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I live in a place where hyper awareness is as natural as breathing. I am running my own National Security Agency, sifting through metadata, listening for threats, shifts in tone, new rules, regulations — any phenomena that will affect me directly or indirectly. Listening through the inanities is the hardest part, one of the most prolific inanities is the word “nigga.” The word is not particular to this place. Language moves through this space largely unrestricted.

As I am caught among the heedless insistencies of youth speech, its cultural articulation in this community of color, the demands of standard English, and my own use of the language, I find myself trading, compromising and standing still in an attempt to understand. Words evolve into multiple meanings in varied platforms, creating imagery that is sometimes dual and always contextual between the speaker and listener.

I listen for grammar, accents, colloquial differences, tropes and phrases. Race and gender also help define meaning. Gesture and facial expressions are added accoutrements of spoken language. I have a peculiar habit of analyzing sentences, words and phrases I hear, parsing and critiquing them in my head as words are spoken. It is as if my brain is saying “syntax error,” or a note to self: research what you just heard. I am no linguist, nor am I an English major. But I have a reasonably fluid facility with the language I speak. I place great stock in being able to communicate effectively. Words have power.

Sometimes words and phrases become part of the larger public discourse, renting space in the public’s consciousness like Black Lives Matter, climate change and nationalism. Other times, words and phrases retire as have the words negro, Pullman porter and welfare queen. 

As we move toward more inclusive ways of communicating with each other, I am in dismayed awe at the staying power “nigga,” a word that finds life long after its cultural efficacy has retired to the graveyard of arcana. “Nigga” simultaneously serves as a noun and adjective, superlative and pejorative. It is as if the dark, ugly, dehumanizing word is without the sinister past it harbors.

The word in question is used in describing oneself and others. It is deemed authentic with pseudo originality by group fiat and conscripted into a narrow cultural sensibility. As a person of color born during the apex of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, I am often horrified by the vapid, prepositional way “nigga” is used. 

Each generation has its own cultural specificities particular to its time and space, distinct from established cultural norms along the lines of race, class gender and identity. This often engenders a wariness in older, more established cultural bulwarks. It is a curious enterprise watching the gestation of words and phrases come into their own as potent ethocentricities. 

“Nigga” is a word with archeological tracings shadowing the formation of the republic and the worst representation of race and class in America. For many, it represents a deeply scarred psychological inheritance. “Nigga” rearranges and degrades the notions of Black and Brown humanity, creating a kind of post Civil Rights racialism, detracting from the gains made in the 1960’s. Perhaps the embrace of “nigga” is a coping mechanism to structural and quotidian racism and its relative caste placement on people of color.

“Nigga” is the antebellum bastard child of “nigger,” and both are descendants of their ghosts, the slave masters haunting the souls of 21st century America. The contemporary use of the word tarnishes the collective progress, liberation and hard won gains, especially as we protest the present day attacks on Black bodies by the police. The use of the word is a surrender to a fractured Black psyche, symbolic of all our travails.

“Nigga” is now a multipurpose literary device used by all social groups. During the 20th century, it was used by people of color to belittle and denote class and skin color distinctions. It was an insult, not the salutation and honorarium it has become in the last couple generations. Its etymology dates back to the 17th century French word negre, and the Spanish word negro, both of which mean black. Those derivative translations were not always in the superlative but in context of human cargo, just like the bananas and sugar filling the holds of slave ships to the New World.

Factions of generations X through Z have engaged in an ill-informed racial redux in its cultural adaptation of the word, embracing the fraught ascension to manhood and a swaggering, toxic masculinity in poor communities of color. Contrary to protests that n-i-g-g-a is different than n-i-g-g-e-r, the former functions just like its 19th century counterpart. In a broader context, they both represent the loathed and feared Black bodies to be subjugated, subdued, and killed in line with former and some current notions of White civilities. 

The word is not an insider’s code full of secret and symbolic meaning. Now like then, it coerces one to relinquish respect and pride in the race, heritage, culture and humanity — all prerequisites to success in overcoming racial oppression and self-hate. Some people of color relinquish their humanity. Given the recent rise of white nationalist fervor in America, the use of the word “nigga” by people of color is chum in the seas of nationalistic rhetoric. Embracing the word “nigga” as an endearment is like scavenging scraps at the table of cultural authenticity.

Hip-hop gave birth to rap music and has become the dominant genre of music for today’s youth. My critique here is not on the culture of hip-hop, but the license taken to promote narratives that misrepresent and detract. “Nigga” and bitch have become overused tropes to demonstrate this generation’s irreverence, as is always the case when new generations try to supplant the previous generations’ interpretations of the world. 

Because of the pervasiveness of rap music across the cultural spectrum, “nigga” and “bitch” have been nationalized, granting license to all races and ethnicities to use those words in whatever spurious context presenting itself in the moment. 

When I question youth about their use of the word, they reply with, “We took a bad word and made it good … it’s all right when we say it,” or “We changed the spelling so it doesn’t mean the same thing.” To be fair, the social context of each and every generation is thought to be different than the generation preceding it. But the contemporary use of the word “nigga” and “bitch” is like the opiate crisis; its use is insidious, creeping across all communities, aggressively marketed in music and gratuitously utilized in some in films without broader, edifying messages. 

The word’s palliative feature is the numbing tolerance its use engenders, both labeling and stigmatizing. Like drugs, there are side effects. In this case, one of the side effects seems to be a cultural schizophrenia in which a tortured past is being reimagined like Confederate monuments.

The ascension of Black people in America is the story of steely resilience in the face of impossible odds, while making incalculable contributions as a part of the nation’s human tapestry. If each of us are the sum of our collective experiences, the marginalization of a people, then and now requires us to think carefully about what we say and what we call each other. Otherwise, self actualization is stunted and diseased, making our humanity forage for validation at the expense of each other. We must move outside the boundaries of that which is culturally comfortable lest we resort to a kind of cannibalization of our minds, bodies and spirit. 

Words are resonant, generating images of how we see ourselves and others. The wrong word association renders us valueless and disposable. “Nigga” and “bitch” are an attempt at artifice and subterfuge, but the net effect is the calcification of the dominant culture’s worst thoughts about people of color. Consequently, the progress of a people, of a nation, is haunted by ghosts in the language.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.