Thursday, March 01, 2007

NYPD Black?

A brief article on the BBC website today and a longer one in The Guardian tell how the City Council in New York has banned the use of the word "nigger", although the ban is more symbolic than legal as you can’t be punished for using the word. Apparently the move is a response to a growing use of the word, beyond the young African Americans who have supposedly “reclaimed” it from its negative connotations, into other ethnic groups.

It is, according to The Guardian article, “the latest move in an argument raging across the US over the common use of the word, especially in the black community, where it has morphed into a slang word similar to "mate".

This “semantic reclamation” has been a topic for discussion in many English Language lessons, and if the comments from SFX students are anything to go by, there seems to be a growing trend on this side of the Atlantic towards the word being used in a similar way, maybe due to the influence of American rap music on British youth culture.

But it’s not universally accepted by any means, and lots of older people from Caribbean backgrounds strongly object to its use in this way, maybe because they were the ones who were subjected to its worst sting when they arrived in this predominantly white country back in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the American lawyer Roy Miller, a campaigner against the n-word, puts it "At its worst, the N-word is the ultimate form of disrespect against black people. It is a dangerous snake which is liable to bite".


In terms of its etymology (the word’s origins and development) The Guardian describes it as coming from “the Latin "niger", Spanish "negro", and middle French "negre" meaning black. One of the earliest uses of the written word was in 1786 by slave masters to label their Africans. It is through its application in slavery that it has come to be seen by many as the most offensive racial slur in English”.

The website Ban the N-word, says on its home page “If it’s not acceptable, ok or cool to use kike, hooknose, wetback, spic, honky, cracker, paleface, peckerwood, blue-eyed devil, dago, wop, greaseball, guinea, chink, slant-eyes, gook, then, remember, it is not acceptable, ok or cool to use the N-word”.

So, a pointless campaign, doomed to failure, or a reasonable attempt to get people to address their potentially offensive language use - you decide.

The debate about the n-word has been taken up here on the BBC website, with journalist Kari Browne offering her perspective on the word's history and current usage:
Words are multidimensional. And they mean different things to different people. But how can a word used to categorically dehumanise an entire race of people ever be flipped around to be used as a term of endearment? Some African-Americans argue that by reclaiming the word, by owning it for themselves, the word can take on whatever meaning they ascribe to it.

In other words, they argue it is possible to re-invent the n-word and change its connotation. Words can be painful and incredibly emotional. The n-word was born in the context of American slavery. The first written documentation of it in print form was in 1786. It was used by white slave masters to label their black slaves.

Centuries later, it has enjoyed a rebirth among mostly young folks who have never known the context in which it was once spoken. And this is the problem. We do not hear our elders saying: "Hello my n..., how are you today?" My grandfather, raised in part by his grandmother - a freed slave - doesn't greet his friends with the word.

In fact I have never heard him, or anyone else in my family use it. So why did I?

Meanwhile, Gary Younge in The Guardian today talks about the issues around other labels for black people in the USA - African-American and Black - arguing that the rise of US Democrat and presidential hopeful, Barack Obama has led people to question what the difference is and what "blackness" actually means:

"African-American" and "black" have been used interchangeably in the US to such an extent that they are regarded as synonymous. They are not. African-American, a term which entered regular usage in the late 80s, refers to a particular ethnic experience of black Americans of African descent. Black refers simply to Americans of African descent, which includes black immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin and South America. All African-Americans are black; but not all black Americans are African-American.

The political relationship between the two has always been close. Two of the greatest icons of black nationalism in the US - Stokely Carmichael and Marcus Garvey - were from Trinidad and Jamaica respectively. Malcolm X's mother was from Grenada; Louis Farrakhan's mother was from St Kitts and Nevis and his father from Jamaica.

These connections make sense. In their daily lives, all black Americans face racism. But there is more to the black American experience than racism and more to African-American identity than race.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

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