On Wednesday, March 30th, 2016, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) held an open debate of whether the N-word should be buried from the vocabulary or kept alive in society today. The debate touched basis on topics such as: how the word has evolved over time, why it is detrimental, the intent of its usage and more. Over 20 students showed up for the debate and spoke on some of the issues addressed. Elewa A. (Alias), and Sadiq Thornhill, two members of MXGM, held the debate in the evening at Georgia State University’s campus in Atlanta.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is an organization made up of African Americans whose mission is to promote the self-determination of black people, and also to defend their human rights in the community. Elewa is a young African American woman who joined the MXGM in order to bring to light issues within American society for black people. In the debate, she represented the new age of black people. She believes that the N-word should be used by black people to transform its meaning from a term of disgust to endearment. “The subjugation of black people has been a unique experience, no other group of people has experienced the exact same subjugation as black people in America. So, I believe that we’ve been isolated in our solutions to oppression, and one of the things that black people have done is used it for our own power, our own reclamation.”
On the other hand, Thornhill is an older African American man, who represented the older mindset of black people in America. His father was a black panther, and so he believes that the N-word is an abomination and disgrace. Thornhill believes that the word should not be reclaimed by black people at all, nor used by anyone else. To heighten his belief is the fact of his own creativity. He is in the process of making a documentary titled “Death to the N-word.” Elewa and Thornhill decided to plan this debate to see what other black people thought on the controversial topic.
Elewa was the mastermind behind the debate. She made it open for the public to address the questions because she feels that the black community is divided and that individuals in the community need to understand one another. “In order to come together more, build solidarity and love together, we need to have discussions. We need to have free spaces where we’re honest with each other.” She went on to say that the MXGM would have general meetings where political education and issues in the black community would be discussed, but the conversation would always go in a different direction. Elewa decided that the best course of action would be to separate the topics and speak on each one specifically in different meetings, leading to the planning of the debate. Thornhill figured that it would be good to record the debate to add to his documentary so, every student participating and willing to be recorded signed a waiver.
The debate began at 6 p.m. Twenty-six students from different schools came for the discussion, the majority of them young African Americans. Thornhill and Elewa were noticeably dressed in full black for the debate, a statement for the topic of discussion. The debate began with them introducing themselves and disclosing why they planned the debate. They asked the students why they came and what they planned to get out of it. Some students said that they wanted to hear what other people thought on the topic of the N-word, others came with friends and thought the debate would be interesting to hear. When choosing students to speak, Thornhill referred to the women as “Queens” and the men as “Kings.”
After the introductions, Elewa divided the room based on their stance of the N-word. Students who were for the use of it sat on the left-hand side of the room, those against it sat on the right. Those that could not choose sat in the middle. The majority of students sat on the side against the use of it. The camera stood at the front recording the change.
The discussion posed a series of different questions, for example: “Where does the N-word come from?”, “Do you believe that it’s detrimental for the black community to keep using this word?”, “Who here uses the N-word?”, and “When did you first hear the N-word; how did it make you feel?” were some of the questions asked. Many students relayed their own experiences of racial discrimination and awareness with their answers.
Students against the use of the word explained why. They said that using the word in an informal context around companions will give other people reason to feel they can use the word as well. They spoke about how other races have become comfortable with using the word simply because black people are comfortable with using it, and believe this shouldn’t be the case. They also questioned why it should be treated differently to any other slur.
However, students for the use of the N-word said that it was hypocritical to attack the word because of its history. They questioned that if black people could challenge the use of the N-word, why not then challenge the religions, names and so on that were taught in slavery to black people as well – norms that today make up black culture. One student asked, “If we give up our reclaiming of the word it would only be to make people outside of the culture comfortable. For years we’ve been negotiating our blackness, why should we continue to do so?”
At the end of the debate, Thornhill gave everyone the opportunity to answer privately for his documentary the question of, “Should we bury the N-word or keep it alive?” All in all, everyone collectively understood that regardless of how they answered or what they believed, the word would never die.