Nigger. My heart quickened just to type it. I debated if I should use the N-word instead; but decided that if I was going to talk about the word, it was essential that I use it.
There isn’t a more charged word. I tried to think about whether there was a word that causes the same level of controversy and reaction; or a word that is as heavy with history. What other word can cause such an immediate physical reaction from someone upon hearing it: God, love, hate, devil, whore, money? Nope.
So, of course, when Larry Wilmore called Obama “my nigga” at the end of his White House correspondents dinner speech, many reacted.
Piers Morgan tweeted, “Get rid of the N-word, America. Larry Wilmore calling Obama a nigger made the whole world cringe.” My immediate response to his tweet? It reminded me of when I was a kid and I tried to participate in certain conversations, my Mom would always snap, “This is grown folks’ business.” Piers, this is Black folks’ business (that you interchanged “nigger” for “nigga” shows how ill-equipped you are to comment, as the two words — though seemingly very similar — have very different connotations).
When White people provide advice about what Black folks “need to do,” it places White people in the role of overseer again. You elevate yourself to the role of the more civilized, more intelligent, more evolved race that needs to guide and advise those lesser races. How often do you hear Black people state what White people need to do? “White people need to stop dying their hair blond and just accept that only 2% of the American population is blond.” We don’t comment. We don’t care. That’s yo thing.
The “Nigger” situation is our thing. You, White people, created the word, but we now own it. Accordingly, we decide how we feel about it, how we use it, who can use it, and the different iterations of it. You don’t mess with that — and we won’t mess with your Ms. Clairol #5.
See, what Piers doesn’t understand about Black folks is that we are not only resilient, we are ingenious, resourceful and innovative. If you throw a stick at us, we will build a fire. During slavery, we were rationed the worst part of every animal — White folk’s leftovers; but, we made chitlins, pigs feet, pork rinds, chicken livers, and ox tail soup. We were left with the toughest, least desirable vegetables and we made collard greens, okra and turnip greens. We were only given cornmeal, so we made cornbread and corncakes. All of these items are now delicacies across the world. Similarly, White people tagged us with the word, “Nigger”, to break us down, and we now use it to build each other up. It’s often used as a phrase of endearment. We made something so cruel . . . cool — so cool in fact that White, Latino, and Asian kids call each other Nigga. Think about that for a minute: we use the weapons formed to tear us apart to pull ourselves closer. We take something that’s so horrible and handle it in such a way that others want it, want to be a part of it. That’s incredible when you think about it. That’s power.
So, was Larry Wilmore’s use of the term with our President powerful? Yes, it certainly made a statement, but not the statement that White people think it makes. Wilmore took a forum, and said at an event, to a person that has historically been theirs and made it ours. He went to the furthest extreme to declare, “We up in dis.” And the way Obama responded with the Black dap, hug combo seemed to indicate that he was down with it. Obama is almost done so he can loosen the top button, stop being the ever-appropriate Black, and just be Black. That’s what we Black people do (wrong or right): dap up someone you respect and call him “my nigga.” This is “my nigga,” my friend, my president. He not your nigger. And we are both up here doing the damn thing.
So, I understand it; but I didn’t like it. It bugged me for a reason different from most. The term-even in it’s kindest sense, seems too familial, and lacks the respect due the President of the United States. That term, when used in our community, is reserved for good friends. “Bobby is my nigga, dat’s like my brother.” It’s our word, but a word that we still handle delicately. There are unspoken rules. Wilmore’s use of “my nigga” seemed to violate the “kinship clause.” For instance, some close girlfriends call each other “bitch.” “Bitch please, you always eat my fries.” But, women don’t call women with whom they aren’t close “bitch.” Equivalently, unless President Obama and Wilmore have some sort of relationship that I am unaware of, I don’t think the phrase worked (perhaps he could have used, “my brotha”, which doesn’t connote as close of a relationship but makes the same point).
With both examples, “bitch” and “nigga,” many would argue that no one should use that language. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s unrealistic. Those words will not disappear, so I think that we need to continue doing what we’ve always tried to do: take ownership of them, recognize their power, and use them to send the message we want sent. I believe that Wilmore did that. He, I promise you, thought carefully about each word he uttered that night —particularly THAT word. And while I’m not completely comfortable with it — I believe that he indeed used his power, with a word that our people own, to send a message: WE up in here.