The man used it. Your parents used it. So did Carter G. Woodson. W.E.B. DuBois. Martin Luther King Jr. So did some guy known as Detroit Red.
Then there’s the United Negro College Fund and the Negro Leagues.
The n-word is known in only the dastardly way it is used. As long as the “n” was followed by an “e”, it’s all good. The word “negro” made an anthropologist’s job easier and is even acceptable enough to be included on a census form.
When the private utterance of Harry Reid’s “negro dialect” was divulged to the world, there was the predictable uproar. It’s 2010 and of course there can be no public mention of the n-word (in any variation) because people have yet to learn how to achieve some kind of sensible understanding over racial colloquialisms. So for the moment, consider me an aid in that.
There’s nigga. There’s nigger. There’s niggah. Unacceptable in any public usage unless it’s spoken by a black person. (Rubbish).
And then there’s negro. Acceptable and without offense until Generation X and Y found it to be antiquated. It’s outdated, people say. It’s too close (to the other n-word) for comfort. The fat white guy and Paul Shanklin used it to mock Barack Obama . Yet the census included it because “older African Americans identify themselves that way and they’re trying to be inclusive.”
Still, people are offended and have no clue as to why. Well, a not-so-simple blast from the past can be enlightening in these matters. Two weeks I wrote a piece on the debate over the race of people living in Egypt. In it, I touched on a pilfering process that the Socrates and Pythagoras, among others, engaged in. In said process, Greeks would routinely travel to Egypt, which by then was already an ancient civilization, to learn from the feet of the masters.
Africans at that time understood life and death as being one, and were – and now – quite reverential to their ancestors. Anthropologists would come to later understand this as ancestral worship, which was a spiritual way of acknowledging the lives of the people who come before you. In this acknowledgment, Africans received guidance and direction on how to better live.
When Greeks came to sit at the feet of the intricately developed nation of Egypt and saw the natives mummifying and worshiping the deceased, they thought Egyptians had an obsession with death (which was sort of true). When Greeks went back home, they would record stories of Egyptians and necromancy (which means black magic or communication with the dead).
“Necro” and “Negro” have identical roots, which both mean death. It is at this point where the story between “negro” and “nigger” is not clear. Some accounts hold that some Greeks enunciated “negro” as “nigger”, due to their southern European accent. When Greeks later went to conquer Egypt, they would call them “nigger” because of this accent. Many insist that nigger derives from Niger River around western Africa. Regardless of where it came from, negro and nigger have the same roots.
This isn’t an indictment on any good-willed person who have used “negro” in the past. This is just recognizing the historical usage of the word. There are many who argue that we get too bogged down in etymologies and should only consider language in its modern context. If that happens, then the words nigger, negro, niggah, nigga, nig or any permutation of the word shouldn’t matter because it’s not a tool of oppression anymore. It is then no more offensive than being called a “bitch”, “pussy” or any other pejorative.
But we all know that explanation won’t fly. If we’re going to let one word enrage us, then we better come to terms with it and be ready to articulate those terms to those who don’t understand. Psychologist Na’im Akbar, in the paper “African Roots of Black Personality”, wrote:
The manifestation of the distorted African self found in the characteristics of the “Negro” is something that stands as a barrier to the real expression and real essence of the African person. The “necro” refers to a mentally, socially and culturally dead person.
So Harry Reid isn’t inept because of his comments – made privately by the way – about the U.S. president. At least not in the way Michael Steele thinks. Reid’s no more inept than those who uses “negro” and think that there’s actually a etymological difference between that and “nigger.”
If the origins of a word doesn’t matter, then why are we bound to it? And if it does matter, then why are you still calling me a negro?
I ain’t dead.