Today NWA writer Sharon F. Warner of the Hall Branch Library writing workshop states her belief in the power of language and labels.

We invite you to listen to Sharon reading her essay here.

THIS I BELIEVE
Sharon F. Warner

THIS I BELIEVE: The word nigger, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “the n word,” is not now, never has been, and never will be a term of endearment or respect. There have been many words used to describe African Americans over the centuries. I believe that nigger is one of the worst.

When I was born in 1945, the race designation was Colored. On my birth certificate, it’s abbreviated Col. When I worked as a guide at the Emancipation Proclamation Centennial in 1963, the celebration was called “A Century of Negro Progress.” When I marched for open housing in Gage Park in 1966 with Martin Luther King and people of all colors, “nigger” is probably one of the things I was called. But honestly, the racist Gage Park spectators were so loud, raucous, and discordant that I really couldn’t distinguish any individual words. It was like a wall of noise.

I know that “nigger” was the answer to the question Malcolm X asked: “What does a White man call a Black man with a PhD?” I couldn’t help thinking of Malcolm when Professor Henry Louis Gates had his recent run-in with a White policeman in Massachusetts.

In 1969, when I became one of the early advertising copywriters of color in Chicago, we were Black, a term I still prefer. African American is fine as far as it goes, but it still only narrows our ancestry down to 3 continents—Africa, North America, and South America—ignoring the fact that it was the Europeans who brought our ancestors to the Americas (and sometimes became our ancestors too). Black is neat, it’s clean, and its very non-specificity unites us with all people of African descent, wherever they may live.

Of course, another thing Black does, it takes a word that once was used as a negative and turns it into a positive. I know that’s what the N-word proponents say about nigger. But there is one big difference. Black was always a word that had both negative and positive connotations, depending on context. Wouldn’t it be nice if the American economy were in the black (as opposed to in the red) in some way other than having a Black president? Nigger always had negative connotations, and for some of us, it always will. Once on an Oprah Winfrey Show, when Oprah and rapper Jay-Z were discussing the word nigger, Oprah noted that when a Black man was lynched, nigger may have been the last word he heard before he died.

I remember when Richard Pryor came back from a trip to Africa in the 1970s and announced that he wasn’t going to use the word nigger any more. He said that in Africa he had seen a lot of Africans and Black people, but he hadn’t seen any niggers. That’s what I’d like to see, and hear—NO niggers! Not in our music, not in our media, not in our everyday speech. I may just be a crazy old lady who was born before the middle of the 20th Century, but I say nigger is not, was not, and never will be a term of endearment or respect.

THIS I BELIEVE!

Today is part three of our four-part This I Believe essay series. As part of our support of WBEZ’s “This I Believe: An Evening with Bob Edwards,” we invited Neighborhood Writing Alliance participants to write their own This I Believe-style essays. (Here are part 1 and part 2.)

  • Ann Stanford

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay, Sharon. This is a difficult topic and I appreciate how you have looked at the subject from various points of view. Interestingly, Henry Louis Gates’s memoir of 1994 is titled, “Colored People: A Memoir.” He goes to some length to justify using the word, “colored.” The politics of identity and the language we use for ourselves and others are complicated issues. Thanks for your essay.

    • Dee Johnson

      Sharon, you are so right on!! The N-word is so played out and useless. One can speculate that the use of the N-word became so psychologically ingrained in some Blacks that a cognitive shift occurred to make the word palatable–turning it into a term of endearment.

      I have not or will not ever view the N-word as a positive adjective or noun or whatever. When people used it “back in the day,” it was because someone had displayed behavior that was degrading or immoral. Although the N-word it is used now more loosely and clothed in smiles, pats and hugs, I am still offended by its use.

      You have written a very thought-provoking, on the minds of others topic. And you have written it well !!