No matter how adoring some of his supporters, it's difficult to imagine that Martin Luther King Jr. would have enjoyed hearing someone say, "Martin is my nigga."
Those who have defended the use of the N-word -- rap and hip-hop artists in particular -- have said that the word's different spellings indicate its different meanings. "Nigga" or "niggaz" is supposed to be the more conciliatory version and refers to a friend or buddy. The "er" spelling is more sinister and calls up slavery, segregation and racism.
Some say King would not have used -- and would not have endorsed any use -- of the word whatsoever. That's why an episode of "The Boondocks" -- the Cartoon Network's animated show based on Aaron McGruder's syndicated comic strip -- shown Jan. 15, the day before the country observed Martin Luther King Day, generated some outrage.
"I think Aaron McGruder did something with Martin's character without really thinking about or understanding who Martin Luther King was," said William Jelani Cobb, professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. "To portray him as a depressed old man, calling people niggers ... it was offensive. Martin was a philosopher.
"McGruder has really come down hard on [Black Entertainment President] Bob Johnson for BET's programming," Cobb continued. "But I would ask him how he could criticize BET when he works for a channel -- the Cartoon's Network's Adult Swim, a white-owned channel -- that would allow the N-word to be used on its shows."
In the episode the main character, Huey Freeman -- a 10-year-old African-American militant -- imagines that King wasn't killed when he was shot in 1968 but remained in a coma until 2001. When King awakens from the coma, he is so out of place with the new world he sees -- and is so disturbed by the state of black America -- that he erupts into an "anti-dream" speech in which he blasts many blacks for being "lazy, trifling niggas." The Rev. Al Sharpton, a target of past "Boondocks" strips, was so disturbed by this episode that he demanded an apology from McGruder and the Cartoon Network.
The Cartoon Network defended McGruder and the show, saying that it did not intend any disrespect for King and his legacy.
"This episode in no way was meant to offend or 'desecrate' the name of Dr. King," the network said in a statement. "We think Aaron McGruder came up with a thought-provoking way of not only showing Dr. King's bravery but also of reminding us of what he stood and fought for and why, even today, it is important for all of us to remember that and to continue to take action."
Since the rise of gangsta rap in hip-hop in the early 1990s, the use of the N-word has become accepted and justified in some circles, especially among teens and those in the entertainment community. The often-called "ugliest word in the English language" does not appear to be going away anytime soon.