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Words matter, you should care more about them. – Jerreau.

When I was in the 11th grade, I wrote an editorial saying why I hated the word African-American and that I preferred to be called a black man in America. My argument, in summary, was that my history had been stolen from me and arbitrarily assigning a continent to my lineage simply because of the pigment of my skin was unfair to me as well as true Africans. Given the dirty history of this country and its involvement with the slave trade, I’ll concede that my ancestors are likely from the motherland. I will also acknowledge that many different parts of today’s culture have traces to the birth place of civilization (e.g. Polyrhythmic music).

What I can’t do is pretend that my culture has not evolved into something of its own right. The contributions of Black Americans to the world are well documented and visible in all levels of society. Hip hop is now pop music. Black swagger dictates popular slang and trends. What’s important about black culture is that it developed insulated in America and therefore is its own unique entity, with its own history, customs and rules. You can’t find black American culture in any continent in Africa, because frankly, black Americans and African-Americans are different.

Nas raps in Yall My Niggas:

To be a Forture 500 CEO it took rap

So what if my pants sag with my hat turned back?

The same swag got our merchandise flying off the rack

Marketing companies is hiring blacks

Fresh Hip-Hop lingo for your campaign ads

Controversy surrounds who could say it and when

Some niggas are full time, some playing pretend

So fuck that, no apologies on the issue

If it offends you it’s meant to, it’s that simple

I was thinking a little bit, what would it take to authenticate my nigga-ness

There are many things that make Black-American culture unique and specific. From our music, to our customs, to our comedy, there are great-unifiers that are embedded in our being. One of the most pronounced differentiators is our language ebonics and that brings me to the word “nigga”. Nigga is one of the most controversial words in the English language but a staple in ours. I hardly think it’s necessary to go into the history of why the word is such a source of pain for our community. It is not hyperbole to say that everybody knows why “nigger” hurts. What we don’t spend enough time talking about is how we’ve reclaimed that word, “nigger”, and changed it into something that is completely different: “nigga”. “Nigger” is never going to be ok, but “nigga” is now ours. And we should not be ashamed to say it.

The idea of a word changing its meaning over time is not foreign.  “Nice” used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” “Awful” things used to be “worthy of awe.” This is where we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.” Today, awful things couldn’t be further from being worthy of awe.

Still, the most relevant parallel I can find is with “guy.” Guy used to be one of the worst things that you could call somebody. It is actually an eponym that comes from the name of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was part of a failed attempt to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. Folks used to burn his effigy, a “Guy Fawkes” or a “guy,” and from there it came to refer to a frightful figure. In modern times, “guy” just refers to men in general.

Similar to how “guy” is no longer a reference to British treason when I call my home boy “my guy”, I also intend zero disrespect when I call my guy, “my nigga”.

Nigga, Don’t Always Mean NIGGA. Sometimes, It Mean Nigga.

Does this mean that Nigga is universally positive now? Absolutely not. It has nuance. The meaning has changed. What’s special about the word, is that nearly every black American, fluent in ebonics, understands the complexities of the word. We understand exactly what is trying to be conveyed depending on it’s usage.

For example, there is a distinct difference between two friends greeting each other with an emphatic “whatup nigga!” and a guy referring to an enemy as “that nigga over there”. Equally, it’s understood “a room full of niggas,” doesn’t indicate a positive NOR negative connotation (Note: The tone used when saying “niggas” in the last example can change the connotation positively or negatively).

“A room full of niggas” doesn’t necessarily make a distinction of a particular gender as the room could contain men and women. Truthfully, it might not even make be making racial distinction, because a room full of niggas doesn’t have to mean “a room full of black people.”

It’s just a thing that *niggas* understand intuitively, because it is part of who we are. We were raised by it and with it. It is a staple in our language and nearly, universally understood by all fluent in it. What is NOT conveyed inherently is feelings of disrespect. You only begin to be disrespectful when you adding modifiers and getting hybrids such as “fuck nigga” or “aint shit nigga”.

It’s not fair for strip yet another piece of culture from us because once upon a time, a word that was pronounced similarly was once used to belittle and dehumanize us. I’m more nigga-American then African-American and that’s ok.

Oppression couldn’t escape us through the ages

We changed the basis of derogatory phrases

And I say it’s quite amazing

The use of ghetto terms developed our own language

No matter where it came from

It’s celebrated, now people are mad if they ain’t one

-Nas, Y’All My Niggas

 

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