The N-Word: The Most Popular Ugly Word Ever

"If people knew the true meaning of that word, its roots and how it was used," said Larry Watson, professor of sociology and music at Boston College. "Anyone who knew the story of Emmett Till," he said, referring to the 14-year-old black teen who was lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman and whose killing helped ignite the civil rights movement, "would never use that word. It was used when white slave owners were caught having sex with their female slaves and they would be charged with bestiality because they considered black women animals, less than human. ... If everyone knew this, I don't see how anybody could use that word."

Besides the influence of hip-hop, popular use of the N-word also may be rooted in a generation gap between those who lived through the civil rights and black power movements and the beneficiaries of both those movements.

The hip-hop generation has never been denied a seat on the bus, service in a restaurant or a job because of their skin color as a matter of policy or law. Many children of hip-hop have never been repeatedly called the "er" version of the N-word and may be more familiar with the "friendly" use of the word than its historical legacy.

"They have no historical reference on which to base the meaning behind the word," said Mark Chapman, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University. "I have a daughter, and she knows not to use the word and how I would feel and what would happen to her if she was ever caught using the word."

Taking Control or Perpetuating a Myth?

Some have argued that people determine what a word symbolizes or means and that turning the N-word into a compliment is a way of taking control and stripping racists of their power.

When asked about the controversial Martin Luther King episode and the use of the N-word before the episode aired, McGruder argued that the racial epithet is just a word, and that African-Americans should move beyond a racial slur and tackle other, more serious issues.

"This isn't the nigga show," McGruder said. "Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga. I just wish we would expand the dialogue and evolve past the same conversation that we've had over the past 30 years about race in our country. ... I just hope to expand the dialogue and hope the show will challenge people to think about things they wouldn't normally think about, or think about it in a very different way."

Entertainers like comedian Chris Rock have used the racial slur in their routines in attempts to neutralize the word while criticizing African-Americans for self-destructive tendencies.

Still, despite the best intentions, critics argue that using the N-word, particularly in entertainment, does more harm than good and gives others -- whites and minorities alike -- the impression that it's no longer offensive in every context.

"There's definitely something to be argued about, the African-American community's tendency for self-destruction, and I've seen Chris Rock's routine -- that there's a difference between black people and niggers," Chapman said. "But still, I think it perpetuates the use of the word. Why couldn't we just make up our own language? We've done that before with [the words] 'dawg' and 'homey.'"

Chapman believes the rap and hip-hop community could play a key role in eliminating the use of the N-word -- if it is willing.

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