a labor base to develop its economic market. I do realize that this attitude was one of region and geography; regardless, it fostered an American identity linked to capitalism, slavery, and racism.

By 1750 a Southern culture emerged that saw the importance of slave labor. With the enlightenment having an impact on the political, cultural, and economic direction of Europe and northern North American colonies, Southerners thanks in part to dislocation and isolation, were not impacted by the dissemination of ideas. When leaders of the United States met to address the Articles of the Confederation, the meeting continued to come to an impass over the issue of slavery. Southerners won round one as the “enlightened” document known as the U.S. Constitution failed to address the negro quetion. Furthermore, white Southerners by 1800 enhanced the notion of white supremacy by mispronouncing the term niger and deriving at what became an instrument of control: the use of nigger as a noun.

Enlightened 19th century Christians would further the justification of racism by teaching God’s curse on Adam and Eve’s son Cain, also known as the mark of Cain. Academics have affirmed this was a curse on Cain’s labor and harvest, while Christians taught this curse as the establishment of an inferior race — the nigger race. 18th century academics used reason to categorize and discuss race. Immanuel Kant in his “On the Different Races of Man (1775), aligned peoples’ characters with their physical appearance. Now, behavior and appearance ran together; one could assess peoples’ potential solely by looking at them. For the most part, however, Kant, like others at this time, used the term race loosely, without any real concern for scientific precision or exactness. Such systems provided a vocabulary for distinguishing between people based on (supposedly) natural differences that determined people’s abilities and justified differing applications of rights and liberties. Yet, the rise of natural sciences and the modern nation-state gave racism its modern, more violent and dangerous character.” The birth of the United States clearly proved Kant’s premise as absolute and correct.

Black intellectuals such as Michael Dyson looks at the history of race and the term nigger as a process of arguing against killing the “N” word. He contends that white folks have used it as an instrument of fear and inferiority for years while blacks have taken the term and transformed it into a cultural construction that should be used only by blacks. I think back to the rise of a young comedian named Richard Pryor, who inculcated the term nigger into his comedy act. Dyson argues that killing the term nigger only empowers white supremacy. I do not agree with him on this, but from a historical perspective, the term has always been used by whites to look down on blacks as seen here with these examples:

Niggerish: Acting in a lazy and irresponsible manner. Niggerlipping: wetting the end of a cigarette while smoking it.
Niggerlover: Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
Nigger luck: Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
Nigger-flicker: A small knife or razor with one side heavily taped to preserve the user’s fingers.
Nigger heaven: Designated places, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
Nigger knocker: Axe handle or weapon made from an axe handle.
Nigger rich: Deeply in debt but flamboyant.
Nigger shooter: A slingshot.
Nigger steak: A slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.
Nigger stick: Police officer’s baton.
Nigger tip: Leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant. Nigger in the woodpile: A concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.
Nigger work: Demeaning, menial tasks.

Dyson and other black folks who defend the use of the “N” word argue that black folks like Pryor and rappers like 50 cent are only defeating the power of white supremacy when they profit from its usage. A Marxist would argue that black folks are being exploited by the very white supremist that own the record albums. Oh well, some food for thought.

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15 thoughts on “Debating the “N” Word

  1. I got two points

    1. I see no difference between racism slaves and slaves of war or poverty. Yes, the salves of America were inhumanely bred to be better slaves, but they did not suffer some neo-persecution that is the side effect of capitalism.
    A man enslaved by his race is enslaved.
    A man enslaved as a debtor is still enslaved.
    A man enslaved as a prisoner of war is still enslaved.
    My point is that slavery has been around for millenniums and race did not evolve slavery, it was just used as another means of maintaining power.

    2. Oh, and if the N word is being banned because it is offensive, then what about banning cracker or wetback or any of the other hundreds of words that anyone might find offensive? Why not take it a step further and ban anything at all that anyone might possibly be offended by? People need to grow up. This won’t solve anything. This is like thinking that if we leave a problem alone and try to satisfy everyones needs, then there will be no problems anymore. People need to pool their heads out of the ground and start thinking rationally and actually try to solve a problem.

    …I think there was an episode of South Park that covered this topic very nicely (both on banning anything offensive and more recently one on banning the N word)

  2. I don’t think it’s the ground that needs heads pulled out of it. Also, I think it is absolutely assinine for a word to be acceptable for one race to use and not other races. I don’t use the “n” word because I have yet to find an appropriate place to do so, but I don’t tell every black/asian/hispanic/jew/whatever that I meet who uses the word cracker that only white people can do that. Free speech is just that: free speech. I’m sorry if it’s offensive. I’m sorry if it’s inappropriate, but I love the idea of a country that allows me to say what I want to. It’s the right thing to allow people to do.

  3. Cracker and wetback have not had the historical impact on race and culture as the N word. Carson, although it took you a while to pull your point together, you did it very very well. At first I thought you were going to defend the use of the word. I now see that you set te historical process up to shape the current day debate about why some blacks would defend it. I am all for free speech. People can say what they want as long as it is not directlt at me. I do think there should be limits to hate speech. This is a different position for me since the last time you blogged on this topic. But I do understand Dyson’s point in that blacks have used it as a form of protecting themselves from its white negative usage.

    There is a differennce between racial slavery and debt slavery. One created a modern day society that depicts race as the source of conflict. I will admit that race issues are far better today than before.

  4. I have to agree with Jaylon. Slavery in North American brought about Jim Crowism which its impact is still felt today. A sociologists once linked a number of poor black families in the 1980s social and economic condition back to slavery. This is why there has been some talk about paying blacks for the days of slavery.

  5. The historical context of the creation of race in the Atlantic world, as Jaylon and Eddie suggest, is crucial for a discussion about the discursive realities this post brings up.

    In the classroom, I too make connections between race, racism, and the rise of capitalism, since these factors distinguished the transatlantic market from other slave markets (e.g., Indian Ocean), fueled the North American domestic slave trade in the 19th century (see, for example, the recent work of Steven Deyle), and since these foundational economic developments contributed to (and still contribute to) social, political, etc. culture in North America (and elsewhere).

    In my experience white folks find it hard to argue against the historical context even (in the same conversation!) as they refuse to more fully discuss contemporary expressions of white supremacy, white privilege, etc.

    While I can see Dyson’s point about the politics of resistance in using the “N” word, the historical context still comes to mind. I’m also with Eddie on the exploitation of black hip-hop artists by white record execs.

  6. Walker, I will check it out. Many artist do not know they are being exploited, esp. if they are being exploited while making a profit too. In traditional labor relations, this does not happen. But when one group is making a larger profit — this example fits the mode. Ask MC Hammer, Ice Cube, and others about this.

    Phil, I have heard some whites say this is just another example of blacks creating interest to justify white guilt as a process of gaining racial sympathy from white liberals.

  7. This is a ploy by black and white liberals to generate interest in paying reparations to blacks for slavery. I like your historiacal account though I am not smart enough to disagree. NAACP is driving this. Think, the NAACP argues againts racism, but they do not want it to go away. What would happen to their leadership and organization?

  8. Carson, Have you read “The Lesson” by Tony Clade Bambara? It was part of my literature curriculum at Davidson. Its right up your alley!

  9. Lerin,

    I read it in graduate school. It has a Toni Morrison feel to it as it address many of the same themes she addresses: race, class, sexuality, poverty, and to an extent — white supremacy. I would love to post a book review when you are done for the blog.

  10. So according to your logic, are my coworkers and I being exploited for only receiving $10 and hour while the person we are teaching swimming lessons too must pay $20 for a 30 minute lesson? (Company keeps 15, I get 5 per lesson)

    That just seems like simple capitalism to me that is the same regardless of race.

  11. Walker,

    If you and a number of others believe that your labor does not equal your work, then yes I agree. It also depends on the demand for the type of work you are doing.

  12. Eddie,
    Don’t know that I’ve heard white folks articulate precisely what you are saying; it my experience it is simply an adamant denial that racism exists due to the Civil Rights Movement…..perhaps a topic to take up over coffee soon, particularly as it relates to our respective institutional settings…..

  13. Mr Carson,

    I understand your point, but isn’t one of the fundamental points of capitalism, and one that helps to glorify the American dream, that working hard to get to a higher position will allow you to work less for more pay?

    I just don’t see how all of the underpaid jobs out there can be considered exploitation?

    Maybe it is just on a much smaller level and I am just not recognizing it.

  14. Carson,
    I think that if a word is deemed unacceptable, it should be unacceptable for all people. In this case, the word is unacceptable for some people to say but perfectly fine for others. I say the N-word should be made socially unacceptable. It is a derogotory word with a VERY negative conotation. But, if one person isn’t allowed to say it nobody should be able to. If a white person says it, he gets beat up, but if an African American person says it nothing happens. Isn’t that racism as well?

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