'The Word Is Ours': Today's Television Is Brought to You by the N-Word, Thanks to Unapologetic Black Creators

(L-R): Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji on Season 3 of Insecure
Photo: Merie W. Wallace (Courtesy of HBO)

It’s a word loaded with pain, injustice, exuberance, exclamation and beyond, all at once. It’s a noun with such stunning versatility, it can be attributed to a person, place, and thing. It’s the impetus of the most intriguing story you’ll hear that day. It’s a verbiage of community and friendship.

What’s the word? Nigga.

Gary - Nigga Nigga Nigga / YouTube

Our ability to infuse an entire lexicon into one word is beguiling to society, but as someone’s barbecuing uncle once exclaimed, what’s understood doesn’t need to be explained. Whether you’re a scorned black woman ranting about an “ain’t shit nigga” or an enthusiastic jokester roasting “this nigga eating beans!”, the possibilities are endless. Hell, even if you simply say two wordsthis nigga”we all know the implications of what (and specifically, who) you’re talking about. “Nigga” is art.

As such, the word has also been utilized in our unique expressions through various art forms: television, film, music, theater, digital media, and more.

For black-led television shows today, saying “nigga” is akin to Martin Scorsese’s bounty of “fuck” bombs. With shows like Atlanta, Insecure, and Dear White People, the “N” in the N-Word is not silent at all—it’s loud as fuck.

In a fascinating analysis of how use of the word “nigga” has evolved in black-centered television throughout the years, TV Guide spoke with several highly successful black creators leading the narrative these days.

From TV Guide:

Appreciating Insecure, or for that matter, Atlanta, Dear White People or the other acclaimed series from black writers and producers who are leading this new Black TV Renaissance, does not require an understanding of the nuances of black American expression, but it helps, especially when it comes to how to hear and process that charged word. Up until very recently, nigger — likely a bastardization by Southern white people of “niger,” the Latin word for black — had only one purpose: to verbalize the idea that black people are intellectually, socially, and emotionally inept. And though the cultural shifts that have taken place could never erase the word’s ties to bondage, racial violence, Jim Crow, and systematic oppression, a new vanguard of African Americans with power and access in the television industry means the reclaimed variant of it —“nigga”— has moved unapologetically into the mainstream.

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“It has taken interesting historical turns,” said Robin Coleman, author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor. “I remember watching things like The Jeffersons and not being too startled when they did use the word.”

Coleman is right. This reclaiming in media isn’t new, as the word was heavily used in television during the 1970s, in particular. Today’s application appears to mirror the rebirth of the Harlem Renaissance we’re currently witnessing in black media. A “nigga-sance,” if you will.

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Still, in retrospect, Coleman had to double-take the loose usage back then. “I was like, ‘Whoa! How did they get away with that on mainstream television?’” she exclaimed.

Issa Rae, star and co-creator of Insecure put it plainly. “The word is ours. It’s ours to decide what we do with it.”

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Of course, the controversy over whether the worda reclaimed remix from the oppressive “nigger”should be used is not limited to media, as opponents argue that the word’s origin has a far too excruciating history to move on from. How could we possibly claim the “last word” heard by our ancestors as they were brutally lynched, simply because we dropped the -er and added an -a as a suffix salve? Shit, the NAACP tried to “bury” it.

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“It’s deeply personal for the black community,” Rae said last year. “I use it with my friends, out of love... I respect whatever anyone thinks about it, except for non-black people.”

I’m with Rae on that one. I lovingly use the word (in reference to everything and everyone) and also respect those in our community who choose not to use it. In fact, I make a point not to use it around those who have expressed strong anti-feelings about it. But, let’s make sure this is clear: I only consider the opinions of black people on this issue. Thanks, goodnight, and tip your waiter.

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As a creator, using the word isn’t an endorsement, by default, but a retelling of reality. It is authentic in showcasing the black experience.

“I think my job is to tell truths about the human condition,”said writer-producer, Justin Simien (Dear White People) to TV Guide. “Rather than strictly moralizing the use of the word, or conversely exoticizing it, it’s more interesting to examine honestly how and what happens when it’s used. I hope when people hear it, they think about the complicated ways in which it functions and has functioned.”

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Paul Simms, a (white) executive producer of FX’s Atlanta, discussed getting networking executives to understand why using the word in its authentic fullness was necessary. Yes, there is still hesitation, even on a platform such as Netflix or HBO, who don’t hold the same strict FCC restrictions as, say, ABC or NBC.

“It ended up being a business-like conversation, getting (network decision makers) to understand this was not for shock value or anything but just really trying to be accurate to how these characters talk. It could have gone the other waypeople could have been incredibly offendedbut, I think people saw the show as a whole and understood,” said Simms.

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Still, Simms wanted to make sure everyone considered the sheer weight of the word. “It’s a horrible word, and you don’t want to go in using it blithely because it has a lot of impact on people,” he said.

Donald Glover (Atlanta) reiterated Simms’ recollection. “We fought really hard to say that on air because that’s how people talk,” he said.

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Indeed. If we’re chasing authenticity and reclaiming our narrative, that word comes along for the ride. Even if it’s uncomfortable, and art has never vowed to maintain our comfort at all times.

Look, as long as we reclaim our time from “hard -er” enthusiast, Quentin Tarantino.

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Nigga.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.