Commentary: N-word Continues to Touch Emotions on All Sides

ESPN program shines spotlight on racial epithet that has found its way into pop culture.

Posted: 02/24/2014 12:05 PM EST

We can talk about how impolitic the n-word is if we want, as ESPN did Sunday night throughout a special broadcast of Outside the Lines, but we can’t pretty the word up.

Rappers and hip hop artists like Common, 50 Cent, Rick Ross and their musical brethren have spent the better part of the past two decades littering their lyrics with the word that most degrades Blacks and their history.

Now, the word is ingrained in pop culture; it carries psychological baggage that no other slur does; and all Black folks have a connection with it – whether good, bad or ugly.

It’s the bad and the ugly that we ought never to forget.

For the n-word reflects the discrimination and the bigotry that fill the pages of Black history in America. The word is a reminder to Blacks of how unwanted they were, of how invisible they have been in a society where they struggled so hard to be visible.

No better example of its hurt exists than what I most remember of the word from my boyhood:

I was a seventh-grader in the 1960s and I was headed to my first day at a large public school in Cleveland. Collinwood, a combination junior high and high school on the city’s East Side, had about 6,000 students; only a fraction of them were Black.

I took a city bus to the school, and as I stepped off the bus, I noticed big, bold letters in white paint on the front of the brick building. It was a message to me and to all the other Black teenagers who stepped off that city bus and onto the grounds of this public school.

The letters read: N-----S GO HOME!

Go home? Go any place except to this school, a school that had one of the best academic programs in Cleveland, a school dominated by ethnic whites – Italians, Poles and Slavs. They did not want me there.

I had done nothing to these boys and girls. I had not cheapened the quality of their education. I just wanted to sample a bit of it. I wanted to taste what it was like to learn from the best teachers, because I wanted to get the best education I could.

Is that a lot for a Black boy to ask?

No, it is not.

I held the same dreams as my white peers. I wanted to be liked; I wanted a fair shake at the American dream; I wanted all that society had to offer; I wanted to be defined by my character, by my intellect and by my work ethic.

Nothing in those dreams made the n-word acceptable – to me or to the others who took the public bus that fall day. We were just teenagers who were proud of who we were; we were teenagers who understood where we came from; and we were teenagers who believed in ourselves.

But a Black youth can’t go far – in sports or in life – if he is cavalier about how he defines himself or how he lets others define him. He must always see himself as more than this loathsome word.

For those like me, a public conversation about the n-word comes a decade too late. It should have occurred long before popular culture corrupted its meaning, almost turning it into a term of endearment among Blacks and whites.

As the ESPN special illustrated, Blacks will never reach consensus on the n-word, because we seem too willing to jettison our past for the chillness of the present. We’ve glorified a scathing insult, but we should find nothing glorious about wrapping our arms around a racial epithet that is covered with the blood of our ancestors.

Those Black men and Black women spilled enough blood that it’s worth burying a symbol of their chains, which includes the toxic word that spoke loudest to those chains.     

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh

(Photo: Courtesy ESPN)

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