Ethnicity and Linguistic Tyranny in America:
The Use of "Nigger" in American History XPasquale Palumbo
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that one of the linguistic tyrannies prevailing today in this age of political correctness, tolerance and multiculturalism is the use and abuse of the word "nigger." The word has penetrated every aspect of public discourse, and has taken a prominent place in American popular culture. In 1998, Tony Kaye explored the various uses of the word through the dialogue of his shocking, explosive, and brutally frank film American History X. The dialogue of the film illuminates just how powerful the word is within the context of race relations in America.
The old barroom joke goes: "How does every black joke start?" The punch-line is non-verbal: the joke teller glances uncomfortably over each shoulder, indicating that any disparaging comments about African Americans could be detrimental to his health. Why the apprehension? Because, as in all jokes, there is a seed of truth. It does not take a tremendous effort to go from simple ethnic or racial humor to the use of perhaps the most egregious and offensive word in the American lexicon: nigger. While this word is problematic on a number of sociological levels, it is complicated by the fact that it is ever present, made ubiquitous by the constant usage by Hip-Hop artists and its common appearance in film and on cable television. In fact, rap artist Nas attempted to name his most recent studio album release "Nigger," much to the consternation of his record label's executives as well as many members of the Hip-Hop community and the general public at large; conversely almost as many artists supported his choice. It is so prevalent in American culture that many argue that the word has lost its power; the reality is that the word can still be considered one of the few nuclear bombs of discourse, turning any conversation into an extremely volatile and potentially violent one. While the violence of the word stems from the racial history behind it, the word is "protean," to borrow a phrase from Randall Kennedy. It actually serves several functions within the black community, and the rest of America has co-opted many of these uses into its everyday dialogue, although without question it still remains "undoubtedly the best known of American language's many racial insults, evolving into the paradigmatic epithet" (Kennedy "Who Can Say..." 87). American History X offers us the opportunity to examine some of the many nuances inherent in this word.
Before we go on to explore the many ways the word is used in the film, a brief examination of the word's history is necessary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "nigger" is derived from the classical Latin word niger, which simply means "black." Its earliest appearance comes in the late Sixteenth Century, where the word had a neutral meaning: "a dark-skinned person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent" (OED). The word has been variously used over the centuries by both whites and blacks in a variety of manners: "used by whites or other non-blacks as a relatively neutral term, with no specifically hostile intent (1574)*; used by whites or other non-blacks as a hostile term of abuse or contempt (1775); used by blacks as a neutral or favorable term (1831); used by blacks as a depreciatory term (1834)" (OED). By the time the early Nineteenth Century had passed, it was clear that both whites and blacks had come to use the term in a derogatory fashion, although the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty-First Century have given us the term "nigga," which is an alleged reappropriation of the word by certain segments of the Black community, which is meant to eliminate the power of the word—much like homosexuals have taken back the word "queer."
In "Who Can Say Nigger?... And Other Considerations," Randall Kennedy emphasizes the various functions of the word in much the same way the OED does, except in this case, he borrows from Geneva Smitherman's 1977 work Talkin' and Testifyin': The Language of Black America, where it is made clear that along with the four uses outlined by the OED, there is a further stratification of use within the black community itself; Blacks attach four different meanings to nigger: simple identification as black; to express disapproval of a person's actions; identification and sharing of values and experiences of black people; as a term of personal affection or endearment (paraphrase in Kennedy "Who Can Say..." 89). Comic Chris Rock makes light of these distinctions by saying "I love black people... but I hate niggers! I am tired of niggers... Tired, tired, tired... ." (Jones 13). What Rock, one of the most gifted African American entertainers of the last twenty years, implies is that there is a distinction between blacks and "niggers," a dichotomy that suggests that there are noble members of a given race as well as people deserving of scorn and ridicule (i.e. Italians/Guineas; Latinos/Spics; Asians/Chinks; etc.). Although the diegetic focus of American History X is on the Vinyard brothers, two lower middle class whites, the word, as it is used in the film, fits into at least three of the above categories: simple identification, expressions of disapproval, and shared experiences.
One note of interest: an examination of one of the extant scripts of the film, written by David McKenna, shows surprisingly few uses of the word—by my count, the word only appears eleven times in the printed script, although it certainly increases in use in the final cut (Internet Movie DataBase). Even so, in a film that runs approximately 119 minutes, two dozen uses seems very light for a film that deals so bluntly with racism and white supremacy. Contrast this with the fact that the word "fuck" is uttered 205 times in the film, according to the film's IMDB trivia page. However, the limited usage of "nigger" actually serves to draw our attention to the various intentions behind each use.
* The years in parentheses correspond to the first contextualized use of the word in each particular sense according to the OED.
Pasquale Palumbo is a graduate student at the City University of New York Lehman College.