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Art by Jabari Courtney

The Aging of the N-Word

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One warm afternoon in the late 1980s, my dad and four of his friends crammed into an old Plymouth hatchback to play basketball. They were headed to a court just a short drive away from Embry Riddle, the prestigious and predominantly white aeronautical institution where my father attended college. After an intense game of basketball, the five headed back to their dorms, located off-campus in a predominantly white part of Daytona Beach, Florida. When they pulled up, the entrance was blocked by an older car. They asked the owner of the car, a white man, if he could move his car. The man looked at my father’s friend from a phone booth but ignored their request. Irritated, my father’s friend honked the horn. Nothing. Furious, they exited the car to talk with the man. As they approached, the white man’s car door flew open, and a female passenger threw an object toward the phone booth. My father couldn’t figure out what the object was until the man pointed it at them. With his finger on the trigger, the man looked at the five and said: “What now, ni–ers?”  

As they fled their apartment complex — some expressing anger, others feeling scared or sad — my father sat in silence, replaying the situation over and over again in his head. Each time, the word “ni–er” caused him to recall the history of the word and different experiences from his life. He thought of the origin of the word and its true definition; he thought about all the times he heard the word, and he thought about all the times he said the word. From that day he would never see that word the same way, and this experience would change his view on life forever.

N-word normalized?

When he recently told me this story at our dining room table, three decades later, I tried to put myself in his shoes. I tried to imagine how I would react. I tried to imagine I would say, how I would feel. But I couldn’t. I struggled to understand his experience.

The meaning of the word “ni–a” has changed over the course of a generation. The word has become normalized in today’s society — or, as my father says,  “fashionable.” The word is used so casually today that its meaning across the generations has changed.

From a young age, we are taught the n-word is an awful word with a grim history. We are taught the history behind the word and how the word was used. The word was and still is used to degrade African-Americans, to classify African-Americans as less than human. Nevertheless, the younger generations will never truly understand the impact of the n-word because a good portion of teens have experienced the n-word in a new light. Although we are constantly informed of the history of the word, we will never understand the full impact of the word given its normalization.

While the n-word still carries historical baggage, the way it’s used today has lessened its impact. As a result, many Generation Zs and some millennials, will never experience and understand the n-word like my father did.

Generational split

The word “ni–er” — derived from the Latin word, “niger,” which means black — was originally used to describe the African race during the slave trade in America. From there, the word was adopted as a term for enslaved African people, “negars.”

Post-slavery through the early 20th century, we began to receive our basic human rights, but throughout many parts of the Americas we were still seen as and called “ni–ers.” After slavery, this word was still used prominently to describe black people, and it wasn’t avoided in American culture including films, pop culture, and daily life.

Generation Z is truly the vision of our ancestors: We are unique, intelligent, creative, and, most importantly, we are thriving; however, some things that were always seen as our ancestors’ dreams can come with some unforeseen hiccups. This can be seen with my generation’s views on the n-word.

Different generations are split on the usage of the words, because of their experiences with the world. Older generations refrain and encourage others to refrain from using the word because a large majority of them experienced the word with intent and malice. Newer generations, such as mine, use the word in our everyday vocabulary, because we don’t truly understand the impact behind the word and we haven’t experienced its true meaning.

The n-word is so oversaturated in both black and global culture that its original meaning is fading away. The newer generation’s lack of experience with the word is causing us to forget the history and pain of our ancestors that came with the n-word. The older generation’s experience makes it hard for them to communicate their feelings that come with n-word into words for the newer generation to understand. Both the older and newer generations must stop criticizing each other and collaborate so the meaning and feelings of the n-word can be communicated.

A transformed meaning?

At the dinner table, my dad finished telling me about his traumatic experience with the n-word, and I told him how it was hard for me to see myself in his position. He wasn’t surprised. “The newer generations have put the n-word out, and now it’s everyone’s word,” he stated with a straight face.

He went on to talk about how when he was younger, it was known that the n-word was never appropriate to be used as slang in the black community or outside of the black community. However, his generation — the teens in the 1980s — used the word as slang only around friends. “My generation has displayed our slang use of the n-word to the world through social media, music, and TV,” he said. This has caused the word to become “the thing to do.”

Now the word is being used globally throughout all communities, both in public and in private, and has retained its history but has transformed its meaning. Therefore, if I was ever in a situation where I was called a “ni–er,” it wouldn’t have the same effect as it did on him.

Last summer I worked as a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool in Fairburn, Georgia, a small city in South Fulton County. I found myself working with different lifeguards, most of whom were white. One day before the pool opened, I worked with another guard, who was white, cleaning the pool and balancing the pool chemicals. After we got acquainted, he felt comfortable enough around me to use the n-word. I don’t think he used the word with malicious intent. Still, he still used it.

Referring to a song, he rapped “What’s up my ni–a” at a level where it was obvious I could hear him. It was as if he was testing me, to see if he could use the word around me. We made tense eye contact for a second; he was anxiously waiting for a response. Immediately, I was engulfed in a mixture of anger, confusion, and surprise.

“Don’t say that,” I told him.

He apologized. But then he asked me a simple, if not naive question: “Why?”

“You’re not black,” I replied. “You don’t truly understand the impact of that word.”

Afterwards, I thought about my response to his question. I felt hypocritical. Even though I told him he didn’t truly understand the power of the N-word, I also didn’t understand its full impact. I didn’t know its full pain. I didn’t know the full hatred that for so long accompanied that word. Now, that didn’t give him an excuse for using the word, but it caused me to re-evaluate my own usage of the word.

My own transformation

I looked back to the day when my dad was called a “ni–er.” Then I thought about how that experience changed my dad’s view on the n-word as a whole when it was used against him. Although our situations with the word were different, the word is still the same. This is the same word that more than 100 years ago was used to classify enslaved Africans as something other than — less than — human. This is the same word that more than 50 years ago was used to provoke and torment them black civil rights activists during their demonstrations. And this is the same word on 20 years ago that was used against my father to terrorize him.

Jabari, 16, is a junior at Banneker High School who enjoys watching documentaries about different peoples’ lifestyles.

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