N-Word: Let’s Find Another Way to Show Affection

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Richard Pryor and other famous African-Americans have tried to desensitize it, but the N-word still carries hate. When I listen to today’s music, the N-word flows continuously. Jay-Z, one of my favorite rappers, says he uses the word to undermine its power over African-Americans. But in my house, my mother has one rule: Don’t say a word you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., even if you are trying to undermine its power.

If my mother stood in the hallway at my school listening to my friends greet each other she would be shocked. This racial slur is fondly spewed from the mouths of today’s youth to show affection. I see the word as destructive. And yes, I’m guilty of having used it. But let me explain why I’m permanently erasing the word from my vocabulary.

I grew up around people who let the word spill from their mouths like water. At age 6, I started saying the word, not knowing any better. At 18, I no longer use the word whose meaning I have made strides to fully understand.

I wonder if my peers know the origin of the ethnic slur. Of course, it was used during slavery to refer to an African-American.

The word is derived from the Latin word for the color black – niger – according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Those who enslaved Africans used it in different and more derogatory variations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slave masters used the word with venom.

In my family, the word is frowned upon. Four generations, including mine, have shied away from using it. Being around my nearly 90-year-old great-grandmother, Big Mama, reminded me of how far we have come. When she was younger, blacks and whites couldn’t sit together. Even before Dr. King, Big Mama was advocating for equality. My mother told me about Big Mama being chased every day by the other kids because of her skin color. Her skin was nearly pale white because of her multiracial Native American, black and white heritage. But kids still spewed hateful words at her. She wasn’t accepted because of her bloodline.

Every time the N-word was used, my father’s eyes would tighten. He decried it. The hurt and pain he endured during the civil rights movement showed on his face. The memories of being hosed down by the police and having police dogs chase him were forever etched in his memory. Stories like these are why words like the N-word really matter to my family and me.

The frequency of the word’s use in pop culture is alarming. I can only imagine my ancestors standing in the hallway at my school and their faces turning from shock to hurt, their legacies forever tarnished by the words teens today choose to use.

I envision them asking teens today: “Do you know that was the last word said to me before they hanged me? Do you know how many whiplashes were placed upon my back for you? I fought for you to be able to stand here. My life and my actions were for you to be treated like a human being. I gave my life so you could use the word that plagued my life? Where is your appreciation for us?” To honor our black roots, we must progress. But progression means leaving behind the word that has haunted us for so long. Let’s find a new way to show affection for each other.

Change starts with me. I pledge never to say the word again. There are other more respectful and intellectual words that can be used. I take this pledge not only for myself, but also for people like Rosa Parks and Dr. King who inspired change. I will honor my father, my great-grandmother and my ancestors by making a change in myself. Christian Collins is a recent high school graduate who enjoys hearing a rapper use a substitute for the N-word.

This article originally appeared in VOX Teen Newspaper, published by the nonprofit VOX Teen Communications of Atlanta.