Appropriating a Slur

Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of Nigga

How to Cite

T.Jacobs, A. (2002). Appropriating a Slur: Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of Nigga. M/C Journal, 5(4).
Vol. 5 No. 4 (2002): Loop
Published 2002-08-01

The word 'nigger' is arguably the most charged epithet in American English; thus it is surprising that this word has been appropriated by some African Americans to refer to themselves. To be precise, the African-American version of this term is not 'nigger' but 'nigga', a word that has, as Geneva Smitherman notes, "a variety of meanings ranging from positive to negative to neutral" (Black Talk 167). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his study of African-American literature, provides a theoretical foundation for understanding why some African Americans use this word and how it operates rhetorically. Building on Gates's work, I will argue that the co-optation of the slur often involves a complex of three rhetorical devices that fall under the rubric of an African-American rhetorical strategy called Signifyin(g)—a term that will be discussed at length later. The first of these devices is agnominatio, defined as "the repetition of a word with an alteration of both one letter and a sound" (Gates 46). The second, semantic inversion, is the reversal of the meaning of a term (Holt qtd. in Smitherman, "Chain"). Chiastic slaying, the third rhetorical strategy, is a critique that transforms the status of a group or individual.1 Through these three modes of rhetorical transfiguration, the slur 'nigger' becomes 'nigga' a positive term that carries with it a critique of racism. I will further argue that all of these rhetorical devices operate through a principle I term "semantic looping" in which a new term derives meaning by continual reference to an older, existing term. This principle is a key to understanding how Signifyin(g) works in the appropriation of 'nigger' and helps to reveal how, in the words of Michel Foucault, the appropriation is a culturally rooted form of "reverse discourse" (101). Ultimately, this rhetorical analysis reveals that the African-American usage of 'nigga' is a strategy for asserting the humanity of black people in the face of continuing racism, a strategy that celebrates an anti-assimilationist vision of African-American identity.

Foucault has argued that while the naming of oppressed groups by those in power serves as an instrument for oppression, such naming can also engender group identification and resistance to oppression (101). The coining of the word 'homosexual', for example, allowed for the repression of gay people but also allowed homosexuals to organise a gay rights movement using the very terminology utilized to oppress them (Foucault 101). One strategy for resisting hostile slurs like 'queer' or 'nigger' is for the oppressed group to appropriate the name and transform it into a rallying cry or "reverse discourse". An understanding of how 'nigga' operates as a reverse discourse requires a culturally rooted rhetorical analysis of the term.

Gates, in The Signifyin(g) Monkey, provides background for such an analysis. Because his project is ultimately to derive an African-American theory of literary criticism, he touches on the appropriation of 'nigger' only briefly, asserting that a "political offensive" was mounted against the term by African-Americans through a black rhetorical strategy called Signifyin(g) (47). Gates, however, does not explain precisely how Signifyin(g) works in this case, except to suggest that it involves agnominatio (46). Thus 'nigger' becomes 'nigga', a word that differs from the racial slur but originates from and recalls it.2 Although Gates's commentary on the appropriation of 'nigger' amounts to little more than a sentence, much of his explication of the term Signifyin(g) implicitly applies to the co-optation of 'nigger'. The rhetorical analysis presented in this paper is a logical extension of Gates's initial linkage of the appropriation of 'nigger' with the rhetorical practice of Signifyin(g).

The social baggage attached to 'nigga' assures that every use of the term is double-voiced in the Bakhtinian sense. More precisely, 'nigga' is a Bakhtinian parody of 'nigger'; the new connotation parodies or comments on the original because the new term carries with it the history of its pejorative use as well as the refashioned connotation of defiant group pride.3 This kind of rhetorical turn or critique is an example of the African-American rhetorical practice Gates identifies as Signifyin(g). Pinning down exactly what constitutes Signifyin(g) is difficult. Numerous black language scholars have commented on the expansiveness of the term.4 Gates argues that in its broadest sense, to Signify means to be "figurative," further noting that "to define it in practice is to define it through any number of its embedded tropes" (81).5 For our purposes it can be described as a rhetorical action that indirectly critiques another term or sign by revising it. Gates explains that, fundamentally, this revision and critique involve "repetition, with a signal difference" (51).

Gates distinguishes the African-American term, 'Signifyin(g)', from the word 'signifying' by capitalizing the 'S' and bracketing the 'g' (46). It is helpful to think of the former term as 'Signifyin(g) on' (or critiquing) something whereas the latter word 'signifies' (or means) something but does not inherently involve a critique. Thus, to parody the motions of a police officer behind his or her back 'Signifies on' the officer and 'signifies' one's disrespect.6

Signifyin(g) is inherently a counter-puncher's strategy, an act of resistance against an oppressive force. Gates even goes so far as to call it the "slave's trope" (52). In Signifyin(g), the revised term, through its parodic double-voicedness, enters into a semantic loop with the original term; recollection of past oppressive usage must occur to fuel the term's new meaning.

Figure 1 - Semantic Loop of Semantic Inversion and Agnominatio

This semantic loop recalls what W.E. B. Dubois termed African-American double consciousness, a consciousness that

yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (16-17)

While 'nigga' recalls how blacks have been measured by the tape of the world, it also defies this estimation through ironic revision of the name. Although Dubois would criticize this pathway through the white term as a road to false consciousness, others might insist that since revision of the white term occurs through distinctly African-American rhetorical strategies, the revision is emblematic of an authentically African-American consciousness—which is a double consciousness. In this view the revision does not attempt to reconcile what DuBois calls the "two unreconciled strivings" of the black person as "an American and a Negro" but instead involves them in an endless interplay (17).

The interplay of the two signs sustains an antagonistic stand toward the dominant white community through the polemical comment: "this is how whites see us but we are something more". 'Nigga', then, is "authentically black" speech because it recognizes and maintains the divide between black and white worlds. As Smitherman notes:

[e]ncoded within the rhetoric of racial resistance, nigga is used to demarcate (Black) culturally rooted from (white) culturally assimilated African Americans. Niggaz are those Bloods (Blacks) who are down for Blackness and identify with the trials as well as triumphs of the Black experience… ("Chain")

The defiance implied by the revision of the white slur is also an assertion of human subjectivity. Gates identifies a parallel strategy in African-American slave narratives. Referring to Frederick Douglass's famous chiasmus—"You have seen how a man became a slave, you will see how a slave became a man."—Gates asserts that "Douglass's major contribution to the slave narrative was to make chiasmus the central trope of slave narration, in which a slave-object writes himself or herself into a human subject through the act of writing" (172). By comparison, through the semantic inversion of 'nigger'/'nigga', dehumanized blacks speak themselves into human subjects through the act of speaking.

This transfiguration conforms to what Gates terms "chiastic slaying" (66). His somewhat off-hand phrase is inspired by the African-American use of chiasmus, which is defined as, "a grammatical figure by which the order of words in one of two parallel clauses is inverted in the other" (Oxford English Dictionary qtd. in Grothe). Chiasmus is often represented as an ABBA pattern (so Douglass's chiasmus would be reduced to: (A) man - (B) slave - (B) slave - (A) man). In Gates's usage, chiastic slaying involves repetition and reversal but not necessarily a literal ABBA pattern of chiasmus. In the same vein, 'nigga' is a repetition of 'nigger' that reverses the position of African Americans (from objects to subjects). Analogously, 'nigger to nigga' can be conceived of as the inverted second clause of a chiastic statement like Douglass's 'man - slave - slave - man' in which personhood and agency are re-affirmed.

This re-affirmation of humanity implicit in 'nigga' is not likely to be understood by many whites given, as Smitherman notes, that they often fail to recognize the semantic difference between 'nigger' and 'nigga'.7 Since whites are frequently unaware of the Signification of 'nigga', it is impossible for African Americans to kill (i.e. end) the white use of the racist term. In the context of Signification, chiastic slaying does not put an end to the idea Signified upon. In fact, Signification must be activated by what Gates calls the "absent presence" of the original term (48).

The critique of racism and assertion of subjectivity implicit in the employment of 'nigga' is not aimed at white people or the elimination of their sign; it is aimed at a black audience that must survive in a continually racist environment. What, then, is the "slaying" of chiastic slaying? It must be seen as a refutation of the original term or sign. In the case of 'nigga', it is a rejection of the dehumanization implied by 'nigger' with the recognition that African Americans will still be continually subjected to this libel despite its refutation. Thus, the chiastic slaying of 'nigger' by 'nigga' requires a continual interplay or semantic loop between the two terms. The context of continuing racism, then, requires 'nigga' to recurrently signify on (i.e. assert the falsity of) the slur. The recurrent Signification can be thought of as a loop inscribed upon the linear chiastic pattern:

Figure 2 - Semantic Loop Inscribed on the Chiastic Pattern

The context of continuing racism is one factor that accounts for the value of semantic looping in African-American rhetoric. Since the semantic loops of African-American culture draw their strength from the oppression to which they react, they are continually useful. This kind of resistance does not attempt to overcome racism but instead draws African-American attention to it so blacks can survive it. The first step in this survival is to be aware, as DuBois might say, that blacks in America are perceived of as a "problem" (15). The Signification of 'nigga' also "keeps it real", by reminding African Americans of the harsh truth of racism and by continually enacting a refutation of racism through a complex of culturally familiar rhetorical strategies. In this respect, the appropriation of the white slur is, to borrow the words of Foucault, a culturally inspired "reverse discourse" aimed at responding to white oppression.

The identification of semantic looping in this case opens up an array of other questions. How does semantic looping function in the appropriation of other epithets by other groups? (A few cases that may be worth investigating in addition to the previously mentioned 'queer', are 'dyke', 'girl'/'grrl' by young feminists and 'anorexia'/'ana' as well as 'bulimia'/'mia' by pro-eating-disorder advocates.) Do the cultural differences of various groups affect how semantic looping operates? What does semantic looping reveal about the struggle over authenticity or identity, especially with respect to gender, class and subculture? And lastly, how do groups respond to re-appropriations by dominant groups? (In particular I am thinking of the increasing use of 'nigga' by white American teenagers.) I hope others will find these questions worth pursuing.

Author Biography

Andrew T.Jacobs