What’s the No. 1 question non-blacks ask about the N-word? “If blacks can say it, why can’t we?” When radio personality Laura Schlessinger repeated the racial slur 11 times during an August 2010 conversation with an African-American caller who complained about whites using it, she pointed out that black comedians and rappers say the epithet all the time. While that’s certainly true, a number of blacks find the term so offensive they refuse to utter it and object to individuals of any race doing so. Oprah Winfrey and Cornel West are among the group of high-profile blacks who’ve publicly spoken out against the N-word.
The NAACP Buries the Word
In a dramatic move at its national convention in July 2007, the NAACP held a mock funeral for the N-word as well as offensive terms for women at the historically black cemetery Detroit Memorial Park. The ceremony, attended by hundreds of onlookers, featured horses and a pine box covered with fake black roses. The Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the NAACP’s Detroit branch at the time, explained the reason for the funeral. “We are committed to ending hate — word and talk,” he said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good, whether it's a journalist on TV or a rapper on the radio.” The Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago delivered a eulogy for the N-word, calling it “the greatest child that racism ever birthed.” While the N-word continued to be widely used after 2007, the NAACP’s funeral made a statement that not all blacks, especially those old enough to remember racial segregation, disapprove of the word.
Oprah Winfrey Recalls the Slur’s Ugly Past
When Oprah Winfrey interviewed rapper Jay-Z in 2009, she pointed out how she attended a show of his and witnessed both black and white young people in the audience screaming out the N-word. She pointed out that this phenomenon didn’t seem to affect Jay-Z and questioned if his use of the slur in songs was necessary. That’s because Winfrey finds it difficult to detach the N-word from its history of brutality. “When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched—and the N-word was the last thing he heard,” she explained.
Maya Angelou Calls the N-Word “Dangerous”
Poet and writer Maya Angelou made her distaste of the N-word clear when she discovered that the rapper Common featured her reciting poetry on a track of his called “The Dreamer” that contained the epithet. Angelou has not only said she “abhors” the slur but also characterized it as “dangerous and vulgar” to blacks. Angelou told the New York Post: “"I had no idea that Common was using the piece we had done together on [a track] in which he also used the N-word numerous times. I’m surprised and disappointed.”
Cornel West Says N-Word Connotes Self-Hatred
Controversial scholar Cornel West is more sympathetic to rappers’ use of the N-word than other blacks mentioned here but still views the word through a largely negative lens. He remarked in 2007: “I hope that rap musicians and hip-hop artists become more sensitive to the vicious history of the N-word. That I know that ‘nigga’ as opposed to ‘nigger’ is a term of endearment for some young people. But the history of ‘nigger’ with its connotation of self-hatred and self-disrespect needs to be acknowledged…”
Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint Call N-Word Oppressive Symbol
Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint released a book together in 2007 called Come On, People that discouraged use of the N-word and the role of rap music in popularizing the slur. They wrote: “Gangsta rap promotes the widespread use of the N-word to sell CDs among people of all ethnic groups. In fact, the audience for gangsta rap is made up predominantly of white youth, who get a vicarious thrill from participating in a black thug fantasy.... Black youth, as well as some misguided adults, have defended the use of the N-word, suggesting they are somehow making it a positive term. Don’t fall for that nonsense. The N-word is a vile symbol of our oppression by slave masters.”