In a recent college class discussion, a teaching friend of mine was saying to his students that the recent worldwide coverage of Nipsey Hussle’s memorial and funeral were great displays of a meaningful Black life, in many ways, and well worth the effort. However, the one thing that disturbed him the most was the heavy emphasis on the pervasive use of the word “nig*er” throughout the proceedings.
Sure, it was mainly used as a term of endearment among the various Black characters in the news reels, but still, the overall picture of Blacks throwing around that word so carelessly and recklessly so much, had my friend clinching his jaw until he had to turn off the TV. It killed the whole positive vibe of the thing.
Instantly, one of his male Black students in the class responded that my teaching friend had missed the whole point, and that a little education was necessary. The brothers throwing around the nig*erisms were simply calling each other kings and warriors. The word niger meant king, the student said. It was a West African tribal word from Niger ( he actually pronounced it correctly as Nee—jair), and that White folks had always mispronounced the word as niger. It was not really a pejorative term in the community, but instead it was a word of respect that had gotten a bad rep.
Stunned into a long silence, my teaching friend finally said, “Listen. All of you should read a book by Dr. Randall Kennedy from Harvard, called “Nig*er.” The book laid out an accurate history of the word in the English language, and it was not pretty. My friend also said thank you to the student who had thought to enlighten him, but, in fact, the student had it wrong. Neither niger nor Negro were West African words meaning king or warrior. Niger came from the Portuguese “negro” and was particularly adapted by colonial Whites specifically to identify Blacks in early America as “the other.”
The word was never meant to be an honorific label, and plenty of KKK enthusiasts in history have used it to clearly identify their prey.
What the student was trying to convey, but had gotten wrong in the translation, my friend explained, was that there is an African word, Negus, from Ethiopia. It is pronounced Nay—Goose. It does mean King. There has been a quiet campaign going on for several years in this country to get young people who cannot seem to lose their addiction to the word nigger, to start using Negus as a viable substitute.
As often happens, people hear half an idea, or mis-hear the whole thing and still run with it. The “lit” student’s explanation to my teaching friend fit this category. Corrected, maybe the student will now spread the proper message. Yes, there is an alternative to using “niger this” and “niger that.” It is the African-based word of integrity, Negus.
Now, for all of you rappers out there, and you “lit” folk—-Run tell that! Let’s do Nipsey proud! He, and we, deserve that!
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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