How should we use the 'n' word?

In a new collection inspired by Stephen Lawrence, the poet Dean Atta calls on his artistic peers to stop using the 'n' word. Some terms should never be reclaimed, he tells Arifa Akbar

"Rappers, when you use the word 'nigger', remember

That's one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard

So don't tell me it's a reclaimed word

I am nobody's nigger

So please, let my ancestors rest in peace…"

Thus begins a poem so resonant and rousing that when it was posted on the internet by the young performance poet, Dean Atta, it drew a firestorm of responses from people around the world. The point of debate: whether the "n" word can ever be reclaimed, or if it is simply too heavily mired in a history of violence – from 17th-century plantation slavery in the Americas to Stephen Lawrence's racist murder in south London in 1993 – to be rehabilitated in popular Western culture.

The jarringly frequent use of "nigger" in Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning Western, Django Unchained, raised the same question, with the added dilemma of whether we can tolerate hearing the word – even when it is used without complicity as in Tarantino's film about slavery – when it comes out of the mouth of a white rather than a black film-maker, singer or writer.

Can the word be reclaimed as a positive term? Do we want it neutered of its past offence and recast as street parlance? Can the re-spelt "nigga" render it reborn? Some would say that the job has already been done by black American rappers – from NWA (Niggaz wit Attitudes) to Kanye West, who pepper their lyrics liberally, defiantly, sometimes nonchalantly with the "n" word.

There is the question of ownership, too. Who owns the word in its reclaimed form? Is it just for black rappers or can Eminem use it too? And would critics of Django Unchained have been as offended if a black director had made the film?

Atta, whose poetry collection I Am Nobody's Nigger is published this week, vehemently opposes any reclamation of the word, as do the thousands who responded to his poem. Atta thinks that the word is simply too weighted with injury, offence and racism that is still "out there" to be reborn as street parlance, whatever the colour of the user.

"Growing up, I had an aversion to hip hop. I felt like it wasn't a welcome place for a gay man. I didn't like the 'n' word used so casually. I thought it was offensive whether it was being used by black musicians or white," he says.

It was the Stephen Lawrence murder case that inspired him to write his poem, I am Nobody's Nigger, last year, when almost 20 years after Lawrence's death, his killers were finally brought to justice.

"I was watching a Panorama documentary and they had a reconstruction of the murder, which was really harrowing. In that reconstruction, they used the 'n' word. So I wrote a message on Facebook and Twitter saying, 'Rappers when you use the "n" word remember it's the last word that Stephen Lawrence heard.' There were so many responses that the next day I woke up and wrote the poem in half an hour. I recorded it on the SoundCloud app and put it on the web. It went crazy within the day, with 20,000 people listening to it."

Among the wave of responses from Australia, America and across Europe, there was a message from the Stephen Lawrence Trust: "Mrs Lawrence has had a chance to listen to your work and found it to be very powerful and thought-provoking."

"There were American people writing to say they hated that the word was being commonly used," adds the poet.

Not everyone would agree. Some may look to the gay community and hold up "queer" as an example of successful reclamation. Peter Tatchell, a veteran campaigner remembers the "queer" campaign from the 1990s.

"A group of LGBT people, mostly coalesced around the group OutRage!, decided to make a concerted attempt to reclaim the word 'queer' as a symbol of pride and defiance. Our rationale was that if we used the word in an assertive and positive way, it would undermine the word's effective usage as an insult. We promoted the idea that if you are abused as a 'queer' you should shout back 'Yes I am a queer. So what?' We set up a sub-group, 'Queers bash back'. Many of our protests were titled as 'Fight for queer liberation'."

Others have done the same: some feminists have reclaimed the word 'slut', while disability groups have tried to do the same with 'cripple'. These campaigns don't come without controversy. Tatchell remembers that when OutRage! began its campaign, many within the LGBT community and progressive political circles blanched.

What was absolutely fundamental, notes Tatchell, was that the push for reclamation came from within the community. Any revision of the "n" word must follow the same course, he says, though he thinks, like Atta, that reclamation is "hard to imagine, particularly in the foreseeable future".

Moreover, the "queer" campaign shows that while words can be reclaimed, they may not shift in meaning absolutely. They can still be used as the original term of abuse alongside their reclaimed re-definitions.

Negative terms have long been transformed into positive ones in conflict situations. One rather literal example dates back to the First World War, when the German Kaiser Wilhelm famously called the British troops a "contemptible little army". They took on his insult as a self-defining term and used it as a badge of honour, continuing to call themselves "the Old Contemptibles" long after the war.Language is always shifting so some words migrate in meaning without concerted campaigns. Insults evolve in meaning as conflicts are neutralised through language, while other supposedly neutral words are deemed offensive.

So where does all of this leave the "n" word? As Tatchell suggests, reclamation must come from within the community but only after the community has reached some consensus on whether it is possible and desirable. Has that consensus been reached?

An American think-tank called The Black Institute has rehearsed some of the arguments, mentioning in particular the history of hate attached to the word. Would we, even if we could, want to remove this history?

"Given that words and meanings are on such shifting ground – and conscious-minded campaigns can be raised to change meanings – it would not be an impossible task to fully rehabilitate the word. But wouldn't it simply be more desirable to eradicate it rather than finding new uses for it….," the think-tank said.

"Perhaps in a world where children grow up using the word, the shock and the hurt is removed if someone uses it toward them as an insult. However, are our children losing some of our history when we make the use of such a 'formerly' hateful word commonplace?"

Dean Atta's debut collection, 'I Am Nobody's Nigger', is published by The Westbourne Press. He performs at the London Literature Festival on 1 June at the Southbank Centre (0844 875 0073 ; southbankcentre.co.uk)

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