Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The NAACP Symbolically Buries the N-Word

By Desireé Vega, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

On Monday July 9th, 2007 during its annual convention, the NAACP held a funeral to symbolically bury the N-word. A wooden box with a bouquet of fake black roses was pulled by horses during their march. The coffin will be placed at the historically black Detroit Memorial Park cemetery where it will have a headstone. To read the entire article, visit NAACP Burys the N-word.

As I read through this news article, I wondered what effect this act would have on the Black community. I read reactions and comments posted on the internet; some felt that the NAACP was making a big step in trying to eradicate the usage of the word. Others felt it was a joke and that there would not be any change in the words usage because it is used so commonly and has been popularized by the Black hip-hop community.

Historically the N-word has had negative connotations directed towards Blacks. It was used to refer to slaves in the 1700 and 1800s. Caricatures of Black people in the 1900s encapsulated the definition of the N word- lazy, no self-respect, ignorant, stupid, and did not speak proper English. The Harlem Renaissance era challenged this definition: Blacks were encouraged to embrace their culture and history. Racial pride emerged during the 1960s, the term ‘black’ was taken on by the African American community as positive. The N-word was strongly denounced during this period.

Today though, attitudes are different about the usage of the N-word. The –er has been dropped and the word is used with an –a at the end instead. Many accept this term and use it in their everyday language as it has become so popularized. Others oppose it and do not use it at all. Because the word has been popularized and the connotation used by Blacks is not the same as when Whites use the word, do Blacks really have a problem with the use of the word? If they do, how can an end be put to its usage? Is this symbolic burial by the NAACP meaningful to the young Black community who may not fully understand the history of the word and how it has been used to denigrate their culture? What significance does this event hold to people who are not Black?

Leaders in the hip-hop and entertainment community such as Russell Simmons, Master P., and Paul Mooney have denounced the usage of the N-word, but is that enough? Websites such as ask people to take a pledge to stop using the word and spread the word to other people of color. If black people do not know the history of the word or if they do not see a problem with using the word, how can the NAACP’s actions be taken seriously? If the word should indeed be removed from public and popular vernacular, how can the painful history of the word be taught? And if the n-word was to be eliminated, what effect would this have on opportunities for Blacks and how they are viewed in society?

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