Nigga? Please. – A Response To Piers Morgan by Talib Kweli

talib-kweli-2

Nigga? Please.


In this piece, I will be using the word nigger very liberally, not “the n-word.” On this matter, I agree with comedian Louis CK, who once said:

When you say ‘the n-word’ you put the word ‘nigger’ in the listeners head. That’s what saying a word is. You say ‘the n-word’ and I go, ‘oh, she means nigger.’ You’re making me say it in my head. Why don’t you say it instead and take responsibility for the shitty words you want to say?

I will also be shifting between spelling it nigger and nigga depending on context. However, the spelling doesn’t change the meaning, just the context. Context has consequences.


Poor Piers Morgan. He doesn’t like hearing the word nigger. It makes him feel icky. Black people, we should stop saying it. It doesn’t work, according to Piers. Since Morgan is from London, let’s revisit the story of Ted Joans, a black poet who was invited to read poetry in London in the 1970s because he was a “nice, colored man.” Upon hearing this description of himself he wrote a poem called Nice Colored Man.

Ted Joans in New York City, 1984

“Nice Nigger, Educated Nigger, Never Nigger, Southern Nigger, Clever Nigger, Northern Nigger, Nasty Nigger, Unforgettable Nigger…”

…it goes on like this, you get the point. Joans wanted to be any kind of nigger, as long as it meant he wasn’t seen as a nice colored man.

Let me back up.

Racism is a fairly new invention. It is the most effective tool of the greedy men who dominate the world’s resources and it has been used to separate and control people to great effect since the Atlantic slave trade. When Africans were first captured and brought to the Americas they were called Negroes, the Spanish word for black. The uneducated American slavers in the south mispronounced that word and bastardized it until it became nigger. Nigger was a slang term without any negative connotations until around the 1800s when abolitionist movements began to gain traction with black slaves in the south. To keep slaves from revolting the slave masters had to dehumanize their slaves in order to justify the practice, so they began to use nigger in a derogatory way. White teachers taught white kids in white schools that niggers were subhuman and not as intelligent as whites. White ministers in churches taught that God was white and that God wanted all niggers to be slaves.

At the same time, “niggers” were being hung in broad daylight for learning how to read and praying to their own Gods. In every facet of our society, from economics to entertainment to law, the nigger became synonymous with stupidity, laziness and worthlessness. Nigger as a derogatory term was borne out of the fear that the slaves would revolt. Niggers were dangerous and had to be stopped. Soon, some blacks began to call themselves nigger as a badge of honor, which lead to a term of endearment. Why wouldn’t you want to embody that which most scares your oppressor and change its meaning?


From Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to now, the word nigger has continued to carry the weight of violence and degradation. However blacks have always used it when describing one another, which is a psychological hornet’s nest. It is used in our communities more ubiquitously than the word “dude” and it can be applied in many different situations, negative or positive.

Piers Morgan suggested in his piece that blacks are aware of the history of the word. I would challenge that and say that most Americans, black or white, remain unaware of the history of the last ten years, much less the history of a word that was invented during the Atlantic slave trade. Knowing that nigger is considered a bad word with racial connotations is not at all the same as knowing its history.

My mom, an English professor, cannot stand the word nigger. She doesn’t like hearing it in my music and she doesn’t see any place for it in our culture. She was born in 1950 and lived through severe, in-your-face racism that I am privileged to not have seen. She actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement and her generation was instrumental in getting the world to respect us for what we wanted to be called as a people: black. The sacrifices and work of the Civil Rights generation must be honored and respected. When my mom says she doesn’t like to hear the word nigger it is coming from a very personal place.


After Morgan writes that blacks are aware of the history of the word nigger, he writes that blacks “enjoy the freedom of being able to say it now in the knowledge that it’s become taboo for whites to do so.” This is the true heart of the matter for white folks who get upset enough to write op-ed’s about blacks who say nigger. They want to say it too. They see it as a “freedom” that we “enjoy” that they can’t. As if they don’t enjoy enough “freedoms.”

I agree that many blacks use the term nigger in the exact way that Morgan describes. Given the origin of the word, not how it was bastardized by illiterate white slave masters, I have no problem with this usage. Morgan writes that he “gets it” and even “empathizes,” but that he doesn’t like it.

Does Piers Morgan get it and empathize, or doesn’t he? Because if he got it and he empathized, he would also realize that whether he liked it or not is irrelevant. Since when is the complicated history and usage of the word nigger about how it makes Piers Morgan feel? Morgan suggests that he is writing to us blacks because our use of the word “doesn’t work”—as if there was some secret black meeting we had where we planned on collectively flipping a derogatory term on its ear.

Saying that blacks using the word nigger as a term of endearment gives racist whites license to say it is the same argument that’s made when someone says a woman who dresses provocatively deserves the unwanted attention she will receive. This line of thinking also suggests that if blacks stopped using it, the racist whites who invented it would also stop and it would disappear. Hogwash. To challenge this argument I point to the same internet that provided Morgan with the info about how many times blacks use the word nigger on Twitter. Where is Morgan’s op-ed on how many racists use it on the Internet with zero irony?

Making the word nigger disappear is not only a very unrealistic goal, but it is a useless pursuit. Banning, censoring or erasing the word nigger would not eradicate racism anymore that having a black president made racist whites more tolerant. It made many of them worse, actually.


I am not making the argument that we should encourage the use of the word nigger. Words do indeed have power and to ignore that is to be a fool. I am only concerned with strategy. Blacks will stop using the world nigger when the world stops treating us like niggers, not the other way around. It’s self-serving to blame a victim for what the victim chooses to call itself.

The word nigger has been used as a tool for white supremacy, and sometimes blacks can be the biggest perpetuators of white supremacy. When we call each other niggers to invoke racist stereotypes, that’s perpetuating white supremacy. When we make songs about how many niggers we gonna kill, that perpetuates white supremacy. We become the victims of it and the perpetuators of it at the same damn time. We just need to be honest about its history and its actual ramifications. It’s not the word nigga that should die, it’s racism. You don’t cure an ailment by attacking the symptom, and black people who call each other nigga is most definitely the symptom, not the cause of racism.

The conflict over this word has existed in our community since slavery, it’s not something new that hip-hop invented. In 2006 Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a moratorium on the word, but in 2008 he was caught on an open mic accusing Barack Obama of “trying to tell niggas how to behave.” It is unfair to frame the usage of this word entirely within a hip-hop context.

Jesse Jackson called for a moratorium on the word, but he was caught on an open mic accusing Obama of “trying to tell niggas how to behave.”

Hip-hop music is loud and in your face, as it should be. The best hip hop tells us what is beautiful and what is ugly about our community in equal measure. As Q-Tip eloquently rapped in his song “Sucka Nigga, hip-hop “embraces adversity.” Because of it’s loquaciousness, hip-hop has excelled at painting pictures of our underbelly that other genres of music never could. The hip-hop generation is no more misogynistic, vulgar or gangsta than the generation that came before it, we just make more art about being like that. In a way, that’s more honest.

Our music comes from the oppressed, the powerless, the poor. Our musicians have always come from those communities. Old school jazz, soul and R&B artists come from communities of people who called each other nigga as well. However, white people didn’t care about blacks calling each other nigga until they wanted to sing along with their favorite rappers. As long as blacks degrade themselves it’s not an issue, but once a white person wants to say it at a concert and can’t—now it’s an issue.


“And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a “motherfucker” so you ignorant niggas hear me” ~Lauryn Hill


I use the word nigga in casual conversation amongst friends and I use it in my music. My white friends (yes, I have many—amazing, right?) do not use it as a term of endearment, and if they did I would challenge them on it. There have been many times when I have censored myself and removed the word from my music before it hits your ear, because it wasn’t needed. There have been other times when I have purposefully added it to punctuate a point or convey a feeling.

Talib Kweli and Q-Tip

As someone who works with words, all words are on the table for me. To me, the discussion about the usage of the word nigga should never devolve into censorship or eradication. Context should always be king when discussing language. To lead by example, those who know better must set the tone by recognizing our privilege and being self-critical. Knowing the word’s history, we must decide when and how to use it and be responsible for the consequences of those decisions. We must recognize context and understand how it informs conversation, and we mustn’t presume to know what a group of people that lacks our privilege should be doing to better themselves.


America has never honestly dealt with its history of racism.


We are taught today that racism is a thing of the past and that we are all part of some melting pot completely devoid of any flavor or culture. This lie makes racial discussions confusing enough for Americans, but even more confusing for those who emigrate here and have to deal with our perpetual lack of historical context. This is the confusion that allows some members of our generation—saddled with a limited understanding of history—to think that using “nigga” as a term of endearment is something that was born out of rap lyrics, not hundreds of years of humiliation, degradation and violence.

I am not the word police anymore than Piers Morgan claims he’s not. Say nigger or nigga as much as you like, just be prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. The consequences of context. The word has racial connotations, and those connotations are different for white people and black people, whether we choose to accept that or not. It’s about personal responsibility.

But why y’all wanna say it so bad anyway?

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