Nigga: The 21st Century Theoretical Superhero

Inline_n-word

Abstract

In this article, Mark Anthony Neal argues that there is a distinct difference between the words “nigger” and “nigga.” He asserts that the shifts in the use of these two words are representative of a generational divide in blackness and a general crisis of black identity. While “nigger” has historically been used to imposed a landlocked, immobile, static, and segregated vision of blackness, the more recent use of “nigga” has produced a more mobile, fluid, adaptable, postmodern, and urban construction of identity embodying various forms of social and rhetorical flows.

Neal notes that “nigga” identity has been expressed most clearly in hip-hop culture, whose presentation of a distinct masculinity on the one hand wallows in homophobia, misogyny, and sexual violence, while on the other hand representing an attempt to locate an authentic self amidst the increasing commodification, surveillance, and mediation of black images. The result is a notion of “real niggaz,” as articulated by NWA, seemingly poised on the cutting edge of the black struggle in urban America against oppressive forces.

Interpreting “nigger” as embodying the enslaved labor of black bodies and “nigga” as embodying the labor of black popular culture, Neal argues that the latter is not only representative of the adaptability and fungibility of black bodies in an era in which they are hyper-commodified and circulated across the globe, but also representative of a new era in which these "niggas" have a stake in transnational capitalism, which the “nigger” as property never had. In this sense, in the rise of a mobile “nigga” identity, Neal sees a novel fracture in a system historically predicated on the exploitation and control of black life and labor.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles that focus on race and blackness, including Jacqueline Nassy Brown's "Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space," John Russell's "Race and Reflexivity: The Black Other in Contemporary Japanese Mass Culture," Helen A. Regis' "Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals," and Damani Partridge's "We Were Dancing in the Club, Not on the Berlin Wall: Black Bodies, Street Bureaucrats, and Exclusionary Incorporation into the New Europe."

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on cities and urbanism, including Benjamin Chesluk's "'Visible Signs of a City Out of Control': Community Policing in New York City," Steven Gregory's "Race, Rubbish, and Resistance: Empowering Difference in Community Politics," Robin E. Sheriff's "The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro," and Brad Weiss' "Thug Realism: Inhabiting Fantasy in Urban Tanzania."

Author Bio

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he won the 2010 Robert B. Cox Award for Teaching. Neal has written and lectured extensively on black popular culture, black masculinity, sexism and homophobia in Black communities, and the history of popular music.

Neal is the founder and managing editor of the blog NewBlackMan. Neal hosts the weekly webcast, Left of Black in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University. A frequent commentator for National Public Radio, Neal contributes to several on-line media outlets, including Huff Post Black Voices and SeeingBlack.com.

Neal is the author of five books, including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003) and New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005). Neal is also the co-editor (with Murray Forman) of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, 2nd Edition (2011). Neal’s latest book Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities was recently published by New York University Press.

Multimedia

NWA-Efil4zaggin- Niggaz 4 Life

The Last Poets- Die Nigga!!!

Chris Rock- Black People vs. Niggaz

Relevant Links

General

Rap's Embrace of 'Nigger' Fires Bitter Debate

Hip-Hop and the Globalization of “Nigga”

Michael Richards Controversy

The End of the N-Word in Entertainment

New York City Council Bans Use of the N-Word

Django Unchained and the N-Word

'Django Unchained's' word-use controversy rages on

Paula Deen

Celeb chef Paula Deen admits using 'N word'

'The "N-word" is worse than n*****': Comedian Tim Allen condemned for saying he uses the racial slur in his stand-up routine

Parsing the N-word

The N-word and Other Stones

Rachel Jeantel and Rush Limbaugh

Piers Morgan Live: Interview with Rachel Jeantel

Rush Limbaugh Seizes a Chance to Violate the N-Word Taboo

Black Journalists and Commentators Rip Limbaugh's "Nigga" Claims

Questions for classroom discussion

1.What implications does Neal's interpretation have for race and race relations in the United States and beyond?

2. What does Neal’s analysis tell us about the significance of language in society, culture, and the capitalist economy? What effects does the change of two letters have upon these fields?

3. Neal traces the emergence of “nigga” from generational divides in blackness and a general crisis of black identity. What other words in other contexts have undergone similar historical transformations and controversies?

4. How might Neal’s analysis contribute to recent controversies surrounding “the N-word” in popular media and culture?

Further reading list

Asim, Jabari. The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. New York: Mariner Books, 2008.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Beatty, Paul. Tuff: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Judy, Ronald A. T. "On the Question of Nigga Authenticity." Boundary 21.3 (1994): 211-230.

Kelly, Robin D. G. "Looking for the Real ‘Nigga’: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto." In Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban American. Pp. 15-42. New York: Beacon Press, 1997.

Kennedy, Randall L. "'Who Can Say "Nigger'? And Other Considerations." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 26 (Winter, 1999-2000): 86–96.

Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Vintage, 2003.

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment