Ain't nothin' nice about the N-word: How a beach ball became my symbol of racism

Paul Scott's column appears on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Paul Scott's column appears on the first and third Saturdays of each month.

"I can’t take back the words I never said.”

— Lupe Fiasco

I remember the first time I was called the “N Word.’ It was in White Lake, North Carolina. I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, innocently sharing my new blue and yellow beach ball with a little white girl when she was, frantically, summoned out of the water like Jaws was about to attack.

After a brief family huddle,“Suzie” waded back out with the verdict, “I’m not allowed to play with n-----s.”

I just stood there and watched her swim away: a boy and his beach ball, abandoned in the middle of a lake.

Over the years, there has been an ongoing, heated argument over the “N-word,” who can use it and who should get punched in the mouth for just thinking about it.

Recently, the debate resurfaced when Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning rap superstar Kendrick Lamar rebuked a white female fan whom he invited on stage for repeating one of his lyrics that contained the word.

Of course, this sparked the familiar chorus of “well, white folk should be able to say it since all black people do!”

Uh ... no “we” all don’t talk like that.

I, for one, avoid using that type of language. Matter of fact, the only time I might utter it is if I am explaining a socio-political construct meant to dehumanize people of African descent. Other than that, it ain’t in my vocab.

This is not to say that some of my friends and family don’t have a certain obsession with the word. We are not monolithic. Some black folk eat chitterlings. As a personal preference, I abstain from both.

Just as “hog gut” has a negative origin that conjures up memories of the enslavement of African people (the unwanted stuff we were forced to devour) so does the N-word. According to historians, the adjective “negro” had its origin when the Portuguese first encountered African people and referred to them as “the blacks.”

Over the centuries, the pronunciation of the word has changed, depending on the dialect of the user, but the overall meaning has remained the same: “something that is less than human.”

In more recent history, Hip Hop has tried to freshen up the word by saying that the variation "nigga" is a term of endearment used by people of the black persuasion. After all, didn’t the patron saint of rap, Tupac Shakur, say it stood for “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished?”

But before you blame the current pop cultural popularity of the word on Pac or the five black kids who came “Straight Outta Compton,” NWA, they were not the first to try to attempt damage control. According to Dr. Randall Kennedy in his book “N-----, the Strange Career of a Troubling Word,” in the early '60s white comedian Lenny Bruce had the not-so-brilliant idea that if Americans overused the racial slur that would take the sting out of it.

Also, in 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono, metaphorically, tried to use the epithet to champion feminism in “Woman is the N----- of the World.”

Comedian Richard Pryor took the word to new heights in the '70s, but after a trip to Africa, he vowed to never call a black person that word again. And neither should we.

Now, I am sure that even some of our otherwise, bright scholars will still defend their addiction to this word. Kinda like the guy who gets drunk every night in the comfort of his own crib and swears he ain’t hurtin’ nobody and can quit any time he so desires. This dude could not lead a discussion against alcoholism, nor can a N-word addict lead a discussion about the depths of white supremacy and the self hatred it produced without coming off as a stone-cold hypocrite. The discussion must come from those who, unapologetically, avoid using the slur.

Let some millennials argue I am behind the times and the word doesn’t mean what it used to mean back in my day. And the police brutality and other acts of racism prevalent in 2018 cannot be oversimplified with debates over the uttering of a mere two-syllable word.

Well, to me it can. Because every time I hear the word I think about that little boy in 1972 ,standing alone in a lake, clutching his beach ball , wondering why Suzie’s family hated him so.

Paul Scott’s column appears on the first and third Saturday of the month. Follow him at NoWarningShotsFired.com or on Twitter @NWSF

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