I'm Sick of the N-Word

OK I'm sick of it. I really am. Just sick of it. I've watched all the shows, listened to all the debate and the discussion and heard all the arguments. And in the end I'm more sick and disgusted than ever.

Actually it's more than that. I'm embarrassed for those who came before me and I'm sad for those who are coming after me. I never ever thought I would see the day when black people would argue and fight for the right to use the N-word.

That's right, the N-word -- that epithet of white racial superiority and black inferiority. The symbolic word that was used to dehumanize an entire race of people and to justify white supremacy and its inhumane treatment of black men and women. And you want to embrace that word?

Yes, I used the word as a youngster. Why? Simply because everybody else used it. I thought that's what black people were. I thought that was our name. No one corrected me. No one told me any differently. But even then I knew it was a horrible word, a badge of shame. I used it to put other black folks down. I could feel the hatred and disdain in the word every time I used it. There was absolutely nothing endearing about it.

It wasn't until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X that I began to become enlightened. I knew nothing about black history -- I just knew there was something grossly wrong and he helped open my eyes to all of it. I was ashamed, angry and embarrassed. I knew I had to change.

Here's the issue for me with the N-word. We took the oppressor's word for ourselves and we've never been able to let it go. Even as we moved forward to dig ourselves out of slavery's hole, we've never let that damn word go. We've let some names go that we felt were holding us back (colored, Negro) and taken on others to show our pride (black, Afro American and African American) but we haven't been able to let that one go. Internalized oppression, self hatred, the Willie Lynch syndrome -- hey you call it. I'm sure all of that stuff is in the pot.

So then this new idea came along. Since we can't get rid of it, since we can't let it go -- let's embrace it. Let's reinvent it. Let's endear it. And along the way let's make everybody one. Because well you know it's just a word. We'll take control of the word. White supremacy you may have invented the word and you may have named us, but by golly we're going to take this word and use it on our terms. We'll show you.

Well folks, we've had our little experiment and let me just tell you, it's failed miserably. Yes miserably. You haven't done any better with the word than the white folks did. Maybe you didn't know this but the word is still being used to kill black folks. The same word that preceded the lynching is the word that precedes the shooting. The same word that white folks used to take a black man's life is the same word a black man uses to take a black man's life. The same damn word!

Maybe that doesn't mean anything to you -- all you rappers and you ESPN commentators and you "I know my history but that's in the past" black folks. You told us it was OK to use the word. Go for it you said. Embrace it. Endear it. Make it YOURS. And white folks -- that word is off limits to you. You don't have permission to use that word to kill us anymore. We'll use it to kill ourselves. All of you feel better now?

The N-word -- a complex issue? No, not at all to me. No matter whose hands it's in -- black or white -- it's still doing what it was intended to do. Take black lives. I just never thought it would be an inside job. Think about that the next time you get some love from your N____.

Dr. Joseph E. Marshall, Jr. is a noted author, lecturer, and radio talk show host. He is both a MacArthur Genius Award recipient and an Ashoka Fellow recognized for his pioneering work in the area of youth violence.