When a man dies, what does not leave him? The voice of a dead man goes into fire, his breath into wind, his eyes into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the quarters of heaven, his body into the earth, his spirit into space, the hairs of his head into plants, and his blood and semen are placed in water, what then becomes of this person? What remains is action. It's quality becomes fate. Verily, one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action.
- Upanishads, Hindu Poetic Dialogues on Metaphysics (c. B.C. 800)
I can remember a controversy that once brewed when a prime time episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes bleeped the use of the n-word while in the very same interview, let the word “kike” go broadcast untouched. I wish I could source it, but this was way older than the Internet and yet my recollection of the ensuing controversy is very clear. And at the time, I can remember an equal part of me both understanding the controversy over this double-standard in CBS’ treatment of the two slurs as well as an equal part of me understanding why one racial slur in America might be more detestable and bleep-worthy than all others.
Had it been a German broadcast, might have been the other way around, but in America, as much as I truly believe this is the greatest nation ever assembled on God’s Green Earth, the n-word in many ways encapsulates what is unquestionably the most shameful chapter in our entire history.
From what I understood going into this blog post, and backed up by the Wikipedia entry with four sources quoting the word’s origins, the n-word began as a neutral term, and while centuries of slavery and brutal oppression gave the mere sound of the word a hateful ring to our modern ears, reading works as recent as the late 19th and early 20th century writers such as Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway, you can read the n-word in their writings and still sense the word being used without any malice, in more of a de facto term sort of way. (In much the same way as hearing the term “negro” used innocently in the 1970s and 80s, and I remember it being used by newscasters both black and white at the time.)
What was most interesting about the evolution of the use of the n-word, however, was the fact that the more and more white people were getting a grip on how offensive the term was, how it shouldn’t be used in polite company and yes, many people do get raised properly to believe that if you wouldn’t tell a joke in mixed circles, probably best not to tell it behind people’s backs, the more white people wouldn’t use the term in public and (hopefully) in their own private conversations, the more the term began to be embraced by the black community.
This is not to suggest that blacks using the n-word to reference each other is some sort of recent phenomenon, I’m sure it goes back as far as the word’s origins, but with the explosion of rap music in the 80s, the “What’s up, my brotha?” of the 60s and 70s definitely gave way predominantly to, “What’s up, my n*****?”
I can remember being sort of shocked by an NWA coming out with the “N” right there in their name and my jaw dropping at Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg dropping about 150 n-bombs on a 60 minute CD of The Chronic, but I also totally got it. “You white folks want to call us a bunch of n*****s? Damn straight I’m a n*****. Proud of it, too.” I totally understood how they were reinventing the word and reclaiming the word for themselves.
That being said, however, at this point, I would be so happy to never hear another person of any skin color use that word again. I would never be so presumptuous as to try to tell any black person how they can or can’t reference themselves and each other, but to me now when I hear that word, it sounds to me like someone saying, “we are never going to get beyond the past.” That is my hope and my prayer, that one day we can get beyond that past.