♪ Cruisin' down the street in my six-fo'... ♪
Yeah. I saw it. Straight Outta Compton. A biopic on one of hip hop's most influential groups of the late 80s, early 90s: N.W.A. (also known as N!ggaz Wit Attitudes). The movie was everything: intense, funny, nostalgic, inspirational and hella-awkward!
Correction: the movie itself wasn't awkward. The fact that I was sitting elbow to elbow with an unassuming elderly white couple while watching it was... well... awkward. As the lights dimmed and the movie was about to get underway, the cute couple walked in looking for a place to be seated. Since the theater was pretty packed and I happened to have an empty seat to the left and right of me, I scooted over and motioned for them to take the two seats beside me. They thanked me and took their seats. The movie started, and of course... within the first five minutes of the film, the first "N" bomb was dropped. In the dark, I casually and quickly glanced over at them while taking a sip of my drink to gauge their reactions... Nothing too telling. They didn't grin or shift their eyes, nor did they recoil back in horror and disgust; they just took it in and continued to pay close attention to the film.
And, as I continued to watch the movie, I thought: Hmm. Was that more awkward for them, or for ME?
Later on, once I was home... I really pondered about it some more and came to ask myself: Will it ever be OK/commonplace for people (of colour or not) to use "the N word" freely within our society?
The conclusion I came to, was a resounding NOPE... It'll never quite be OK or commonplace.
Now, this post isn't intended to recount centuries of slavery, but simply to serve as a connector between past and present, and to share my own experience with and thoughts on "the N word".
Growing up in the 90s listening to my favourite rappers and hip hop artists, "the N word" was just ever-present. It appeared constantly in most of the music that I enjoyed then (and, if I'm being honest- still enjoy now as an adult). But, like many kids and teenagers, growing up - I didn't necessarily have the level of understanding, nor the desire to understand the depths of "the N word" and all the hurtful truths it encapsulated. My focus was simply on the music, as well as the mood and the message that were projected. The "N word" then, just seemed liked a standard piece of rebellious prose, wrapped up in poetry set to music... I thought nothing of it.
Still, while "the N word" was to me, more or less just another curse word back then, I didn't necessarily feel compelled or entitled to repeat it or use it in any other capacity than as a lyric. By my mid-teenage years, it became utterly common for me to hear "the N word" tossed around by my peers and acquaintances of colour, who spoke to each other or about other people of colour. And still, even though I assumed that these people were using the word in what they perceived to be a non-chalant and non-offensive manner, I don't recall ever really having the desire to adopt this particular trend. Now - have I used literally every other swear word known to man, at one point or another in my life? Absolutely. But that's just the thing...
On some level beyond what my then childhood/pre-teen brain could comprehend at the time, I always had a certain "knowing" that there was a very dark root to the "N word", whether the suffix to it was an "er" or an "a". There was a reason that even though I could repeat it in a song, I didn't dare use it out loud, as a standalone noun or adjective to acknowledge or define my friends, family or even those I considered enemies or annoyances. There was a reason. There were layers upon layers of untold history and brutality behind it. There was an indescribable, but very palpable and ongoing struggle wrapped up within the confines of that one word that made me feel that it was not a word to be intentionally projected onto another person.
Now - maybe because my brain automatically categorizes hip-hop lyrics and movie scripts as forms of story-telling, I've been able to let "the N word" slide in and out of my ears without much fuss. Maybe because I view Black history and the art of story-telling as kin to one another, I can find it within myself to somehow tolerate some artists' use of the word without imposing too much personal judgement on them because in a way... they're speaking my (hi)story. Who knows. But, I do know and regrettably confess, that I have the capacity to tolerate the use of "the N word" in certain art-forms and mediums, and from certain people. That's just what it is.
What I have noticed though, is that as I continue to grow into myself and become more informed and aware of societal structures and systems; and the more I bare witness to the rampant injustices faced by people of colour (and/or people of a darker shade of colour!) across the globe, the more "the N word" becomes less "sit-with-able" to me.
(Yeah - "sit-with-able". It's an adjective... like "un-fuck-with-able". The Oxford dictionary will catch up, I'm sure.)
- I notice that I now turn down the volume or roll up the windows when I'm blaring hip-hop I my car - so as not to invite the impression that I condone the excessive use of the word.
- I notice that I sometimes now instinctively look for "clean" versions of songs before I add them to my iPod playlist.
- I notice that I now cringe and side-eye internally whenever I hear "the N word" excessively within a song or album (like - were you just too lazy to come up with decent lyrics, and chose to loop that word as a default?).
- I notice how I sometimes catch myself quickly glancing over at my niece & nephew to see if they've noticed or uttered the word when it comes up in song. I notice how conscious I am of hearing the word now, whereas before... It was just another piece of rebellious prose.
- I notice that I cannot ignore the word as well as I once used to. I can no longer act as though it wasn't birthed from the suffering of so many who came before me.
And, it then makes me wonder why the word lives on... Why it hasn't been abolished... Why we've reclaimed it and supposedly re-defined it and made it "cool" when there was nothing good about it to begin with? I can easily think of a shortlist of other slurs that have been used to define people of say, Latin, Asian and middle-eastern descent... And none of those terms have been quite as popular, long-lasting or widely accepted as "the N word". Not even close. So, what makes THIS particular word so special that we wish to hang on to it until death do us part?
Some of us are working overtime to condemn others for appropriating and misappropriating culture, but are failing to look inward to figure out why we, ourselves, continue to re-appropriate and reclaim a word that was, basically forcibly bestowed upon people of colour... a word that has primarily served to try and devalue our own rich culture and history.
I wonder: are we really in control of defining the word, or is the word ultimately defining us? It's tricky because, while I don't personally identify with the word, I know that millions of people before me have been branded, scarred and killed because of it. And, I also know that the original intent of the word still exists and is still used in many places across the globe. So, what options do we have?
Do we continue on as is, or do we attempt to remove it from our vocabulary and all forms of expression? And if we were to choose the latter, would that (in some ass-backwards way), lessen the Black history story and/or take away from Black culture?
All I know for certain is that when it comes to this topic, 9 times out of 10, most people have the questions, but are often..
Straight Outta Answers.