Written by Ceilidh Munroe


Docent Ceilidh Munroe

A few years ago, my brother called me and told me that a group of white men at a party had maliciously called him a nigger. He was distraught and I felt physically ill. Why is it that a single word can have such an effect? Throughout history, ‘white’ has been positioned as beautiful, good, intelligent and powerful with ‘black’ as its antithesis. Encompassed within this arrangement of letters is a history of white supremacy, oppression, dehumanization and brutality.

As a docent for the Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition in 2018, I had the opportunity to lead a themed tour of the show. I focused on a small selection of Marshall’s works and group discussion was actively encouraged. I chose to highlight the power of words in the work, encompassing everything from the ways oral traditions enabled slaves during the Middle Passage to assert their identity and heritage, to speeches and written activism in the Civil Rights Movement, to the power of a single word. It wasn’t until the end of the tour, as our group was standing in front of Marshall’s monumental early painting Invisible Man (1986), that the passionate conversation I had been hoping for began. The depiction of the nearly invisible, caricatured figure embodies the derogatory connotations of the word “nigger”. The group reacted viscerally to the piece and the discussion poured forth.

One of the most active points of dialogue was focused on the use of the word “nigger”. Who has the right to use this word and does the context it is used in change the meaning? For example, rap music is famous for peppering its lyrics with variations of the word, appealing to the community and brotherhood of “nigga” and stripping the word of its derogatory power through repeated use. The more the black community reclaims the word the less it bites when used against us, or so the saying goes. In the opening lines of the song “Tints”, Anderson .Paak raps “Paparazzi wanna shoot ya, shoot ya/Niggas dyin’ for less, out here”*. .Paak employs the word to reference the prevalence of racial hate crimes, succinctly commenting on the disproportionate number of African Americans that are victims of violence. The rap group N.W.A. famously used the term “niggaz” in their name as a nod to America’s penchant for racialized entertainment, and to emphasize the disparity between white consumers of their music and the black issues it addresses. In another instance, Kendrick Lamar calls to his friend, “Aye, K-Dot, get in the car, nigga!/ Come on, we finna roll out!”*, employing the word as a term of endearment and a display of familiarity between friends. In popular culture, many black comedians liberally use the word on stage. Performers like Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, D.L. Hughley and Chris Rock have all addressed the word in their performances in a variety of nuanced ways; to establish a community, to comment on racial injustices or to tease in good humour. The myriad ways in which the black community employs the term rallies against its history by attempting to redefine and reconfigure its use.

Despite this active reclamation the word “nigger” has undergone, it still has pervasive negative connotations. The subtle socio-economic implications of its use are less obvious than implicitly understood. Despite our increased comfort with the word in comedy shows and rap music, it does not have a reclaimed space in other spheres of influence and power. Would you refer to former President of the United States Barack Obama as “my nigga” or beckon Oprah Winfrey by the moniker? In interviews Michelle Obama often uses the terms “brother” or “sister” in place of where we would see the word “nigga” in rap or comedy, alluding to its presence obliquely. Former Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean is outspoken about representing her blackness in public office, often wearing her hair in natural styles, yet she does not overtly use the word. In film the word is often employed by characters from the ghetto or by the middle-class, but never by anyone portraying a person in a position of influence or social standing. The term remains entrenched in power, implying that only those of lower status use it. Its conspicuous absence from positions of power reinforces a dichotomy between respectable, upper class African Americans and the lower class and disreputable “nigga”. How can the word become destigmatized if its reclaimed state perpetuates the stereotypes it is intending to redefine? Ebonics and reclaimed slurs have no place in the lexicon of success in North America. In order to occupy influential positions as a black person you must speak a certain way and use a certain language that does not include “nigger”, even in its reclaimed state. Who truly determines its power?

Kerry James Marshall
Invisible Man, 1986

During the themed tour of the exhibition, the conversation in our group happened as Marshall’s painting Invisible Man watched from the wall. To look at Invisible Man is to see our cultural predilection for caricaturizing the black figure. A viewer entering the room is greeted by the painted figure’s sardonic grin and gleaming eyes in the dark. Immediately, I think of blackface minstrelsy; white performers darkening their skin with greasepaint rather than yielding to visibility for actual black bodies. As you move closer, the faint outline of the figure begins to appear, and subtly changes as you walk around the work. He is crouched with hands askew and knees bent. His body language is open, but appears startled or preparing to run. He is stooped and constrained by the white frame of the work. As our group stood in front of him, he seemed to warily watch and embody the negative connotations of the word. Invisible Man references a novel of the same name by the author Ralph Ellison. The novel is centred around an unnamed male black protagonist in the 1930s who finds himself both simultaneously visible and invisible based on the colour of his skin. In the opening lines of the novel the protagonist defines his invisibility, saying, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”*. In the antebellum era the word “nigger” was used to dehumanize slaves, rendering them invisible and stripping them of their human rights. Today, in comparison, the black community has reclaimed the word and it has become hyper-visible. The slur is now our greatest social taboo, instilling anxiety, provoking thought and inciting a multitude of opinions. It addresses the marginalization and invisibility of the black community, while simultaneously forcing consideration for the derogatory power of stereotypes. While writing the script for my tour I couldn’t escape it hovering in my consciousness while I locked eyes with Invisible Man.

My own relationship with the word “nigger” is complex as a bi-racial woman of colour. I experience the privilege of being light-skinned and the word has not been levelled against me hatefully, but my identity hinges on slavery and I feel its sting nonetheless. I don’t use the word in casual conversation. I usually don’t say it while singing along to rap music and its use by non-black individuals makes me uncomfortable. In the context of the exhibition I elected not to shy away from including it in my discussion of Marshall’s work because I recognize the power it holds and the discomfort it causes. I want the word to continue to make people uncomfortable and anxious, because those feelings are what encourage us to consider how and why it is being used. Is our increasing familiarity with its casual use in rap music and pop culture effectively stripping the heinous pejorative of its power, or does it encourage people to disregard the historical use of the word and say it comfortably?

Kerry James Marshall’s painting, Invisible Man, typifies oppressive stereotyping and malicious denigration through language. His career in art has focused on establishing the black figure within the canon of art history by inserting us into cultural production that we have not previously been part of in a meaningful way. In doing so, he confronts this history of limited representation, including the derogatory words and phrases used to oppress the black figure. I understand the intention behind the casual use of the word “nigger” is to divorce it from its hateful history, but I wonder if this form of reclamation is truly effective or if it reinforces pervasive stereotypes. If the subtext of the word prescribes social value by isolating those people who use it from those who don’t, then it has not been successfully reclaimed. In order to fully reclaim it, it is not enough to use the word casually, its use must permeate everything.

*Anderson .Paak. “Tints.” Oxnard, Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC. 2018.
*Kendrick Lamar. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” good kid, m.A.A.d city, Interscope Records, 2012.
*Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

Ceilidh Munroe is a Jamaican-Canadian, third-year student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design majoring in Cultural and Critical Practices. Ceilidh also holds a degree in English Literature from Dalhousie University