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