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The Pejorative Meaning of an Epithet

As we celebrate Black History Month and commemorate 50+ years of Africana Studies at UT, we have been confronted with the image of one of our faculty members in Africana Studies standing in front of a whiteboard with a word that presents as a racial epithet for Black people. Underneath it is the reference phrase – “Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished – using the “n-word” acronym, which is the name of a song (and part of the album title) by the renowned rap artist, Tupac (1993). Without context and the acronym alone, this word presents a very painful and derogatory one that is not only uncomfortable, but also hurtful and troubling. But, it is the context of this discussion and this word that begs knowledge-building.

We and our faculty member sincerely apologize for the pain that this lecture about the acronym and its meaning for the “n-word” has caused. We do not take it lightly that members of the UT community and friends and others elsewhere feel the pain of seeing the image that captured this acronym.

To our community, we have heard you, and we want to account for how we can discuss this to produce more public knowledge about the gravity of this word. In our academic setting and within the contours of Africana Studies, we should discuss this word with further context. Therefore, we will be bringing expert scholars to this discussion to make this a teachable moment for the historical and contemporary sensitivities of the “n-word.” We, faculty, will engage in this discussion with the greater effort to learn, to impart informed knowledge to our students, and to denounce ill-contrived, misinformed, and virulent usage of the “n-word.”

I also wish to point out that our faculty member has expertise and focuses research on Hip Hop and Africana Studies. To our knowledge the class discussion also shed light on even Tupac’s acronym, “The Hate U Give Little Infants F (the “f-word”) Everyone,” to illustrate, as the professor mentioned, the power of wordplay in reclamation and empowerment. However, we understand that even visual imagery, a snapshot from a discussion can become memetic, and we are so sorry that the fuller context of this discussion could not also be captured. We are also sorry about this representation of the word and the hurt that it has brought so many people.

Our faculty member understands deeply the significance of race and positionality in discussing Africana Studies, but we are willing and have had further discussion about the complexities of the “who, what, when, where, how, and why” people reference the “n-word,” even though to our understanding, this is why our professor wrote it— knowing that speaking it was a power even she should not have, which was a point she made in her lecture. We most sincerely regret and apologize that this action was in poor judgment, given the nuances and hurt that it presents.

For centuries, the “n-word” (and its variations) has ascribed to people of “African descent” a minimalization of our worth and deprivation of our humanity. Even within the teachings of our faculty member’s lesson, the “take-away” message was not supposed to be the acronym, but the context in which Tupac devised it—to counteract racially-oppressive acts such as treating people discriminatorily and suppressing their fullest potential.

Over time, people of African descent have contested our subordination and have tried to reclaim the “n-word” to remove the tinge of power that it can have in robbing a people of the ability to define ourselves. The act of people of African descent “naming ourselves” has been its own political struggle, and it is important to learn the history of this nomenclature, so that we can even understand why people would seek dignity in what may seem a simple gesture by capitalizing their group’s name to make it a proper noun or moving from the use of “Afro-American” to “African American” to “Black American.”

It is within Africana Studies courses that we learn and understand the history of the “n-word” and all its variations. It is also this history that helps us question and examine its use over time, in order to gain knowledge about why this word evokes the emotion that it does.

Let us also consider that “the lesson” in this incident has illustrated even more how complex this languaging may be in any form—verbal or in print—and the significance of race, politics, and cultural appropriation. Understanding this is rooted in a knowledge about the power dynamics of race and the history of race relations. We would be remiss and disingenuous to the body of knowledge in Africana Studies if we did not engage these concepts. But, we also must be able to discuss this, so that this can be fleshed out.

To our knowledge, the professor teaching this course also raised the questions and pursuit of knowledge about how Black people have been able to define and identify themselves. Discussing the “n-word” fit into the larger discussion of the preeminent, “Father of Sociology,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ (1903), writing in the Souls of Black Folk to illustrate the effects of what has become known as “double consciousness,” or “being an American, a Negro [sic]; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In the face of racial discrimination, in the time of Du Bois’ writing, being “negro” on the face, meant that one was not treated as an American. Yet, in the face of even today’s politics, we find ourselves questioning what is “American” and who has access to its fullest possibilities in our democracy.

The context of this professor’s course (and other courses in Africana Studies) is one of the foremost spaces in which students should be learning about this pejorative, hurtful, and vengeful word. It is all these things for well-documented reasons. As a colleague wisely shared, “If we do not feel that this word is uncomfortable, then we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why, and what is wrong?’” People will be unsettled and uncomfortable with the hard truths of our discussions, but we also want to be cognizant and tone-hearing of (re-)traumatization to communities that have faced trauma, over time.

-Shayla C. Nunnally, Chair
On behalf of the Africana Studies Program