Sunday, May 25, 2014

Making My Peace with the N-Word

By Len Lawson

As an English professor, every year I offer my students an argumentative essay based on the topic, "Should the n-word be used in today's society?" This comes from Gloria Naylor's essay, "Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?" In the essay, the author describes how hearing the word used toward her in elementary school by a white student transformed her understanding of race in America. In the classroom, discussions on both sides of the argument among my students have been intense, visceral, and down right incendiary. Each year a student will ask, "Mr. Lawson, what is your opinion on the issue?" I always reserve my opinion to keep the sides moderate.

As a black man, I have had the n-word used around me by white people--once as Naylor did in elementary school at a cafeteria table surrounded by white students and several times in a relationship used against me to get me to retaliate (unsuccessfully). Between these two instances, I have known that the word meant nothing good for any black person, and I never used it. However, the onslaught of hip hop music in our society presented an astounding blacklash against the word's origin. Although many African Americans use it as a term of endearment, I never enjoyed hearing it because I always associated it with something negative regardless of its intention.

As a writer, I have struggled with the perception of using this word in poetry and fiction. I have come to the conclusion that in order for characters to remain authentic, in many cases the n-word cannot be taken out of the mouths of characters who would use it in reality. The integrity of the characters will be maintained and not compromised. Moreover, the fiction will resonate with readers if they are fully acquainted with what type of characters--perhaps even narrators--use the n-word in their speech.

I realize some may say that I am hereby giving people a license to use such language in their writing and even in their own speech. However, as illustrated above, no one needs my permission to use the derogatory term. Our society has already indicted some of its own precious characters for using the word. Nonetheless, regardless of its efforts, our culture cannot contain the parent that uses the n-word around his children and even teaches them to use it. Our culture cannot stop anyone else bold enough to utter the word from grabbing it with his fist and hurling it with hate at anyone who happens to be his target. We can all see this in movies as well. If we didn't care for the n-word, then why did we not see anyone boycotting such films as 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Roots, and others for its use?


In conclusion, authenticity remains a valid excuse for writers of any race to use the word. However, each individual must search his own soul before penning the n-word on paper before seeing it in print beneath a cover with his name on the front. The word itself is history, yet as a society, we simply cannot seem to keep its sensual, polarizing, forbidden fruit out of our mouths in the present. Therefore, we leave the debate to be reconciled by subsequent generations. As for me, when I see the word or even write it, all I see is hate--never love--and perhaps never peace.

6 comments:

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Len - During the "relationship," when someone was trying to get you to retaliate, why was that person unsuccessful? That is the real question. When I was very young, I tried to use another word as a weapon. I was unsuccessful and learned something.

Your self awareness is the answer to many of these problems.

Marion Aldridge said...

" I have known that the word meant nothing good for any black person, and I never used it. "

That's a powerful sentence Len. This is a great, great blog, and I intend to share it.

As far as authenticity, I experienced a challenge from my creative writing teacher in college. In those days, I did not cuss. Period. That was my choice. In my class, I had written something with the term, "house of ill repute" avoiding the obvious phrase. My professor went nuts, and I had to agree with him. "Marion, it's a whore house. A whore house. You've got to use the right word if you are going to be a writer." That was a good lesson.

Sandy Richardson said...

Great post, Len. I have been struggling with this issue in a story I'm writing, and your thoughts have helped immensely. I abhor the word, was raised to never use it, but in order to accurately capture a certain time and eliminate of our history, there seems no other word that works for those particular characters. Thanks for your insights.

WritePersona said...

Len, Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. You have added a voice of reason to the n-word fray.

The word is a burden from our history and a painful one to bear. Removing it from our vocabulary may numb us to the pain, but it won't remove it.

Bonnie

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

What about the customers of the whore house? What do we call them? Politicians?

Anonymous said...

I think some time ago the NAACP had a burial/funeral for the N-word. It is amazing how the word catches on like a phoenix and arises from the ashes and breathes unhealthy life into the conversation.
Like Len said, the word means nothing good for any black person--and white and brown....