The N-Word: The Most Popular Ugly Word Ever

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."

Hip-Hop Generation Reaps the Rewards and Forgets the Past

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.

"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.

"Richard Pryor used the N-word all the time in his routines," said Chapman. "Then he went to Africa and he said, 'I will never use that word again.' Imagine if we could get some of the rappers to go to Africa -- like Nelly, Ja Rule and Kanye West, one of the more enlightened of the bunch. Imagine what effect they could have if they visited Africa and came back and said, 'I won't use the N-word again.'"

'Out of Control'

If there are any doubts about the enduring power of the N-word, think about the reaction and discussion it sparks. Its mention tends to stop people in their tracks. The meek -- or slang-challenged -- whisper the word painfully if they have to mention it at all during discussions. And in articles like this one, the word is almost blocked out entirely, referred to as the N-word or accompanied by an offensive language warning label.

"The fact that we're having this discussion speaks volumes," said Dwayne McDuffie, TV writer and creator of the now-defunct Milestone Comics, which showcased a cast of African-American superheroes in the 1990s. "There have been all kinds of racial slurs, but only this one continues to have the same powerful meaning for people that it did when it was first used. If you were to call someone a 'mick' today, you just might have to explain what that is."

It's doubtful that the N-word will reach that point. However, memory of its legacy may be in danger of extinction. Some critics argue that the N-word has been used -- and accepted -- outside its shameful context for so long that it may be too late to expect the masses to watch their language.

"The use of the N-word is so far beyond the African-American community, they can't get it back," said Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University and author of "Brooklyn White Boy: A Memoir." "For Latinos living in the Bronx, 'nigga' is the same as 'my homeboy.' Who's going to be the language police to the Dominicans living in Washington Heights [in Manhattan], the University Heights section in the Bronx? And they share the same urban socioeconomic factors that African-Americans face every day. It [the N-word's use] has taken a life of its own. ... It's out of control."

So, it looks like an ugly word may be sitting pretty for some time to come -- for better or worse.