The N-Word: History’s Master of Illusion


“N*gger, please.”

Or is that…“N*gga, please”?

It depends on who’s saying it. It depends on the energy behind it. It depends on whether or not it ends with an ‘a’ or an ‘er.’ Blah, blah, blah.

Personally, I believe the debate over the N-word (originally Niger meaning Black in Portuguese) is too convoluted to even matter at this point. And yet, that little racially-charged, slang-infused, fear-mongering word, spelled from the same 26-letter alphabet as all other English words, has found its way back into the spotlight again.

Whether spewed with idiocy from a Seinfeld comedian’s mouth to a brown-faced heckler in the crowd, or now, from the jowl-framed lips of a butter-loving, biscuit-baking Southern belle, damn it, the word still has power.

Or does it?

Smoke-and-mirrors have always been the pervasive enemy of an uncomfortable truth. In a society caught up in the ravenous voyeurism of un-reality TV, swayed like blades of grass in the wind by the media’s spin on any given day, I say we (meaning all of us) have been hoodwinked again.

Case in point. Did you know that the racial complaints filed against Paula Deen and her brother came from a White female employee who managed their Georgia restaurants? She reportedly was so fed up with the maltreatment of her Black subordinates that she risked her own livelihood and reputation to stand up for them.

The casual way in which the media left out this major fact is as telling as a new school Paula Deen recipe – if you leave out the sugar, maybe they won’t notice the 10 sticks of butter. The truth is the N-word controversy just doesn’t sell as many papers if we all know a White, Southern woman made the stink.

The illusion of equality in America has actually led us (meaning Black folks) to believe that we can take a historically-hate filled word, claim it as our own in a fun “we have overcome” manner, and then tell others they better not even think about uttering it or we’ll cry foul.

N*ggas, please.

That would be like Trayvon Martin thinking the “creepy ass cracker” following him was a friendly, Boy Scout recruiter. Or, like the all-White female jury at his trial thinking Rachel Jeantel would make a good, door-to-door Mary Kay salesgirl. The illusion of equality isn’t illusion to many of us who live life on the inequality side of things.

Getting us all riled up over the N-word is a weakly-fashioned distraction from what’s readily apparent: that racism is at an all-time high, that our voting rights have been altered, that self-directed hatred continues to annihilate the Black male population within our cities, and that issues like gay rights have darted light years past Black progress via unity, legislation, and the mass media push.

Brothers and sisters, blow away the smoke and take a look in the mirror.

For nearly 25 years, the Queen of Mass Media, Oprah Winfrey, abhorred the thought of bringing a rapper onto her show because, more than anything, as a child of the Civil Rights era, she despised rap’s use of the N-word. And then, suddenly, she changed her tune.

Either Oprah has finally seen past the smoke-and-mirrors, or she’s simply vying to gain acceptance within our (meaning Hip-Hop’s) demographic for ratings and cool points. Either way, it was hella cool to see two, filthy rich N-words like Oprah and Jay-Z sipping quarter-waters in Marcy Projects.

Even CNN jumped into the fire this week with a special called “The N-Word.” While I knew it would be focused on things like slavery, syntax acceptability and Paula Deen, I was relieved to see it being covered by CNN, as they are generally more careful with Black issues. Levar Burton, who played the whip-lashed slave Toby from “Roots” in the ‘70s, conceded like most on the show that the N-word’s context is what matters most.

The thing is the illusion of equality has seemingly made some Black folks believe that we’ve already overcome. Just because they can’t unleash dogs and water-hoses on our kids anymore, or because we have a Black president, or Django was a swagged-out hero n*gga, or because advertisers are quick to yank endorsements away from misguided, mouthy millionaires like Paula Deen, doesn’t mean the race has been won.

What is true is that we (meaning Black folks) are in a world of sh*t far greater than a word that may or may not be acceptable – depending on your skin color, or your generation, or your ability to be perceived as ultra-cool by rappers (see also Gwyneth Paltrow).

We need unification. We need education. We need to restore our pride and dignity. And we need to face the truth and stop being hoodwinked so easily by the media meanderings of a power structure that finds us neither necessary nor capable of uplift.

Let’s face it, the truth stings – something like looking in a mirror and realizing that your ratchet, unenlightened ways might make you look like a bunch of n*ggers.

But change is a funny thing for us multi-layered and sometimes hypocritical Black folks. Take me, for instance. Even though the NAACP went so far as to funeralize it in 2007, I’ll likely keep using the N-word. To be honest, it has been and is still so much a part of my generation’s lexicon, that removing it might be as difficult as removing the kink from my hair or zapping these writing skills from my brain.

All smoke-and-mirrors cleared away, in the forward-thinking words of NWA, “I’ma be a n*gga for life.” (Chill. That’s N-word with an ‘a’.)

Guest contributor Seandra Sims is the former Editor of and a lifelong purveyor of all things Hip-Hop. Rant all you want to her on Twitter at @SeandraSims.