Some time ago, I embarked on a journey to get to the bottom of the n-word, meaning the roots, the seeds, the essence of the word “nigger” and the many derivatives of the root word “nig” – including but not limited to “nigga,” “niggah,” “nigguh,” “niggress.”
What is at the bottom of this word and its usage in America? I wanted to uncover how this word lived and breathed in our past, and how it continues to live and breathe in our present.
The words “nigger” and “nigga” have a long, ubiquitous link to our American past, and a resilient, persistent link to our present.
Its usage has exploded in a way unseen since it went viral before the Civil War when the country was grappling with the question of slavery in a self-proclaimed land of the free. While whites and other nonblacks certainly continue to advance the word today, its explosive usage has come with great help
from the people toward whom it was brutally targeted.
The word can still wound and kill. But some say using the word can heal. Some say reclaiming the word will strip it forever of its power. So we hear it in songs and words from blacks, while nonblacks skate on the peripherally, knowing it will be received
Prof. Frank Harris III, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Conn.
and perceived differently if they say it.
Others say the word should be banned, censored, muted under all circumstances — even in a website such as this.
It is a powerful word, tricky, potentially dangerous word — a word worthy of a journey.
The first leg of my journey took me inside the pages of hundreds of America’s old newspapers. Through quantitatively and qualitatively analyzing digital archives, I landed a ringside seat to history in motion. I heard, saw and felt the raw, “real-time” words, thoughts and feelings of common, everyday people in particular moments and places in time; as well as those whose names fill America’s history books and inscribe America’s buildings and monuments. Because the newspapers I researched came from all regions of the country, they provided a common thread, a tapestry if you will, of the word’s birth and evolution.
Having borne witness to the American news media’s role in forging the word’s growth in the past, I thought it important to compare it to the present. Accordingly, the second leg involved surveying news editors and directors of America’s newspapers, television and radio stations to determine how they address the word in today’s news stories.
The final leg of my journey took me on the road and in the air with camera and pen talking to people about the word. The bulk of my interviews involved approaching strangers and asking them about their n-word experience. They were strangers of all races, ethnicities, genders and backgrounds, and this was the most fascinating, exciting and potentially dangerous part of my journey as I went into places where I otherwise would not have gone. It taught me a lot about people and human nature, both good and bad. Hearing their stories – young and old of varied genders, races, and religions, as well as educational and economic backgrounds — was at times shocking, revealing and reaffirming. As they described their experiences, it forced me to summon forth my own, which nudged me into recalling things easily remembered and jarred me into remembering things I had somehow forgotten, including one buried as deep as the near-death experience that caused me to place it in the realm of the forgotten.