I can’t think of any one word that has created and sustained such an ongoing but never resolved discussion as the N-word. The meaning, impact, whether it should be said and by whom is oft debated, but rises above the average conversation when it makes its way onto the national stage, as it has of late while the NFL considers penalties for those who use it in and around the game.
I listen to Hip-Hop, have a son and daughter who keep me in tune with pop culture, and have watched the endless interviews and social media comments about the word. I also watched ESPN’s Outside the Lines special on the N-word. The results of all of these have led me to my latest conclusion about the word. It’s a generational difference, and the lack of understanding by the younger generation is the fault of the older one.
I have only been called this word to my face twice in my life. The first time was by a little white girl who could not have been more than 2 years old; I was in high school. She pointed at me and said the word she obviously had been taught, though not understanding its meaning. Then, during my college years there was the older white male gas station attendant in Dearborn. While the child had no idea of what she was saying, the older man was clear in at least what he intended it to mean in his use. And, they didn’t feel the same. I felt sorry for the child, and rage against the man.
I pulled up a column I did in 2006; I then felt or saw no room for flexibility in the use or application of this word. It was one that had no place in the conversation of anyone, ever. But, I see and hear younger people use the word in a completely different context. Not that the word has changed, but its use and meaning to some has evolved beyond its original definition and intent.
Older people know the word, its origin, purpose and the sting it leaves when heard, regardless of who is speaking it. The younger generation was taught the definition through music and a culture that thought it could redefine its meaning by making it their own. And, maybe they have.
When the history of African-Americans is pushed or somehow falls through the cracks of mainstream society, is left to be taught by someone else, or is all but ignored for the sake of assimilation, this is what happens. The younger generation was left alone to figure it out, and they did so to the dismay of their elders.
Who can say it? What does it mean? Is the ending -gger different than –gga? Can it ever be “buried” as many have publicly attempted to do? Good questions, to which there are no equally good answers. Time, circumstance and culture have created a generation all but detached from what this word once meant, and still means to some. But, as the older generations continues to fade, I can only imagine it assuming an entirely different meaning to those who never knew its roots or past. While this may not be a good thing as burying a history never is, those who have a problem with that must ask themselves who is really to blame?