Young people today often repeat what prior generations have said: “It was different back then. Times have changed.” I’m certainly guilty of saying this to my parents, and I’ve often been on the receiving end of this statement — especially over the course of this year. (I guess that’s what happens when we begin to age.)
Sometimes young people use the statement as leverage, and a way to complain; sometimes they use it to poke fun at us old folks; and sometimes they use it to boast about their generation’s advances in technology — usually invoking the internet. Of course, it rarely dawns on them that it is our generation that produced the internet, and they’re simply beneficiaries.
One of the things I enjoy a lot is listening to young people banter. When their guards are down, their unfiltered conversations produce some of the funniest and wittiest things. Occasionally, I’ll hear something pretty provocative, and at other times, I’ll hear something that speaks to their naiveté and youth. All in all, most of what I hear makes me optimistic about the future.
This year I learned some new slang. The most popular word to permeate “street” vernacular is the word “lit.” My generation used “lit” to describe drunkenness. Today, it’s been extrapolated, repurposed, and appropriated. “Lit” means that something is “poppin’” or “turned up” or “off the chain.” Essentially, being “lit” is a very good thing.
Trends still exist; school spirit is alive and well; young people are still falling in love — just like we did, and being “cool” remains in vogue.
Sadly, for some, “being cool” has a BIG problem.
Back to that in a moment.
About fourteen years ago, I read a book by Harvard Law professor, Randall Kennedy. Its title is — in one reviewer’s words — “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” I cannot bring myself to even type the word here. For me, it’s the most disgusting, repulsive, ugly, and offensive word in the English language. I think you can probably surmise which word I’m referring to. It begins with an N, and ends with an R.
I read the book for the same reason I read most books: to learn and deepen my awareness. In this case, I wanted to understand why some blacks vehemently opposed the use of the N-word — in most contexts, and why others argued that it is okay to use — specifically in disciplines like rap music and comedy.
Below are quotes from two sides of the argument:
“After years of habitual use of the word, I banished it from my speech to honor the humanity that many never saw in themselves.”
“Black folk rescued the word from the smoldering debris of a virulently racist land, reclaimed it and renovated the slur into a celebration of black camaraderie. We black folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted white folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority.”
While I may have an opinion, I do not have a position on the matter. There is no decision for me to make as to whether or not I want to use the word. For obvious reasons, its use has no place in my modest vocabulary. I have been acutely aware of the pain the word has caused for a very, very long time, and I know enough about its history.
Recently, one of my Latino friends — who shares the same affinity for black folk that I do — asked me if I used the word when I listen and sing-along to hip hop/rap music. I answered like this, “No. I’ll either say ‘brotha’ or nothing at all. If I’m listening to Biggie, for example, I’ll say something like, ‘If you don’t know, now you know, brotha.’”
I appreciated his question, for its poignancy, and because hip hop music is arguably the reason why the n-word has become so pervasive. American author, and writer for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, addressed the same question, my friend asked me, like this: “The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black.”
My friend and I engaged in a separate conversation about our childhoods — specifically, we talked about sitting around with friends — some black — who were using the N-word freely. And we agreed that even if we were “down” with every member of our group, there was no way on God’s green Earth that we ever felt it was okay use the N-word. It wasn’t even an unwritten rule; it’s a line that we simply never crossed — no matter how close we were to our friends.
Just last week, HBO’s Bill Maher used the word to make a joke. Subsequently, he apologized. Last night he had Georgetown professor, Michael Eric Dyson on his show. This is how Dr. Dyson responded:
“Do you truly understand the need to name, and to challenge that unconscious white privilege that exists and how it hurts black people — even if unintentional?”
Ice Cube was also on the show, and said this:
“It’s a word that’s been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us, and we’re not going to let that happen again.”
Maher responded. But while I won’t detail his response here, it’s worth your time to look up the transcript or excerpts from the show.
Ice Cube also said that using the word “is not cool.” This brings me back to the BIG problem I alluded to earlier.
In his book, Randall Kennedy says that Asians in San Francisco have been using the N-word for decades. I found that pretty disturbing. What I’ve found even more unsettling is that young people in our area are using the word every day.
I understand that young folk want to be considered “cool.” But at what cost? When did it become okay to use the N-word? Actually, I know the answer to that: never.
While I realize that young people say and do a lot of things outside of the home that their parents aren’t aware of, I’m pretty certain that quite a few parents ARE aware of this type of banter — and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing nothing about it.
By being complicit in this verbal behavior, parents are incontrovertibly demonstrating their deficiencies in maturity, morality, intelligence, and undoubtedly and most damaging, their ability to exercise compassion and empathy.
One doesn’t have to be a student of history, or an intellectual, to know that the use of the N-word is wrong. Hearing it with my own ears has made me angry and disgusted. But most of all, it’s made me deeply disappointed.
Ice Cube said the word feels like venom. Imagine that? Venom.
Dr. Dyson writes that “most folk attracted to black culture know better than to cross the line drawn in the sand of racial history.” It’s time for young people to start listening.
The flippant and casual use of this word, among our youth, must stop. The environments in which they engage in this type of talk may seem safe, but time has shown that being on the wrong side of history has the potential for painful repercussions.
Finally, English rapper and poet, Akala, says: “I’m not against people using the word, I’m just against the stupid idea that it’s now become a term of endearment. It hasn’t. It has so much blood attached to it. For me, it means what it’s always meant: it’s a term of white supremacists genocide; it’s a word that says African people are not human; it was a way of reducing people to sub-human states.”
While I wish I could somehow engineer a way to stop young people from using this word, I realize that it’s going to take much more than my modest efforts.
Folk, if you ain’t black, keep the word out your mouth!by