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The use of the word “nigger” has the black community divided between activists calling for a boycott and scholars asserting that it has a place in history and should remain alive. Recently, spearheaded by Councilman Leroy Comrie, the New York City Council passed a symbolic resolution calling for New Yorkers to stop using the N-word. And community leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly plan to meet with TV networks and musicians to discuss its use.
Comrie, who hopes the resolution will spark discussion among youth and urge them to seek out the history of the word’s usage, has been carrying his message to the streets, speaking in schools, churches, men’s forums, and urging entertainment outlets such as BET to eliminate the word on air. “They’re not aware of the history of pain and suffering connected with this term. Their usage of it now amounts to nothing more than a fad which can be dispelled with education. However, we, as adults, must be willing to stand up and say enough,” Comrie says.
Deborah Gray White, Board of Governors Professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, claims that the word has its place. “We always used this word in black circles,” asserts White. “We always knew it had certain connotations. And our kids have been socialized to understand when this word is acceptable and not acceptable. Hip-hop has blurred this line.”
Comedian and actor Damon Wayans has tried to patent the word for use on a clothing line. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has twice rejected the application on the grounds that it violates a U.S. law prohibiting registration for words considered “immoral or scandalous.” Additionally, a Website, niggaspace.com, has become an online social destination for blacks.
White comedian and actor Michael Richards created a firestorm of controversy when he screamed “nigger” to a group of African American males that heckled his stand-up routine.
“Michael Richards proved that we can’t have it both ways,” says Jill Flowers, co-founder of abolishthenword.com. “We say we’re taking the power away [from the word] by using it every day, but then a nonblack uses it and everyone’s in an uproar.”
White believes it’s not the government’s job to quash the N-word, but rather it’s a task that blacks should embrace. “We can’t legislate cultural and social change. We need to illuminate our history.”