Blacks debate increasingly open use of racial insult in U.S. popular culture

January 24, 1993|By Michel Marriott | Michel Marriott,New York Times News Service

One of America's oldest and most searing epithets -- "nigger -- is flooding into the nation's popular culture, giving rise to a bitter debate among blacks about its historically ugly power and its increasingly open use in an integrated society.

Whether thoughtlessly or by design, large numbers of a post-civil rights generation of blacks have turned to a conspicuous use of "nigger" just as they have gained considerable cultural influence through rap music and related genres.

Some blacks, mostly young people, argue that their open use of the word will eventually demystify it, strip it of its racist meaning. They liken it to the way some homosexuals have started referring to themselves as "queers" in a defiant slap at an old slur.

But other blacks -- most of them older -- say that "nigger," no matter who uses it, is such a hideous pejorative that it should be stricken from the national vocabulary. At a time when they perceive a deepening racial estrangement, they say its popular use can only make bigotry more socially acceptable.

"Nigger" has long been an element of black vernacular, almost an honorific of the streets, but strictly, and still, off limits to whites. But as the word has found voice in black music, dance and film, the role of black culture in popular culture has driven it into the mainstream.

For the past several years, rap artists have increasingly used "nigger" in their lyrics, repackaging it and selling it not just to their own inner-city neighborhoods but to the largely white suburbs. In his song "Straight Up Nigga," Ice-T raps, "I'm a nigga in America, and that much I flaunt." A large portion of his record sales are in white America.

In movies and on television, too, "nigger" is heard with unprecedented regularity these days. In "Trespass," a newly released major-studio film about an inner-city treasure hunt, black rappers portraying gang members call one another

"nigger" almost as often as they call one another by their names.

And every Friday at midnight, Home Box Office televises "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam," a half-hour featuring many black, cutting-edge comedians who frequently use "nigger" in their acts.

Sometimes, the use of the word is simply a flat-out repetition of the street vernacular. In rap and hip-hop music, a genre in which millions of its listeners adopt the artists' style and language, "nigger" is virtually interchangeable with words like "guy," "man" or "brother."

But often it is a discussion of the word's various uses and meanings in society, black or white.

Blacks who say they should use the word more openly maintain that its casual use, especially in the company of whites, will shift the word's context and strip "nigger" of its ability to hurt. That is precisely what blacks have been doing for years, say linguists who study black vernacular. By using the word strictly among themselves, the linguists say, they change its context and in doing so dull its edge whenever whites use it.

Many of the blacks who defend their open use of the word acknowledge that whites still cannot publicly say "nigger" without stirring up old black-white antagonisms.

"Race in America is like herpes because you can never get rid of it," said James Bernard, who is black and senior editor of The Source, a magazine that covers the rap and hip-hop scene. "There is still a line."

The magazine's multiracial staff recently published a story about Spike Lee and the basketball star Charles Barkley under a headline "NINETIES NIGGERS." Kris Parker, a leading rap artist known as KRS-One, said such uses represent progress.

But to the white Chicago writer Studs Terkel, whose latest book, "Race," is a series of interviews with blacks and whites about race in America, the increased use of "nigger" represents anything but progress.

"It is a horrendous word," he said, adding that the new permissiveness may have more to do with the "wink and nod" of the Reagan-Bush years of dismantling civil rights gains than with rap artists naming themselves NWA, for Niggaz With Attitudes. And many blacks, especially members of the generation for whom Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were living heroes, say no one should ever be permitted to forget what "nigger" has meant, and still means, in America.

"That term encapsulates so much of the indignities forced on our people," said the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a longtime civil-rights leader who is executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. "That term made us less than human, and that is why we must reject the usage of that term."

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