"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.'"
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.