It’s difficult for me to write about this subject. Not because it’s a difficult subject but because it represents such a radical setback in maturity. The sheer idiocy surrounding this subject leaves one with no other reaction except a sorrowful shaking of the head. It represents a regression of understanding as if one were present at an accident that left Frederick Douglass with permanent brain damage leaving him to end his days as a drooling vegetable, knowing what his brilliant mind was once capable of.
The fact that we’ve been reduced to a situation where people have to refer to this subject as the “n-word” over and over again is a moral and semantic defeat in itself. “Mommy, Johnny said a bad word.” That’s what using the phrase “the n-word” sounds like. Therefore, from the start any discussion about it is held hostage to the overtones of a childish dispute. How do adults think they will raise any discussion to a higher level that cannot escape the gravity of such foolishness? Just as with the word “gay”, when you’ve already allowed a word that means one thing to be possessed by the spirit of a foreign meaning then why launch into a discussion? You lost the battle when you let somebody else define the word the same way you can’t stop your toilet water from turning blue once the Tidy-Bowl tablet has been dropped in the tank.
But you can’t make that observation without standing back and observing the larger picture. The more emotional the subject the more people have a tendency to tighten their focus on a specific area. What happens then is that it’s easy for all these viewpoints to clash. The problem with the n-word is the Tower of Babel all over again.
Let’s use an analogy. Americans have had trouble understanding what’s happening to gas prices. It has been difficult for them to understand that more consumption in China and India means higher prices at the pump for them. They’re not used to events in a far land having direct consequences for them on Main St. USA. They’re starting to get the picture but it’s taken some time and pain for them to get the message that the economy is linked to the world now and not just strictly to what happens within America’s borders.
Over time the affairs of black people, white people and all other nationalities have become more and more mixed, and I don’t mean just interracial dating and marriage. We all know this on one level but on another level we really don’t seem to understand what it all means. It means that we are now clashing with other builders of the Tower of Babel insofar as we speak a different interior language.
Once, we existed apart from the other builders in a comfortable insulation where we could call one another niggers and knew what we meant. That insulation is gone now. We’ve helped tear it open ourselves with music videos and movies. Those that can now look inside our world are not necessarily able to translate the language we use into their own. Any missionary can tell you that you can never really translate one language to another by finding what words in one language mean the same in another. That’s not how language works. Language represents an entire mental and cultural framework of a group of people that, while it has some universals also has particulars peculiar to that group. A good missionary will spend years immersing himself in the chosen culture so that he may write a translation faithful in spirit and word.
In recent years more whites and blacks have spent time in each others’ worlds and so have come to understand one another better. But still we haven’t come close to the kind of immersion it takes to understand; otherwise we wouldn’t have the truly dumb reactions to the “n-word”. And humility comes before any of this can be done right, an ingredient in extremely short supply all around.
Within a group there are things that make sense that don’t make as much sense outside the group. It can be like trying to explain a dream that had so much meaning for you but the person you’re explaining it to just isn’t getting it. That’s because they don’t have the inward emotional connections to the dream that you do. I long ago quit trying to get my sons to feel the same way I do about certain songs or television shows from my past. When I hear those songs or see those shows I’m also feeling the memories attached to them of the times that formed me. My sons don’t have those attachments and can’t. They have to form their own.
When the worlds of the builders of the Tower of Babel begin to clash there are only three ways to deal with it. First, there can be a co-existence where we just let every world be what it is and try to stick with our own. That works to some degree but all these worlds eventually begin spilling into each other. That’s what’s going on now and it can’t be stopped. Second, we can fight with each other and have endless discussions where everybody tries to prove a point from their own perspective. That’s what dominates right now and it’s why everybody walks around sounding stupid talking about an n-word.
So what’s the third way? Well, if you’ll remember God confounded the languages of the builders of the Tower of Babel in order to screw up their unity (Gen. 11:6), without which they couldn’t finish building. Everybody in our particular case speaks English so it’s not that different physical languages are being spoken. Winston Churchill once remarked that Americans and British were a people separated by a common language. That’s pretty much the case with us.
We all use the same words but in our minds assign different meanings because we’re all busy building the tower in our own ways. It should be obvious that until there is some unity of spirit there will be no unity of meaning. That will take, again, humility.
What will bring that about? I couldn’t tell you. Normally we don’t pick up much humility without a whole lot of pain. But, essentially, the third way is to lay down our claims to godhood (which is why we have all these separate worlds to begin with) and become open to the unifying influence of God. This isn’t just something sinners need to do because Christians in many cases are just as closed to a broader experience and appreciation of God as those who claim no religious belief.
Yes, it was God who originally brought about the separation, but that was to prevent a unity of evil, not unity in itself.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:28
Unless we can start embodying the truth of that verse we’ll all be niggers (regardless of racial background) talking about n-words without realizing that we’re living out a reality of perverting another n-word. We’ll be unconsciously thinking of our neighbor according to the definition of Ambrose Bierce.
One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.