"How the N-word became the ‘atomic bomb of racial slurs'" PBS NewsHour 10/25/2016
SUMMARY: Its effect can be explosive and painful: Harvard University professor Randall Kennedy has traced the history of the N-word to understand the evolution of the infamous racial slur. Kennedy joins special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault to discuss this history, including reappropriations of the word and the complexities and damages of its usage today.
Editor's Note: This conversation contains a racial slur.
JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour): Yesterday, Charlotte television reporter Steve Crump accepted an apology from Brian Eybers. The two men were involved in a confrontation last week during which Eybers used the N-word. And Crump recorded it.
Crump was on assignment in Charleston, South Carolina, reporting on hurricane recovery when he walked past Eybers.
And a warning: The next two videos include use of the N-word.
STEVE CRUMP, WBTV: What did you call me?
BRIAN EYBERS: What?
STEVE CRUMP: What did you just call me?
BRIAN EYBERS: I called you sir.
STEVE CRUMP: No, you didn't call me sir. You called me the N-word, right?
BRIAN EYBERS: I did. I believe I did call you the N-word.
You're a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) idiot. You're ignorant. So, you really are a n—–, then.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the N-word is one of the most contentious words in the English language.
Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault its origins and use with Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy as part of our year-long 'Race Matters Solutions' series.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Special correspondent: Professor Kennedy, thank you for joining us.
RANDALL KENNEDY, Harvard University: Thank you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I don't have to tell you we are dealing with a very contentious word, but it wasn't always that way. So, take us back when it was more benign.
RANDALL KENNEDY: It's like many words. It has a mysterious — it sort of rises from the midst.
So, for instance, in 1619, when there are reports about the first blacks brought to British North America, they are referred to as N-I-G-G-U-H-S. Well, it doesn't seem that was meant in a derogatory way. It seems merely descriptive.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When did it become the kind of word that is so controversial today?
RANDALL KENNEDY: Go back and take a look at what some black writers were saying in the 1820s, the 1830s.
They make mention of how some white people would tell their children, if you don't behave, we're going to put you in the n—– seat. If you don't behave, we are going to make you sit with the n—–s.
That's why we know that, by then, the word had become a slur.