Morgan’s view is not particularly novel. And, unsurprisingly, the television personality’s articulation of his theory — heavy on the use of inflammatory slave metaphors and off-base civil rights references — set off an ongoing debate on social media.
A team of reporters and producers here spent eight months reporting on the changing use of the word and talked to more than 70 Americans. That group included anthropologists, students, linguists, lawyers, civil rights activists, comedians, rappers and even a self-declared Klansman. Rather than conducting traditional interviews, participants sat down before our cameras and had conversations about the word with people they know well.
The conversations elicited a range of views. In principle, some agreed with Morgan’s thinking. Many more did not.
Here’s what a selection of participants had to say on the issue:
Ayia Evans (left) is a 14-year-old freshman at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District of Columbia. Her older sister Ayana Evans (right) is a 24-year-old Howard University student.
Ayia: African Americans deserve to reappropriate the word.
Ayana: I think African Americans need to work to get rid of the word as meaning anything. This is such a stupid issue. Because we’re still sitting here discussing a word. You realize how many black people don’t have a education? Places to live? Food?
Ayia: And we’re discussing a word – we are discussing whether or not we should get rid of a word. Or if black people shouldn’t say it. It’s so pointless.
Sheryll Cashin (left) is a Georgetown Law professor and author of “Place Not Race.” Paul Butler (right), also a Georgetown Law professor, is author of “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.”
Paul: Is it too much to expect white people to understand there’s some things that they can’t do, that black people can do?
Sheryll: I think for some it might be too far.
Paul: Is it too much to expect that white people understand African American history?
Sheryll: Not it’s not too much to expect. I’m just saying there’s what you would like, and the rules that you would like to have. And then what might happen in reality.
James McCall (left), who goes by the stage name Nocando, is founder and chief executive of Hellfyre Club Records, an independent rap label based in Los Angeles. Michael Eagle (right), who performs under the stage name Open Mike Eagle, is an alternative hip-hop artist on McCall’s label.
Mike: I’m a person who believes in in-group versus out-group privileges and respect. So like if my experience is the ‘nigger’ experience, then I feel like I have free license to do what I want with [the word]. Like, people that don’t have to have their head on a swivel in certain parts of Alabama, I don’t feel like you should be using that word like it’s just cool. Because it’s not just a cool thing.
James: I guess we make it look cool. Or you know – our older buddies they came and they made it look cool. And a lot of the times kids don’t know all that history. They have no idea what all that means and where it comes from. And people in general, they just see something and they’re like: ‘I really like the way that guy says that – or they just pick it up and they just find themselves saying it.’ But like I said, it’s not right. I don’t think it’s right but I kind of have a little forgiveness for it when it’s out of ignorance.
Byron De La Beckwith Jr.’s father assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss. He is writing a book about his life in the Ku Klux Klan. Erik Hearon (right), an accountant and retired major general who served in the Air Force, is co-writing Beckwith’s book.
Erik: My personal opinion is I don’t think anybody should use it. Because even if you’re a member of the black ethnic group, it is misleading, and can be confusing and used as a excuse by – for instance, white folks to use a word that is inflammatory.
Bryon: Yes sir. And that’s a extremely good answer, and I’ve got to agree about 99 percent with it. I think it’s very insulting to use it. There are much other words that you could use and express yourself and get the same point over. But I do notice today, and in the last few years that, more Afro-Americans use it then us whites use it. I know more than I use it. And I haven’t trained myself or tried to program myself to quit using the word. I’ll use it when I feel like I need to.
Dineytra Lee (left), who works with youth in Los Angeles, dances with Culture Shock, a hip-hop dance company. Jeffrey Calimbas (right) is a Filipino American from Chicago who lives in Los Angeles and also dances with Culture Shock.
Dineytra: It’s not about your authenticity. It’s not about your culture; it should not be used period. Absolutely not.
Jeff: There’s no way that any other race has a right to tell a black person you can’t say – that word. We don’t have any bloody attachments, or history with that word. It’s kind of like telling a woman what she can or can’t do with her body. … So if the word is to be removed from everyday speech. It has to come from the black community, and only the black community.
Pamela Kirkland contributed to this report.