Robin Brontsema in the article "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation" quotes linguist Melinda Yuen-Ching Chen as defining linguistic reclamation as "an array of theoretical and conventional interpretations of both linguistic and non-linguistic collective acts in which a derogatory sign or signifier is consciously employed by the 'original' target of the derogation, often in a positive or oppositional sense" (1998). In the society today, there are a number of words that have been used as "hate speech intended to disable its target" by prevalent group against a minority group. However, the "injurious power" of the words afflicted against the in-groups has produced and served as "fuel that feeds the fire of its counter-appropriation" (Brontsema 1998). This has resulted in the spirit of liberation that has been aimed at resisting the linguistic ownership of such words and their abuse.
According to Pilgrim (2001), the word nigger is notable for its use in a pejorative context in reference to black people commonly those "people who were originally from Africa". The term has also been used as an informal slang expression. The word nigger initially developed as a term that was employed in a neutral linguistic context to refer to black people, as a variation of the Spanish/ Portuguese noun negro, which is a descendants of the Latin adjective niger , meaning "black".
Etymology and history
Nigger whose other versions are neger and negar, coming from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black) is a pejorative noun of the French word nègre (nigger). The first use of the word neger was in the colonial America as Kennedy (2001) states that John Rolfe used "negars in the Colonial America of 1619" in describing the African slaves who had been "shipped to the Virginia colony". According Hutchinson (1996) in his book "The Assasination of the Black male image"., the use of American English spellings, neggar and neger dominated in a northern colony of New York which was under the Dutch as well as the metropolitan Philadelphia's Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities.
However, the Canadian Oxford dictionary (2004) defines nigger as "dark- skinned person". Usage of the word nigger amongst the Anglophones was earlier not considered derogatory as the term referred to "black skinned" a regular word in used by the Anglophones. This notion is reinforced by the Nineteenth-century English literature featuring the utilization of the word nigger without having any racist intension. This is exemplified in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) in of Joseph Conrad novella. Additionally, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain produced characters who spoke the word as in a contemporary context in their works. For instance, Twain (1883) in his autobiography Life on the Mississippi employed the with quotation marks, reporting to the utilization of the word reported but instead he employed the term "negro" when talking in his own narration.
Fowler and Crystal (2009), states that by "applying the word nigger to "others than full or partial negroes" is "felt as an insult by the person described, & betrays in the speaker, if not deliberate insolence, at least a very arrogant inhumanity""; Thereafter, this linguistic prescription viewed as anti-racist was done away with in the subsequent editions of the Fowler's Dictionary.
Since the term, nigger had become a pejorative word and insulting to the in-group, there arose the use of the term colored in its place in and thus the term colored became a substitute for the word negro and its deduced terms. Instances denoting the utilization of the term colored appeared in Abolitionist warnings to the Colored People of Boston and vicinity (The Seattle Republican 1904).
Usage of the term nigger/nigga
Historically the term nigger is contentious in literature as a "racist insult and common noun". Carl Van Vechten, a white writer and photographer widely known as a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's aroused controversy in the black community when he wrote a novel title "Nigger Heaven" (1926). The utilization in this term "increased the sales of the controversy" (Kennedy 2001). Langston Hughes thereafter wrote that
"No book could possibly be as bad as Nigger Heaven has been painted. And no book has ever been better advertised by those who wished to damn it. Because it was declared obscene, everybody wanted to read it, and I'll venture to say that more Negroes bought it than ever purchased a book by a Negro author. Then, as now, the use of the word nigger by a white was a flashpoint for debates about the relationship between black culture and its white patrons. "
Thought the term nigger was used in the early twentieth-century by British literary, it usage hints to a neutral usage. The term also found its way to the popular Victorian era entertainment scene where Sullivan operetta and Gilbert in "The Mikado (1885) twice uses the word nigger". The term also found in the songs "I have a Little List", the executioner, Ko-ko, sings of executing the "nigger serenader and the others of his race", performed by black-faced singers (Sragow 1999).
The word nigger has also found its way in branding and packaging of consumer products in countries like the US and the UK where it has been sported as. "Nigger Hair Tobacco", "Niggerhead Oysters", whereas Brazil nuts were called nigger toes (Wanda 2005) .However, as racism turned out to be unaccepted the names of the brands were changed.
Kennedy (2001) states further that the term Nigger "has seeped into practically every aspect of American culture, from literature to political debates, from cartoons to song." In his article, Kennedy reports that during the"1800s and for much of the 1900s as well", known writers of acclaimed music wrote numerous of lyrics that satirized the blacks. These satirical lyrics are found in songs such as "Philadelphia Riots; or, I Guess It Wasn't de Niggas Dis Time," "De Nigga Gal's Dream," "Who's Dat Nigga Dar A-Peepin?," "Run, Nigger, Run," "A Nigger's Reasons," "Nigger Will Be Nigger," "I Am Fighting for the Nigger," "Ten Little Niggers," "Niggas Git on de Boat," "Nigger in a Pit," "Nigger War Bride Blues," "Nigger, Nigger, Never Die," "Li'l Black Nigger," and "He's Just a Nigger." which were late condemned as being racist. The term nigger was also used in a derogatory manner in Georgia. As Kennedy (2001) Reported, a while judge "routinely asked Negro defendants, "Whose nigger are you?"" when the defendant was reporting a homicide. The Hattiesburg Progress noted: "Only another dead nigger-that's all." After thirty years later, the then master of ceremonies during a White Citizens Council feast closed the festivities by commenting that "Throughout the pages of history there is only one third-rate race which has been treated like a second-class race and complained about it-and that race is the American nigger." (Kennedy 2001).
Reclamation of the term nigger/nigga
There though there is an increasing use of the term nigger within the black community (in-group) there need to reclaim the term is not supported. The term has been used in racist fashion and in a derogatory manner that served to demean and insult the in-group. The term is Pejoration Inseparable: Reclamation Opposed and thus cannot be reclaimed by the in-group as the "term can only be self-degrading and disrespectful, a repetition of the intolerance and hate that the word somehow encapsulates and carries with it" (Brontsema 2004). Reclamation of the term is not supported for the term will serve as a remainder of the suffering and pain that the black community went through they went through (Museum of Racist).The Racist Museum further outlines that, the term nigger has for a long time be used as a way "of saying that blacks have the negative characteristics" as depicted by anti-black caricatures like Coon, Tom, Buck, Mammy, Picaninny, Sambo among others. The term Nigger covers and intends to belittle black as well as "rationalizing their mistreatment". Despite the fact that the use of the term nigger by the black does seem derogatory as when used by a white, use of the term or it descendants has not significantly diminished its venom.
Challenge to reclamation
As outline by Brontsema (2004), "linguistic ownership is unfixed and unstable can be illustrated with nigger (or nigga)" where the word has it roots from the Portuguese word negro, which when translated yields black and commonly used when mentioning African slaves as assumed by the British and Americans. Further, Geneva Smitherman (1974) positions that the term "'negro' and 'nigger' "were used interchangeably and without any apparent distinction" but it was not until the twentieth century when the white community started to semantically differentiate the term 'negro' and 'nigger,'. Henceforth, the term nigger was used as a "racial epithet" (Brontsema 2004).
These has resulted to those individuals who cannot envisage the term nigger as anything but a racial and derogatory term subscribing to an out-group reading that goes wrong in the recognition of the diversity and complexity of the in-group usage of the term nigger.
Challenge to this view
Smitherman (1974) argues that the term is far from being "restricted solely as a derogation that maintains racial subordination. Instead he discovers seven contemporary, in-group uses of nigga such as outline below.
1) Close friend, backup
2) Someone who is culturally Black
3) Synonym for Blacks or African-Americans
4) African American women's term for the Black man as Lover/partner/significant other
5) Rebellious, fearless, unconventional, in-yo-face Black man
6) Derogatory, similar to pejorative use by out-group
7) Any cool, down person who is deeply rooted in hip hop culture (2000: 210-11)
Although the term Nigger has been widely utilized in the description of a dark shade of colors (nigger-brown, nigger-black), the term has also been employed by whites as an absolute American insult as it has been used by Americans against blacks, the term has in the like manner be used to insult other ethnic groups, as when Jews are called white-niggers.
The controversies surrounding the diverseness of the term nigga's, its uses and significations is a clear show to the nature of fluidity and temporality of linguistic ownership. Therefore those who seek to reclaim may witness its "removal from original subordination to a freedom to take on a multiplicity of meaning" and "not in subjection to racial subordination but in defiance of it" (Kennedy 2001). Therefore, linguistic reclamation of the term nigger and its derivatives may not yields fruits as the usage of the terms especially by the white generates issues that leads to debates on racism and the questioning of the ideology which warranted the use of manipulation, deceit, and coercion to keep blacks in "their" place as exemplified in the colonial America.