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In U.S. or Malawi, word is not okay

Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

Fair warning: This column will use the N-word. And I’m not going to call it the N-word.

The term offends my eyes, but I’ll have to move beyond the shelter of euphemism for you to see what David Sylvester saw.

He’s 40, black, a personal trainer in Philadelphia. On Sept. 11, 2001, he lost a friend, Kevin Bowser, who was in the World Trade Center when the airplanes hit. Sylvester wanted to memorialize his buddy, so he set up a scholarship in Bowser’s name. To publicize it, he got on his bike in 2002 and rode across the United States.

Buoyed by that experience, Sylvester took another ride last year — across Africa from Cairo down to Capetown, South Africa. It was in Lilongwe, Malawi that he saw it: A store. Called Niggers.

And a proprietor who thumped his chest with pride in explaining why he had chosen that name for his “hip-hop” clothing store. “P Diddy!” he shouted. “New York City! We are the niggers!”

I can only imagine how Sylvester felt standing there. Just hearing the story makes me want to bang my head against the desk repeatedly.

Bad enough that African-Americans so frequently use this emblem of self-hatred. Now we project it all the way back to the cradle of human existence. Now we poison our own well. As Sylvester put it in an impassioned essay, “I rode over 12,000 miles on two continents through 15 states and 13 countries and broke two bikes in the process to get to a store in Africa called Niggers.”

Sylvester e-mailed that essay to 35 people. It has since become a minor sensation, generating, he says, 600 responses from around the world.

If you’d like to read it, go to www.washington- /OPEDeditorial-2005Aug18.html.

If you’d like to see Sylvester’s Web site, go to

But if you want to argue there’s nothing wrong with what he saw, save your breath.

Don’t tell me it’s an expression of black-on-black fraternity. Don’t tell me it means this if black folks use it, but that if white ones do. Don’t tell me it means one thing if you spell it “nigger” but another if you spell it “nigga.” Do not offer any of the weak-kneed, self-deluding rationalizations Negroes typically use to justify their stubborn addiction to a soul-killing word.

We’re talking about the word that was spat at Sam Hose in 1899 as his face was skinned and his genitals removed by a white mob. The word that was hissed at Mary Turner in 1918 as she was burned alive and her newborn baby stomped to death. The word that followed James Byrd’s body in 1998 as it lurched down Texas roads, chained to the back of a pickup truck.

So how the hell did we, African-Americans, decide this would be “our” word? That it would be OK for white kids in the suburbs to use it? That we would export it all the way to the Motherland?

You might blame hip-hop. Sylvester, who calls himself a first generation fan of that music, does. But ultimately, hip-hop’s embrace of the word is but one expression of something old and deep and rancid in the African-American soul.

Put it like this: If you’re told a lie constantly, it becomes hard not to believe it. So blame hip-hop, sure, but blame also the slavery and oppression too many of us carry within. So long have some of us carried them that we can’t remember what it was like not to. We call ourselves a wretched name and have not the wit to hear what we’re saying or the sense to be ashamed. And being offended seems long ago and far away.

Indeed, Sylvester told me he wrote his essay after meeting a woman who kept using the ugly word to describe her son.

So Sylvester asked how she’d feel if she saw a store called Niggers. Would she shop there?

“It depends on what they’re selling,” she said.

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