Who ‘Owns’ the N-Word?

I find the idea of a community “owning” a word ludicrous, which is why I oppose the double standard regarding the acceptable use of the N-word.

Before I go on, I want to assure readers that the actual word will not appear anywhere in this essay, even for reference purposes. The N-word is an awful slur, a venomous and emotionally laden epithet that has no place in our social vernacular.

I wish that word could be phased out of the Black community, like the purging of some virus ravaging the body of its host. Perhaps, then we can begin to heal.

Maybe you are already aware of the double standard: the N-word belongs to the Black community. It’s like some unspoken code. Black people can utter it without repercussion. We can say it in barber shop-type settings and in self-deprecating comedy routines and in certain genres of music.

However, the same latitude is not granted to those outside our community. When someone who is not from our community says it, he/she has just crossed the line, even if their intentions were anything but to offend. That word is our word. We own it.

I’d like to dispel that notion. Scratch that. I’d like to beat it over the head with a shovel and bury it in the backyard.

As a black man, I don’t claim ownership of that word. I don’t want ownership. That word has no positive meaning, value, or place in my life. I certainly don’t find it empowering to reclaim a racial slur that connotes generations of pain and prejudice.

There is no double standard. The N-word is not some privileged term that we own. In fact, I wish the Black hip-hop artists and comedians so endeared to the term would relinquish ownership of it, too.

I understand but disagree with the effort by marginalized communities to repurpose, refurbish, or otherwise reclaim disparaging terms. The aim largely is to neutralize the virus: to take this awful word and its awful history and lessen its destructive power by making it exclusively ours. The problem is that instead of letting the virus die, they would prefer to incubate it and create social rules around it, as if hugging the virus closer to our hearts will make it any less dangerous.

I’m also not so naive as to believe that if Black people stopped using the N-word it would suddenly disappear. We, as Black people, cannot control how the word is used by others to denigrate and disparage us, but we are taking control when we choose not to use it. We empower ourselves when we bust to pieces this double standard.

Genuine bigots considering using the term can no longer point to this so-called double standard to legitimize their use of the term. No longer will we have to suffer the tired excuse: “If Black people can say it, then White people should be able to do the same.”


Police Slayings: Our Pain Becomes Our Poison

After Police Slayings, One Asks: What is Our Night?

Editor’s note: This column, written in response to the 2016 murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, was originally published July 27, 2016 in the York Daily Record.

Imagine waking up to a fog of pure blackness. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and there’s night all around. You’ve risen from bed and stand ready to charge ahead, toward another workday, expecting daylight to brighten the skies just as it did the day before. Yet, there is only the curtain of night.

Only in The Twilight Zone could such an unimaginable scenario become imaginable. Those familiar with Rod Sterling’s surreal anthology know of the rich trove of allegories. From Death posing as a hitchhiker to an accident victim (“The Hitch-hiker”) to a witch hunt unfolding in a suburban neighborhood beset by small-town hysteria (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), Sterling’s catalogue explores the depth of man’s fears and the magnitude of his faults. Of all the entries, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black” is my favorite from the collection.

For those who haven’t seen this episode, I strongly recommend that you do. The narrative follows the final days of a condemned man convicted of murder. On the morning of the man’s execution, darkness replaces daylight in the small town. The town’s newspaper editor arrives at the sheriff’s station to interview the murderer – a self-described “bad guy” – who has no regrets about taking the life of a racist tormentor.

A crowd of eager spectators show up to witness the execution, including the newspaperman and a town reverend. The reverend, a black man, speaks to the condemned man, who is unrepentant even in his final moments. “I know it all too well,” says the reverend, searching the man’s heart. “You’re guilty.” The man rebukes the reverend for siding with the majority opinion. Recognizing that injustice cannot be repaid with injustice, the reverend laments: “the minority must have died on the cross, 2,000 years ago.”

A reverend (Ivan Dixon), left, and a newspaperman (Paul Fix), right, speculate about the source of the town’s night.

When he is finally hanged, there is no solace. There is no satisfaction in schadenfreude and little comfort in revenge – only horror. Talking to the speechless gawkers, the reverend explains the source of their night. “It’s the hate he felt. The hate you felt. The hate all of us feel.” As more darkness smothers the town, the townsfolk begin to realize that they are the night. Hate, like personal poison, can never be contained. It festers inside us, bubbles to the surface and darkens our vision.

Returning to the station after the execution, the newspaperman, the wearied sheriff and his deputy contemplate the day’s events. As they turn on the radio, they realize that night has also descended upon other places of hate around the world: West Berlin, Vietnam, Birmingham, Chicago, and in Dallas. Dallas, at the time, was where an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of a charismatic president. The wounds of history would be reopened decades later, in much the same way, again in Dallas.

It seems, sometimes, that night is followed only by night; hate reciprocated by hate. But in the deluge of darkness, eyes cannot discriminate between black and white, or, I dare say, black bodies and blue uniforms. In the deluge, we seek only the outline of our fellow man. In the deluge, our own insecurities become abundantly clear to us, as we fumble and seek the touch of others. “In the darkest times,” tweeted actress Rashida Jones in response to the shootings in Dallas, “we must love even harder.”

It might be more reassuring if there were some mystical explanation. Perhaps, the darkness would be more tolerable if it were the act of a divine power or the result of some incursion by extraterrestrial forces. Instead, it so happens that we are the source. We are all hurting over the loss of black lives as well as the loss of blue lives. It should suffice to say we grieve the loss of all human life. As we wrestle with our pain, we guard it just as well, because suffering is no great leap from hate. And hate, when it boils and brews, spills into our streets and byways, with malice like that displayed in Dallas and, most recently, in Baton Rouge.

That is the nature of our country’s unprecedented “crisis,” as hailed by cynical pundits and a certain presidential candidate. However, these challenges, while doing nothing to diminish the emotional toll, are not unique to our time and certainly not unconquerable. Our country has faced racial tension and violence. The 1920s, with the explosion of organized crime fueled by Prohibition, was one of the deadliest decades for law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. In that same decade, our country also witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of its “Invisible Empire.” The challenges of today, as painful as they are, must be treated with caution and perspective, as to not inflame the wound.

At what point does our pain become our poison? At what point does hate begin to seep into our lives? The hate felt by those cop-killers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was the result of a hurt shared by many in this country. It spilled over and became our night.

I remember the terrifying feeling of waking up to more night, the night after those five officers were killed in Dallas. I have become wary of the night, just as a small child is wary of the unseen monsters lurking in his closet. It is the intimate fear of an imaginative threat. Maybe the monsters will never leave that vault. Maybe the darkness will never fully descend over the waking world. Still, the child will be in a state of constant worry each fretful night, always imagining what abominable beasts may be prowling. Only, it is hate, begotten of suffering and lurking within the soul, which occupies my fears.