As someone who taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for many decades, I had to reply to those who thought it shouldn't be taught in an American classroom because a major character around whom the true significance of the novel revolves is named Nigger Jim. Like many other of Mark Twain's novels, it explored and challenged not only the practice of racial discrimination and designation, but the social and culture fallacies which created them.
Another iconoclast who demolished the basis of racial discrimination and hatred was Richard Pryor with his comedy albums That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976). He later vowed not to use the term nigger . His stated reason in an Ebony interview was a trip to Africa.T
Well, I took a trip to Africa – which, by the way, is where I plan to live some day. I went to Kenya, and while I was there something inside of me said, “Look around you, Richard. What do you see? I saw people. African people. I saw people from other countries, too, and they were all kinds of colors, but I didn’t see any “niggers.” I didn’t see anWy there because There are no “niggers” in Africa. Can you imagine going out into the bush and walking up to a Masai and saying, “Hey nigger. Come here!?” You couldn’t do that because Masai are not “niggers.” There are no “niggers” in Africa, and there are no “niggers” here in America either. We Black people are no t”niggers,” and I will forever refuse to be one. I’m free of that, it’s out of my head. My mother is not a “nigger.” Is yours one? So if your mama ain’t no “nigger,” how could you be one? See, when I went to Africa, to my Motherland, I realized that terms like “nigger” and the word “bitch” that so many Black men call our women are tricks, like genocide on the brain.
When President Obama said that refraining from using the word nigger in polite society was not a measure of the elimination of racism, he raised a verbal firestorm among the conservatives, who tried to use his citation of the word as a character flaw, and among the more liberal, whose objections exposed a tendency toward inanity and some plain old ignorance.
The word has different dimensions of meanings, depending upon whether it is uttered by a white person or a black person. ln the mouth of a white person it means that the blackness it refers to is a degraded, subhuman, and despicable form of life. It is the most profound insult to those to whom it refers. In the mouth of a black person, it is a parody of all the malevolent ignorance embraced in the prejudicial white mentality. When blacks used the word to each other, it conveyed the whole history of white oppression, debasement, and injustice inflicted upon black people. It was the most sardonic of jokes.
While I was in the service, I hear the word used with both meanings. There were many, many whites who regarded and called black people niggers. And the blacks used the word among themselves to satirize and laugh at the stupid ignorance and malice of those who used the word against them. However, it was getting to be a time when a white man never said nigger to a black man's face because the white man's face and ass would very quickly be filleted. The word is freighted with all the atrocities the whites have inflicted upon blacks and the blacks reached the point where they would not take it anymore.
Richard Pryor came to realize that there were a lot of people who did not understand the joke when a black man used the word. The satire and irony was lost on them. The intention to debase dominated the use of the word even in black society, and it lost the humorous edge which made fun of the white intention. If one used the word, one had to be careful to use it in italics or quotation marks, which is not easy to do in spoken English. That's when a linguistic blunder was commited.
The blunder was in creating the euphemism n-word. It is like using the euphemism f-word when we are trying to be too delicate to say fuck. The euphemism merely refers to the word and creates an emphasis on the original. In avoiding the word itself, the euphemism carries the same intention. Walk up to a black man and say, "Hey, fucking n-word." And see what happens. The intention behind the word is not eliminated by the euphemism.
It is impossible to talk about the racial history of our country--and many others--without using the word nigger in explaining the racial attitude that dominated so much of our history through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, and our current era where we find racism seething under the false mask of the n-word.
The matter is one of using language to communicate, not to denigrate and hurt and kill the spirit. In many ways the n-word is more destructive of human society that the original because it belies a devious ploy. We use the softer word, but the original malicious intention of that word is called to mind. We know it is lurking under the facade of niceness. Another n-word.
The real problem we have is that we keep f-wording up the language. .