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The Myth of the Soft “A”

 The following essay may be uncomfortable for some readers. It contains the use of the term, “Nigger.” It is, however, important for the comprehension, context, and connotation of this essay that the word, Nigger be spelled out and used entirely. Throughout the essay, Nigger will be italicized.




Every time I hear someone trying to rationalize the use of the word, “Nigger,” I am left with an emptiness only attributable to those in the community of Blackness who do not understand the history and meaning of its use, or if understood, have been so generationally conditioned that they no longer care. This ascription of desensitization and acceptance is etched into the fabric of the Black community today, but as is always the case, history tells a deeper story.

 

During the days of bondage and enslavement, the term, “Negro” was used to describe what kind of chattel they were. It was a term to dehumanize and acknowledge the enslaved as literal beasts of the field. The pejorative term, Nigger was most likely used by the white people of the time because many of them could not pronounce Negro. An article in the African American Registry stated it “is probable that Nigger is a phonetic spelling of the White Southern mispronunciation of Negro.” Excerpts from the article encapsulated the horrendous nature of the word, its contexts and connotations:

 

The word, Nigger, carries much hatred and disgust directed toward Black Africans and African Americans. Historically, Nigger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed all Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody. No other American surname carries as much purposeful cruelty. No matter its origins, by the early 1800s, it was firmly established as a derogative name. In the  21st century, it remains a principal term of White racism, regardless of who uses it.[1]

 

I contend that the term Nigger is a chattel word white enslavers used to craft the enslaved as a commodity like other tangible property. Vocabulary.com describes chattel as referring to:

 

“… personal items, as opposed to actual land property. It was once used to describe slaves and cattle, which is why referring to something or someone as chattel isn't very nice — you're essentially saying they're just property, somehow less than human. Despite the fact that chattel is an outdated word these days, it's probably still safe to call your bottle cap collection worthless chattel.”[2]

 

Think chickens, goats, cows. On the plantation, there were cows, pigs, chickens, and Niggers.

 

The truth is, however noble the energy and spirit of the attempts to draw strength of ownership by using the word, Black people have not and will never be able to weaken its dehumanizing connotations by such use. Despite attempts to soften its meaning by changing the spelling from a hard “er” to a soft “a” when addressing each other, or debating on the relatively benign value of the a over the er, or even who is allowed to use either variation of the term, it is simply another way to introduce and perpetuate the term for white supremacists the world over. Continuing to use the word is counterproductive to ending the generational conditioning of the slave master on the descendants of the enslaved and its evolved meaning for white people whom we admonish for using it.

 

The Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century saw Black people embracing Blackness, both for its intensity as a culture of humans whose ancestors were free from enslavement for approximately 400 years by that time as well as the richness and variations of melanin imbued within their pigments. The term, Nigger was literally erased from the vernacular of Black speech for its derogatory connotations along with “colored” and replaced with Black and proud. The understanding that Black people were embracing not only their heritage as descendants of true survivors of hundreds of years of bondage but also refusing to accept the name given to their ancestors was palpable.

 

Stokley Carmichael was one of the first Black Americans attempting to change how Black people saw themselves.  His speech in 1966 given to an audience at UC Berkley referred to as the “Black Power” speech, profoundly articulated Black power as a way to galvanize the psyches of Black people conditioned for centuries to be powerless. Excerpts from the speech reflected the change in attitude being prescribed for the Black community:

 

“We are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country about whether or not black people have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction. We maintain the use of the words Black Power — let them address themselves to that. We are not going to wait for white people to sanction Black Power. We’re tired of waiting; every time black people try to move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position beforehand. It’s time that white people do that. They ought to start defending themselves as to why they have oppressed and exploited us.” 
 If we had said “Negro power” nobody would get scared. Everybody would support it. If we said power for colored people, everybody’d be for that, but it is the word “black” that bothers people in this country, and that’s their problem, not mine. That’s the lie that says anything black is bad.[3]

 

Gangsta rap, a subgenre of hip-hop that emerged in the 1980s saw a resurgence of the term used with an "a" as opposed to the "er" which was supposed to pasteurize the term in the Black community. What must be understood is that no matter what letter, intonation, and inflection you place on the word, its origin was meant to dehumanize. Not by accident, the music industry was also careful to provide the same grammar when discussing that burgeoning form of rap, using the soft a and not the hard er. This was purposefully done by people with an excellent understanding of grammar in the American English language. In no small way, it had the effect of delineating and sanitizing Gangsta rather than Gangster in the minds of its listeners even as it spoke of the violence, drugs, and warfare among Black people. It became a far cry from the 70s, when music was about revolution hope, and change for the better as in “Fight the Power,” and “Harvest for the World,” among many others.

 

One cannot discuss the term Nigger without discussing its historical appropriation and use of the term by Black people themselves since doing so was not initiated in a vacuum. In The Etymology of Nigger: Resistance, Language, and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor explained the terms, Nigger and slave were used interchangeably, where both were used to describe in the most degenerate way enslaved human beings and that it was a way of relating an actual social category of “involuntary Black laborers.”[4]  She wrote:

 

Of course, Nigger did not start out as part of African American vocabulary. From at least 1619, when British settlers described the first twenty involuntary black laborers in Jamestown as ‘‘Negars,’’ the term emerged as a common colonial descriptor. In British North America, it flattened all African-descended workers into one racialized identity. A Nigger was the property of whites, she was black, her bondage was hereditary, and it lasted in perpetuity. A Nigger was a slave, a real social category that described an actual class of laborers. When whites used it, it was neither a compliment nor an epithet. It identified a recognizable, albeit degraded, group of workers.[4]

 

Therefore, the term was initially used the same way other chattel was described. Yet, as early as the 17th century, enslaved and indentured Black people adopted the term to describe themselves as a way of defiance and subversion by repeating and “making the cadence and meanings of the master’s language their own.”[4]

 

In this way, it was thought that when Black people used the term, it became another “example of what historian Shane White refers to as black ‘style,’ or ‘‘the process by which objects . . . are taken from dominant culture and given a new meaning in the context of subculture.’’[4] In other words, the enslaved “took” Nigger and applied a meaning to it all their own. Evidently, as a result of various adaptations of the term, white people began to develop their meanings surrounding how they felt about the enslaved and the enslaved had their own feelings about themselves relative to the term. Indeed, according to Pryor, it became extremely important to think of the term as both a part “of a Black vocabulary,” as well, “rather than just a word and a form of violence thrust upon African-descended people.”[4] The duality of the term created by both white and Black people and its use by both meant both were responsible for its proliferation over the generations. In doing so, Pryor explained, not only would this understanding help in explaining the venom inherent in the term, but more critically, in understanding its history by “unlocking the secret of its undeniable staying power in the vocabulary of African Americans into the 21st century.[4]

 

This means Black people took Nigger right out of the mouths of white people who used it for their own nefarious purposes over time and reconstituted it for themselves. Black people continue to use the duality of the term as both a term of endearment and as a slur, the latter ironically based on the same white supremacist, racist views that have persisted for centuries. History illustrates the ongoing behavior of Black people to change the narrative connotation of the word, without it losing its historical supremacist significance. This behavior has done nothing over time to shrink its vulgarity and harm to the mental well-being of the Black community at large.

 

Black people need to understand there is no need to own the term. There is no need to sanitize it by using it as a cordial greeting nor any need to use it to vilify one another. It doesn’t matter how long it has been used by one’s family, where one lived or lives today, or whether its meaning is somehow lessened in severity if it is simply said enough times. It does not reduce its injury no matter how much Black people want to believe subconsciously that they took the term away from white people. Nigger is another throwback from The Enslavement and Jim Crow that can be changed as easily as changing one’s mind and deciding not to use it anymore.

 

We didn’t buy Nigger. We don’t own Nigger. We were given Nigger, and we don’t have to keep it.

 

 

 

 

 

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