Has the Infamous "N-Word" Died a Double-Death?

The N-Word Funeral

In case you happened to miss the news, let me be the one to inform you of a tragic death; actually, two deaths to be exact. It appears that the "N-word" was buried at least twice during the last seven days. First on July 7 in small-town Texas, and then again on July 9, in the motor city metropolis of Detroit, the N-word was laid to rest. The first funeral – with a real coffin, cemetery plot and burial – took place with little fanfare in Pearland, TX. However, the second – dare I call it a home-going celebration – took place as the culmination of a march through the city of Detroit, with all the pomp and circumstance typical of the NAACP’s annual convention. Amidst the stories documenting the ceremonies, I have yet to find out whether the word buried within the coffin was “Nigger” or “Nigga.” I guess the NAACP, and the folks in Pearland has decided for us all once that there is no difference between the two.

Call me a hater – an accusation typically assigned to individuals who make their mark finding fault with and critiquing any kind of efforts to engage in constructive cultural work – but these symbolic ceremonies certainly deserves to be deconstructed. Simply put, this can't be the most promising or productive project to place our energies. Years ago, in 1944, a similar service was held in Detroit for Jim Crow, symbolic of the organization’s commitment to killing the system of separate and unequal, as it was beginning to wage legal battles that led to the success of Brown vs. Board and the Civil Rights laws passed in the 1960s. But it must be asked, where will we go now – just days after the Supreme Court more or less repealed Brown – that the N-word has officially been buried?

Perhaps it is this kind of observance that led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) to split from the NAACP (the civic agency) during the 1950s, so that the former could focus more on the business of addressing the needs of the vast majority of colored people, rather than cleaning up the image of black culture to make it more palatable for the white mainstream. While the NAACP and onlookers mourned, as "Die N-word, and we don't want to see you 'round here no more" was the shouted from the podium, the LDF was most likely busy in legal efforts to rebuild New Orleans or eliminate predatory lending practices that have devastated so many of Detroit’s foreclosed upon former home owners.

My sense is that such an act is little more than a continuation of black folks provoked by the aftermath of the Imus debacle to police problems of the underside of our own public discourses. Y’all know the refrain, “Since you people refer to each other “_______” (fill in the blank with your favorite word: nigga, hoe, etc), it should be okay for us to do the same…” By this standard, I guess I should stop referring to my close male friends as “my boys,” because slavery and Jim Crow refused to acknowledge black manhood. I know that the American public could stand to possess a little more cultural literacy – we’ll call it diversity training – and that their are certain black cultural practices that need not be celebrated; but I don’t believe that anyone is any more fooled by the different meanings of such troubling terms in black and white, than we are by the obvious implications of the Supreme Court's ruling on racial criteria in educational placements,

Even more ironic is that the NAACP’s N-word funeral was presided over by Detroit's Hip Hop Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and eulogized by one the most prominent Hip Hop preachers, Rev. Otis Moss, III who is in the process of inheriting the prestigious pulpit at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, of recent Obama controversies. As much as I respect both of these men, both of my generation and trailblazers in their own right, that Kilpatrick and Moss are both members of a cohort of rising hip hop elites (is that the right word?), and have billed themselves as such, adds to my growing skepticism with the things that “Hip Hop” seems to signify. While Hip Hop’s ability to sample from any number of sources – be it jazz, disco, R&B, Metal or a Moslem prayer – is a decided strength, I’m no longer sure I even know what we’re referring to if KRS ONE and Keisha Cole, Rich Boy and Remy Ma, Scott Storch and Saul Williams can all equally lay claim to the adage “I am Hip Hop.” But who’s to say they can’t? Is Hip Hop a mood, musical form, message or formula for increasing profit margins, a claim essentially made a last month by T.I. in the June issue Essence magazine? This ambiguity tends to also define the thinking of many of the artists and intelligentsia that identify with Hip Hop, myself included.

While I don’t buy the argument that Hip Hop was once purely a voice of protest against a white supremacist capitalist system, I do have trouble understanding how the music and cultural form once hailed as the voice of black youth vented freely with no regard for what white folks, or anyone else for that matter, think has signed on to public censorship. Somebody please explain to me who the NAACP’s dramatic display was intended to reach. And while the distinction is never this clean, for the sake of my sanity, let me know if the word “nigger” can at least be used when teaching its historical and symbolic significance in American history; and if “nigga” can be framed within black cultural traditions of playing with and re-inventing the scraps of a society shot through with racism.

For more on each of the N-word deaths, check out either of the following links:

The N-Word Transitions in Texas The N-Word Dies in Detroit

PS – Evidently the N-word’s burial didn’t reach the boardroom of HBO executives who endorsed its usage three times, in its original historical form, on the show I highlighted last week. In the most recent episode of John from Cincinnati, the racial politics of Imperial Beach are made plain, beyond the vague references to immigration policy, as Butchie Yost participates in two of the United States favorite fantasies – black masculinity and sexuality – in his enraged reference to interracial pornography scenes. Yes, I’ve cleaned this up major-ly! But no need to worry, Ramon the motel manager continues to clean up and cook for his white folks and the now-resident drug dealer helps everyone relax as he plays “My Favorite Things,” a la John Coltrane, on his saxophone amidst divine revelations.