N-word’ gets symbolic end

NAACP campaigns at annual meeting to bury the epithet just like it did with Jim Crow 60 years ago

By Dahleen Glanton and Kayce T. Ataiyero
Tribune staff reporters
Published July 10, 2007

ATLANTA — In a symbolic move to erase the controversial “n-word” from the English vocabulary, the NAACP held a mock funeral in Detroit on Monday, complete with a horse-drawn carriage and a pine box coffin that will be buried in a city cemetery and marked with a headstone.

“Today, we’re not just burying the n-word, we are taking it out of our spirit, we are taking it out of our minds,” Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said before hundreds of cheering supporters. “To bury the n-word, we gotta bury the pimps and the hos and the hustlers. Let’s bury all the nonsense that comes with this.”

While two rap industry legends, Kurtis Blow and Eric B, threw their support behind the effort, the moveto ban the n-word has not caught on among large numbers of young African-Americans who have adopted the word, though rooted in slavery, as a term of endearment toward each other. At the same time, blacks have tried to keep the word strictly off-limits to whites because of its racist roots.

Many of the rap industry’s most popular artists such as 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg as well as popular African-American authors such Pearl Cleage have defended the word as a means of artistic expression. But recent controversies involving white radio host Don Imus and actor Michael Richards, who publicly used derogatory terms against blacks, have caused many African-Americans to rethink the word, and a movement to ban it has been gaining steam.

“This is not just about burying the n-word,” deejay Eric B said in a statement. “This is more importantly about burying the attitude and behaviors that cause you to act like or be called that word. It’s time to take a stand.”

While the event might have seemed like a fresh idea to put the spotlight on a growing movement to crack down on the use of the highly inflammatory word, the NAACP held a similar mock funeral more than 60 years ago. In 1944, also in Detroit, the NAACP buried Jim Crow—the laws that systematically discriminated against blacks in the South.

The NAACP said Monday’s event was organized by the civil rights group’s STOP Campaign, an initiative of its youth and college divisions.

Though the funeral garnered attention, many doubted that it would have a significant effect. Some said the fact that the NAACP, which has struggled to revitalize a declining and aging membership, would hold a mock funeral for the word shows it is out of touch with younger African-Americans.

Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, called the event an “incredible waste of time.” He said the effort will do little to affect popular use of the word and that this energy should be directed toward more pressing issues within the black community.

“It is particularly ironic that an institution that is regressive and out of touch as the NAACP would bury the n-word while they continue to use ‘colored’ as a form of identification. That seems like a bit of a contradiction,” Boyd said. “They are putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. The issues that plague black America far transcend the usage of a word.”

Lex Louch, an Atlanta rap artist, had not heard about the event but he said he does not expect the word to remain buried.

“It’s sad to say it, but it’s hard to get rid of it,” said Louch, 27. “When you are happy to see a friend, the first thing that comes out of your mouth is my [n-word]. What can you use to substitute for it?”

David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., said attention surrounding the word helps to open a discussion about race. He said the funeral would have a larger social significance if repeated across the country.

“I don’t think it is going to stop people from using it but, you know what, for one day you had people out discussing a part of racism and I think that is a good thing,” Pilgrim said.