Paul R. Lehman, What’s in a name—the “N” word and Identity

May 4, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Africa, African American, American Bigotry, American history, biological races, black inferiority, blacks, Disrespect, DNA, ethnic stereotypes, Ethnicity in America, European American, European Americans, France, identity, immigration, language, Media and Race, Negro, Prejudice, race, Race in America, respect, skin color, skin complexion, social conditioning, the 'n' word, white supremacy, whites | 1 Comment
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Several years ago I had the occasion to give a lecture to some citizens of a small rural town at the town’s library. An audience of about twenty people attended the lecture and remained for a question and answer session. In responding to a question, I made mention of European Americans and their relation to the question. Soon after I finished my comments, a small, white-haired, senior lady raised her hand, and I acknowledged her. She asked, “What is this European American you talked about?” Smiling at her, I said, “you. You are a European American.” She seemed perplexed, so I explained to her that at one time in America the only people who could become citizens had to identify themselves as either Negro (black) or white. Many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe did not qualify as either, so they had to use their ethnic identity which set them apart from the so-called whites. In the early 1920s, two Asian men applied for American citizenship and both were denied because the courts said they were neither black nor white. Following the second trial, a Supreme Court justice said that only Europeans could be considered white and they could recognize one from another. One of the consequences of that statement led many immigrants to stop identifying themselves by their ethnicity and just identify themselves as white because it provided elements of social and civic power and prestige.

Still looking somewhat confused, the lady asked, “What is my ethnicity?  I have always been told that I am white.” I asked her where she and her parents were born if not in America. She mentioned that her family had not spoken about being from another country in general but she had heard some references to France and Italy. I mentioned that the term European American provided a more specific identity reference than simply saying white because white does not refer to nationality, country, language, religion, or culture. She thanked me for the explanation.

This incident came to mind when I heard two young African American men talking on Facebook about economic challenges and problems experienced by African Americans and people of color. What caught my attention was their reference to African Americans as “N”. They used it as though it was an accepted and legitimate term with no historical or social significance. Evidently, they assumed that because they were, apparently, men of color their use of the word was okay. Their use of the “N” word actually communicated a number of things that were not positive. They ignored the word’s history, denotation, and connotation, social and cultural significance.

The word Negro comes from the Latin language as an adjective referring to the color black but came to be associated with people from Africa with dark skin complexions. When enslaved Africans were brought to America, they were stripped of their names, language, culture, religion, and personal history. They were forced to accept and adjust to the elements of slavery in America, but most definitely the new language through which they were to be known and referred to as Africans, Negroes, blacks, and slaves. The term Negro was the most commonly used term in America with the spelling and pronunciation varying from the different geographical areas of north and south. The slaves had no choice but to refer to one another as Negro or “N” because that was the only language they were permitted to speak.

Under slavery’s rule in America, the denotation of the word Negro made reference to people, regardless of their skin complexion, who was known to have any African blood. In this context, the reference was made only for identity. However, in the connotation, the word took on a totally different meaning. As a form of projection the “N” personified sexuality, lewdness, laziness, dirtiness, and untamed hostility. In addition, the elements of foul odors, threatening, aggressive and libidinous behavior became associated with the character of the “N” and were perceived by the average European American as normal. Altogether, the concept of excrement came to be associated with the “N” to the point that his social value was equated with it and found to be of lesser value.

Before, and definitely after Reconstruction in America, African Americans have been trying to divorce themselves from the term “N” because it never did, in fact, defined or described them, but was used to enslave them mentally. Society has labeled the “N” word pejorative and socially unacceptable because of its historical significance. However, the word has been given a life-line through entertainment and artistic expressions by some African American performers. Unfortunately, the word does not lose its pejorative quality through continued use and speaks to a sense of historical ignorance or self-deprecation by the users.

An old saying advises that one cannot throw dirt on others without getting some on one’s self. This saying works equally with the use of the “N” word because it reflects on the character of the users by questioning their self-perception and their judgment of others they associate with the word. The objective of the slave masters in imposing the “N” word on people of color was to force them to see themselves through the biased eyes of the slave masters, not their own eyes. So, for as long as the people of color continue using the master’s language relative to themselves, they will remain mentally enslaved and unable to see who they really are.

If the “N” word did not carry negative social value in society then its use would not be in question. But it does still carry negative value. So, one wonders why two intelligent young African American males would constantly use the “N” word to their audiences unless they do not realize that by doing so they are showing disrespect to themselves and their audience. With all the demographic changes taking place in the world, and especially in America today, and with many people discovering their ancestral roots, one would think that constant reference to the past via a derogatory term would be counterproductive. The continued use of the “N” word seems to suggest that some people of color want to remain mentally enslaved or do not want to know their true identity.

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