Cotton, Sugar, & the N-Word: Why History Matters

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

ON THE N-WORD

by Channon Oyeniran

“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.” – Oprah Winfrey

As I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook a few weeks ago, an article caught my attention, “If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it.” I thought to myself, “That’s for sure!” I know the word is horrendous, and I have cringed every time I hear it and have been called it, but I still decided to click on the link so that I could learn a bit more about the origins of this detestable word.

768px-you27se_just_a_little_nigger2c_still_youse_mine2c_all_mine_28nypl_hades-610093-125607929The author of the article, Brandon Simeo Starky, said this about the n-word and why it was used: “The best explanation of what I gleaned, what social scientists called internalized oppression, describes the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas. White folk indoctrinated them into accepting their supposed inferiority. These [slave] narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than ‘nigger.’” What was clear to Starky while reading these slave narratives was the self-perception that those enslaved had about themselves based on the use of the n-word. It was clear to him, and became clear to me as I read, that the primary purpose of the n-word was to dehumanize, demean and break the spirit of those hearing it. It was used every day, all day, 24/7/365 and has been around longer than the existence of the USA. For this reason, many of those who were enslaved, and their descendants, internalized the meaning of this word.

 

the-strange-tale-of-ten-little-nigger-boys

Enslaved black people were called the n-word as if it was their name, and the word was found in literature, media, entertainment, comedy, marketing and advertising of products, etc. If I haven’t gotten this point across, know that this word was everywhere, used all the time to degrade the very souls of black people. Doing a slow, psychological work in them, causing deep emotional damage, passed down through generations, that will take many years and much work to undo.  

Some say that it’s okay for black people to use the word. I disagree. I get that they have tried to reclaim it and use “nigga” instead, but I just don’t think it’s necessary or warranted. Whenever I hear black people using this word, I say to myself, “Do they know all of the history behind this word, like really know….?” 10214542_1_xThis word was used as our name. Although we had names, we heard this word so much that we started to internalize it and believe that we were n*****s and nothing more, that we had no value.

To see what others had to say about the n-word, Michelle and I sent a series of six questions to black women and men of different ages. We got back four responses and many of the answers were quite similar. (Huge thanks to those who participated and sent responses back!)

  1. Is it ever okay for non-Black people to use the N word (in context, joking, repeating, etc.)?

The general consensus was a resounding, “NO!” But Subria had a great response to this question.

Subria: It is never okay for a non-Black person to use any variation of the word: nigger, nigga, or my nig. When non-Black people use it, it comes with a history of violence. If a non-Black person says it, they are demonstrating their complicity in that violence, it will never be their word to claim, no matter how many rap songs and no matter how many black friends they have. And the black friends that don’t call them out need a history lesson as to why it’s grounds to whoop that a$$. (Q: Can I say that last part?)

  1. Is it okay for Black people to use the word?

Gail: After really understanding where that word comes from, I don’t know why they would want to. I think it’s best to educate them and have them really understand the history of it. There are some great books and movies that will really hit home (12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation, etc). I feel like if black people really understood the weight behind it they would not use it so freely.

Subria: Yes, it is okay for Black people to use the word. It surprises me that, particularly among black academics, the choice is made to use “the n word” instead of writing out or saying the word “nigger”. It’s a hurtful word and it stings on our ears. Just like the violence of the word stung our ancestors and continues to do to their offspring. This choice to use the “the n-word” pacifies the continued reality of its violence and this upsets me tremendously. Adding an additional perspective, I’ve yet to encounter a black person who says the word nigger casually. When the word “nigger” is used by a black person [casually], it is usually in haste and a demonstration of a black person displaying anti-blackness. [Emphasis added.]

Shenaz: I am not particularly fond of black people using the N-word, although some would say that by using it as a black person it takes the power away from non-black people; however, the history behind the word never changes.

[Sidenote from Michelle: Scholars like James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have used the n-word in its full form to great effect. Christian hip-hop artist Sho Baraka also used the word on his album, Talented Xth. I believe the word can be useful in particular circumstances, for particular purposes, by black artists, scholars, writers, etc. at their discretion.]

  1. Does it really matter? It’s just a word!

Gail: It’s not just a word because there’s a lot of history behind it. It may not mean anything to person who is ignorant of that history, but it can be hurtful to someone who does

Muna: It’s the intention behind it that matters more than the word. You can always tell when it’s ill-intention for the most part.

Subria: It certainly matters. Language shapes culture and culture creates norms.  It is still normal to inflict violence on black bodies because white supremacy and racism have deemed that black people are inherently “lazy, violent, brute, a burden, and niggers”.  Black people are loosening the noose on centuries of white-violent branding. Black people are replacing, reclaiming, and kicking racism where it hurts through languages. Shifting and rewriting the narrative through a Black perspective is liberation, and this is why language that concerns Blackness in its entirety matters.

In all of these responses, the history of the n-word and where it came from was mentioned — How it was used to dehumanize, degrade and oppress black people from slavery to the Jim Crow era. How this word was created to differentiate and then used solely to demean people because of the colour of their skin. This word was a tool of oppression to the enslaved, to break them down and to kill their minds and spirits, especially while working in the fields cultivating things like cotton and sugar that ultimately filled the pockets of those who enslaved them and meant privilege for their descendants.

ON COTTON & SUGAR

by Michelle Palmer

Desktop7-001For most people in my circle, the reasons why using the n-word is a bad idea may go without saying. But there’s another issue that may not be so clear: cotton. A friend sent me an email about the cotton display at Hobby Lobby and asked for my opinion.

On one hand, as a white person, I personally don’t see it as racist at all. I have white relatives who are cotton farmers and did a family portrait in front a field of cotton. I just saw it on my Facebook feed a few days ago and thought, “That’s so precious!” It was beautiful, it represented who they are as a family, I loved it. My sister-in-law has a cotton bud wreath that I think is gorgeous. It’s literally just a plant. It, on its own, is neutral, at least to me, a white person.

Desktop7-002

That being said, I was at Kent House last weekend, and I saw something that turned my stomach. The thing that bothered me most was seeing a sugar mill, with sugarcane planted around it, and the sugar kettles on display. It turned my stomach because I’m keenly aware of the effects of sugar on slaves. I think about it every time I pass a sugarcane field. Desktop7-003I’d probably think about it if I saw it at Hobby Lobby too. Harvesting and refining sugar was one of the deadliest things a slave could do. I didn’t see any reference to that. In fact, there’s an event coming in November called, “Sugar Days,” where the whole process will be demonstrated. And I’m guessing the dangerous, life-threatening parts of the process will be omitted. I’m also assuming they won’t discuss the high death rates and low fertility rates amongst slaves associated with sugar production. The sugar is neutral, the kettles are neutral, but being SO in tune and aware of the history makes me feel sick to see it being displayed in that way.

Maybe to display cotton as décor isn’t inherently racist, but if this woman was as keenly aware of the history of cotton in America as I am about the history of sugar, I can sympathize with her reaction. Since then, I’ve talked to several others who had the same reaction as this lady. Desktop7She isn’t alone. Of course, I wish she had expounded on her thoughts more to help others understand the depth of her hurt and why it upset her so much, but when someone is triggered that way, we can’t expect them to do the hard work of educating the rest of us as well.

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

So, fellow white people, here’s the deal: We can probably never do away with the n-word. We can probably never do away with cotton and sugar mills and all the things that conjure painful imagery for people of color. But we can acknowledge the pain of others. We can minimize the triggers. And we can definitely do better.

I saw this comment on the post from Lipscomb University by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, and she said so eloquently what was in my heart as I thought about the issue:

“If you can only see this as an issue of being offended by cotton, instead of a deeper systemic problem, you will never be able to meaningfully connect with our black brothers and sisters. You will continue to drive a wedge in this already tenuous relationship by refusing to acknowledge the pain, racism, and microaggressions they experience daily. […]

Reconciliation must start with white people. You may say that’s racist, but let’s be intellectually honest here. Collectively, it has been our people who have systemically oppressed, intimidated, threatened, and subjugated black people in our country. We should absolutely be trying to bridge that gap and heal deep wounds passed down from generation to generation.

Again, if you are offended by other people’s offendedness, it is not about you. […]

We may make mistakes and be clumsy in our approach, but we pray God will give us grace as we learn what true respect and reconciliation looks like.”


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