How did ni**er become 'the n-word'?
The n-word, the euphemistic term itself, not the much-contested word to which the euphemism refers, is not a term that most of us (black/white) use outside of professional and/or public circumstances. In fact, the use of the term ‘n-word’ became prominent in the public sphere in 1995 — the moment where the actual word engendered all of its historical and, at the time, current valence with white supremacy and systemic racism — during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Officer Mark Fuhrman initially denied that he had (in recent history) used the term. He was lying. The Simpson defense team produced tapes of Officer Fuhrman’s prolific use of the epithet, at various points referring to black men as dumb, smelly, lying niggers who “run like rabbits.” Simpson’s guilt or innocence took a back seat to Fuhrman’s racist attitudes, which impacted the case because of the virulent ways in which the epithet was used on the tapes, but also because the wide audience of this televised trial had just experienced one of the most watched amateur videos in history — where a group of Fuhrman’s colleagues savagely beat Rodney King.
Please note that the euphemism/the n-word existed before 1995. Sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman has an entry for the n-word in her 1994 Black English Vernacular dictionary — Black Talk, published in 1994. But the need for the euphemism was enhanced by the ways in which the actual epithet was re-entering the public discourse through rap music and the very public airing of our racial divides – most notably on display in the Rodney King tape, the LA Riots, and the so-called trial of the century, the Simpson murder case.
To be clear here, we are actually talking about at least two versions of the n-word: ni**er and ni**a. Although I am somewhat reluctant to parse these distinctions, for fear of co-signing conventional misunderstanding of both versions, I will try to proffer some clarity this time around.
One black vernacular pronunciation of the word ni**er would be ni**a — that is, one feature of BEV or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is r-lessness — that is dropping ‘Rs’ in certain phonological and/or morphological situations. Over time that vernacular pronunciation found its way into recorded versions of black artistic production, especially prominent in the poetry of folks like Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, and the Last Poets, in the comedy of Dolemite, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor, and in the speeches of Malcolm X. Please note that the use of ‘ni**as’ in these performances/speeches were not overwhelmingly positive. But anyone who knows anything about hip-hop knows that rap music sampled the voices of these great figures, and their deconstructed sense of the n-word has been wholly embraced by hip-hop heads.
The ‘ni**a’ version of the n-word predates rap music, and the deconstruction of the original epithet, ni**er, goes about as far back as the racist use of the term itself. One of the more complicated things for so many of us to get our heads around is that, just as black pronunciations of the n-word developed, so did new conventional meanings. Over time, that’s how we get the so-called “positive” uses of the term. I say ‘so-called’ here not just because I, like hip-hop, like to sample Malcolm X, but because any cursory quantitative analysis of the use of the ni**a version of the n-word in hip-hop/pop culture will demonstrate again that the ‘ni**a’ version of the n-word is not always (or even often) positive in meaning.
Ultimately adjectives like ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ are too simple for this discussion. That’s why we can’t bury the word and why we must continue to police its usage with vigilance. And when I say ‘we’ I mean black folk — yes, the same black folk who can’t agree on whether or not the first black president is black.
In the end though, I think the rules for usage are pretty simple. The reason why we even have the euphemistic ‘n-word’ is because of an inherent need to refer to the term even if/when we don’t want to invite all of the historical complexities that attach to it. But when we actually want or need to use it the rules are pretty simple. 1) Only use the ‘ni**er’ version of the term if you are black or you are racist – tough to be both but it is possible. 2) Only use the ‘ni**a’ version of the term in and amongst your own (private) speech community IF and only if your speech community condones deconstructed uses of the term.
Once the n-word — the epithet in either of its pronunciations — enters into the public sphere in any way, it is next to impossible to divorce it from the racialized history from which it originally emerged.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.