In a recent class reading of a script I’m developing for a screenwriting course, two lines of dialogue in my currently 32-page screenplay contained the
word nigga “N” word. Because this word is undoubtedly sensitive, often inflammatory and demeaning depending on who you ask, I gave a disclaimer before said lines of my script were read aloud. I let the classroom of adults know that some sensitive language was coming up, but as the writer and a black person, I was comfortable with them being read aloud through the dialogue as my characters spoke them.
During the reading a man got up and walked out of the classroom, a middle-aged black man to be clear. After the script was done being read he returned. Now, at the time I had no idea why he got up and left and I was not at all perturbed or offended by him doing so. Maybe he had to use the bathroom, or maybe he needed to take a call. Maybe it was neither. I didn’t care either way. However, once he returned and it was time for the class to give constructive criticism the man raised his hand and made it very clear exactly why he left during my script reading.
He had an issue with the use of the (and here goes my attempt to be unoffensive again) “N” word in my script. But instead of being straightforward and saying, “I didn’t like hearing that word” or “I am sensitive to that word so I had to excuse myself”, he began with questioning me about the plot to my script and what my movie was about in the first place. As if to say, if your movie isn’t about a specific topic that would somehow make the use of the “N” word acceptable then why is it in your script at all.
When asked, before I knew exactly where he was going, I gave him my logline once more just in case he had forgotten it from previous classes. “My film is about a black transgender man estranged from his family for 10 years who must revisit his past when he learns his mother has cancer.” Then I was asked immediately after what that had to do with using derogatory language that perpetuates stereotypes. Now, that’s where he lost me. We proceeded to have a back and forth, he expressed displeasure with my diction because “People had died so that word wouldn’t be used” and “Children would see that and like, monkey see and monkey do, think it is okay to use.” I, and pretty much the rest of the class filled with other black people, other people of color and white people all tried to get him to see the bigger picture and stop focusing on (here it goes again) the “N” word, but we were wasting our collective breath.
In the end, I simply told him that as a black man, I reserve the right to use that word whenever I deem fit. In other words, whenever the fuck I want. That should be the end of it.
Not to mention that a screenwriting class is a creative course, the classroom is a creative space, and the use of the word is my creative expression. And the last time I checked I was in a classroom full of adults, not children.
Eventually, the man stopped arguing with me over my word choice when he realized I wasn’t going to back down and when I had a rebuttal for all of his misguided and frankly, weak points. However, his response stuck with me. In no way do I feel bad for the dialogue in my script, reading it aloud in class, or defending it. More so, I’m bothered that I had to.
For the record, I get where my classmate is coming from even though I disagree with his arguments and his audacity to attack someone’s art in a way that was clearly not constructive, but personal. I understand how someone could feel so strongly about it, black or otherwise, because there are plenty of POC and white people who despise the word being used in any form and wish it were eradicated from language no matter if we’re talking about the “N” word with a hard er or with the “a”.
I know how the Oprahs of the world feel about the word. I have aunts and uncles who wish us “youngstas” would rid the word from our vocabulary and grandmothers who would pop me if I ever said it in their presence. I know the history of the word and why for so many it will always have negative, derogatory and oppressive connotations. With that being said, there are groups I would never use the word around and environments I would never speak the word in, and it is not a part of my everyday vocabulary.
However, the reality is, the word is still a part of language with the hard er and with the “a” whether people want it to be or not. My word choice was with the “a” of course, and in the context of my script, it was appropriately used to create a visual of the environment my characters were in. Because again, it is being used in circles and neighborhoods all over the country in this very moment. My dialogue came from personal experiences and the experiences of others close to me, which didn’t harbor negative sentiments about the word nigga.
As a black writer, writing a black character I am the most qualified to use the word when and how I see fit. In a creative space, full of adults I must remind everyone, there should be no such issue with someone’s creative expression as it were. To say that “People died so that word wouldn’t be used” is not only misguided in the context of a screenwriting class, but also wrong. Black people suffered and died in the struggle for freedom. They died fighting against oppression and for their God-given human rights.
To say that children would hear the word and decide to use it is also misguided and frankly, very silly. Some of the best creations of black writers, directors and filmmakers have used that word in their work and the outcome, despite the use of the “N” word, has had a profoundly positive impact on the black community.
Think about films like Boyz N The Hood, or any Spike Lee joint and how they not only shaped black culture but changed the way nonblacks viewed black people.
Furthermore, to say that children, presumably black children, would react in a “Monkey see, monkey do” way is by far the more egregious use of language than the word nigga appearing twice in 32 pages of writing.
Although “nigger” was and is still used to oppress and degrade African, black and dark peoples, the word nigga has been reclaimed and repurposed by black people and black culture. When used among black people, the only people who are actually allowed to use it, it is usually a term of endearment. *Much like the words bitch and slut have been reclaimed by women in an effort to reject the inhumane and insulting origins by seizing control of them, using them positively and refusing to let the words be used against them, in my eyes and in the eyes of most of my peers, “nigga” has been stripped of the power of its evil origins and is akin to the word brother.
For me, it is a word. A word with a bloody, dark history, yes, but a word nonetheless, and I refuse to allow said word in either of its forms hold such power over me that it cannot be said or read aloud in my presence. For a moment in class, I felt like I was Harry Potter and I’d just said Voldemort or something. “Nigga”, written in my script, or spoken intimately in circles of black people is appropriate and acceptable. I sympathize with those who are affected by the word negatively, so much so, that they can’t digest it in its intended context; for those that just the utterance of the word strips the credibility of the person speaking it and when hearing it blinds them from the bigger picture.
“Nigga” is a black person’s word to use at will. I won’t be censored for the sake of any well-meaning white people, other POC or another black person that feels the use of it is perpetuating stereotypes.
Had I overused the word in my dialogue I could understand this man’s point about perpetuating stereotypes. In that case, I would have respected his argument, but I didn’t overuse it. And had I, it still shouldn’t matter in a creative writing class coming from a black writer. Had someone who wasn’t black written a script with the “N” word in their dialogue, then yeah, make your argument sir. Although, whites obsessed with the word Nigger like Quentin Tarantino would also argue creative expression in their defense, but that’s an entirely separate issue.
The point is this. I am a black American. “Nigga” is a black person’s word to use at will. I won’t be censored for the sake of any well-meaning white people, other POC or another black person that feels the use of it is perpetuating stereotypes. That is not my problem or any other black person’s problem who uses the word. It is a personal problem of someone in their feelings who is stepping out of their lane. Just because you’re black doesn’t give you the right to oppress another black person’s creativity by trying to silence their use of a word they’re entitled to.
* A woman’s point of view and explanation of the reclaiming of words bitch and slut was consulted and transcribed for this piece.
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