Why Black People Use The ‘N’ Word

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I recently read a very touching book by author John Green called The Fault In Our Stars. The story follows a young girl and a group of friends in their struggle, living but with Cancer. Needless to say the book was very moving. Among the many brilliant subtleties, I noticed the author’s efforts in the Cancer stricken characters adopting a sort of trivialisation of their plight and often humour was used to tackle the very serious issue. One example of this, when one character spoke of another character not really being coordinated enough to drive but having been given a driving licence anyway, they called it a ‘Cancer perk’. And the same character, insisting on having an unlit cigarette between his lips most of the time, explains that it is symbolic – to take ownership of the thing that threatens him.

I found this very intriguing and somehow noticed the similarities between this and other issues (in no way saying they are the same thing). Though a well person couldn’t, a person dealing with Cancer may trivialise their illness and the idea of death. They may make jokes about their or a friend’s symptoms and in some ways it could possibly bring solidarity between them, reinforcing that they recognise the group the world now sees them in, but their joke at the illness’ expense separates them from it as free will having individuals.

This quite natural attitude towards opression strikes me as the same as when the first free black men and women continued to use the ‘N’ word to one another, even away from the former slave masters. It’s something that identifies you and your fellow struggler, almost a nod to express you understanding your common circumstance. Over time it’s been blurred and is sometimes used as this odd term of endearment, sometimes as an insult, sometimes as an unintentional derogatory term by another black person. The problem with it being used at all is that when misunderstood it can serve as a negative affirmation, “This is what I am and all I am.”

I suppose the ‘N’ word is very similar to the book’s unlit cigarette, by having it on your lips you have some control over its power but you must remember to explain to everyone why it is unlit and why only you can own it.

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