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
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.