letter N
Image by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

As one who tracks our alumni on facebook I am exposed and frequently entertained by the slang of college students.  No change seems to strike me more viscerally than their casual  use of the “N” word.  My reluctance to spell it speaks to its taboo nature.  As one who grew up in the South of the 1950’s and lived through the civil rights movement, the word carries considerable moral and historical weight for me which makes its current uses difficult.  Are we seeing a reversion to older forms of discrimination or a genuine shift in racial attitude?

I have defended teaching Huckleberry Finn even as I had wished Twain had written “Slave Jim” instead of “Nigger Jim.”  I have come to understand the multiple uses of this word within the African American community.  Claude Brown’s wonderful essay from the 1970’s on the “soul word” is perhaps the finest balance of intelligent linguistics and felt personal experience about this topic.  But I knew that as a white I was barred from this discourse.

Hip hop culture seems to have changed all this. Young white people–mostly men–refer to each other an “my niggah” as if the “ah” erased much of the word’s evil history.  At first, I saw this phenomenon as  simply disaffected, but relatively privileged, white youth claiming an outsider position.  As one who spend the summer of 1968 in San Francisco,  I can assure them that this is not a productive political move. Then across my facebook wall I watched a white student call his African American friend “my Niggah,” and saw the African American reply with friendship and no sense of insult.  I was shocked.  Had the world of my students so changed that this was possible?

Chuck Berry and Motown are credited with moving the civil rights agenda forward. On reflection, I see that America has accepted the cultural prominence of Black people long before it has included them in America’s material prosperity.  This morning’s Washington Post reports that the unemployment crises as hit African American men 3 times harder than their white counterparts.  The divisions remain, yet this new use of the “N” word seems to imply that generational solidarity may be more important than race .  Also this usage marks an era of greater friendship and contact between the cultures.

So maybe this usage is a good thing or maybe I’m just too old to accept a world  in which I cut on my computer and am greeted with “Good Morning my Twiggahs.”

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