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)

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album