Monet Smoke Monet SNDL Metallic Womens Paul Brush SNDL Green , Page 001001 The New York Times Archives

One of America's oldest and most searing epithets -- "nigger" -- is flooding into the nation's popular culture, giving rise to a bitter debate among blacks about its historically ugly power and its increasingly open use in an integrated society.

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Whether thoughtlessly or by design, large numbers of a post-civil rights generation of blacks have turned to a conspicuous use of "nigger" just as they have gained considerable cultural influence through rap music and related genres.

Some blacks, mostly young people, argue that their open use of the word will eventually demystify it, strip it of its racist meaning. They liken it to the way some homosexuals have started referring to themselves as "queers" in a defiant slap at an old slur.

But other blacks -- most of them older -- say that "nigger," no matter who uses it, is such a hideous pejorative that it should be stricken from the national vocabulary. At a time when they perceive a deepening racial estrangement, they say its popular use can only make bigotry more socially acceptable.

"Nigger," of course, has long been an element of black vernacular, almost an honorific of the streets but strictly, and still, off limits to whites. But as the word has found voice in black music, dance and film, the role of black culture in popular culture has driven it into the mainstream. 'That Much I Flaunt'

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For the last several years, rap artists have increasingly used "nigger" in their lyrics, repackaging it and selling it not just to their own inner-city neighborhoods but to the largely white suburbs. In his song "Straight Up Nigga," Ice-T raps, "I'm a nigga in America, and that much I flaunt," and indeed, a large portion of his record sales are in white America.

In movies and on television, too, "nigger" is heard with unprecedented regularity these days. In "Trespass," a newly released major-studio film about an inner-city treasure hunt, black rappers portraying gang members call one another "nigger" almost as often as they call one another by their names.

And every Friday at midnight, Home Box Office televises "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam," a half-hour featuring many black, cutting-edge comedians who frequently use "nigger" in their acts.

Sometimes, the use of the word is simply a flat-out repetition of the street vernacular. In rap and hip-hop music, a genre in which millions of listeners adopt the artists' style and language, "nigger" is virtually interchangeable with words like "guy," "man" or "brother."

But often the songsthemselves become discussions of the word's various uses and meanings in society, black or white. Not only is black popular culture the focus of the debate, it is often the medium for it. 'Makes My Teeth White'

Paul Mooney, a veteran black stand-up comic and writer, recently released a comedy tape titled "Race." On the tape, which includes routines called "Nigger Vampire," "1-900-Blame-a-Nigger," "Niggerstein," "Nigger Raisins" and "Nigger History," Mr. Mooney explains why he uses the word so often.

"I say nigger all the time," he said. "I say nigger 100 times every morning. It makes my teeth white. Niggger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger. I say it. You think, 'What a small white world.' "

Blacks who say they should use the word more openly maintain that its casual use, especially in the company of whites, will shift the word's context and strip "nigger" of its ability to hurt. That is precisely what blacks have been doing for years, say linguists who study black vernacular. By using the word strictly among themselves, the linguists say, they change its context and in doing so dull its edge whenever whites use it.

Paul Womens Metallic Monet Monet SNDL Smoke Brush Green SNDL Kris Parker, a leading rap artist known as KRS-One, predicts that through black culture's ability to affect popular American culture through the electronic media, "nigger" will be de-racialized by its broader use and become just another word. Meaning in America

"In another 5 to 10 years, you're going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests," he said. "It's going to be that accepted by the society."

But other blacks, especially members of the generation for whom Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were living heroes, say no one should ever be permitted to forget what "nigger" has meant, and still means, in America.

"That term encapsulates so much of the indignities forced on our people," said the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a longtime civil-rights leader who is executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. "That term made us less than human, and that is why we must reject the usage of that term.

"We cannot let that term be trivialized," he said. "We cannot let that term be taken out of its historical context."

Some blacks say they are so traumatized by the oppressive legacy of "nigger," that they cannot even not bring themselves to say the word. Instead, they choose linguistic dodges like "the N-word" or simply spelling the word out. Other blacks say they are "ambivalent" about the growing public use of "nigger." Earlier Hateful Terms

"Does it signal a new progressive step forward toward a new level of understanding or a regressive step back into self-hate?" asked Christopher Cathcart, a black 29-year-old public relations specialist in New York. "I fear it is the latter."

Throughout history, nearly minority groups have found themselves branded by hateful terms. Early in the century, such seemingly innocent words as "Irish" and "Jew" were considered pejoratives, said Edward Bendix, a professor of linguistic anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

In time the groups have used some of the same terms as passwords to their particular groups, which is what happened with "nigger" in the black vernacular. Indeed, Bob Guccione Jr., editor and publisher of the popular music magazine Spin -- which reports extensively on the rap music scene -- said that while whites are very reluctant to use "nigger" because it has "such an incredible weight of ugliness to it," blacks often use it in the presence of whites as a verbal demarcation point. 'That's Harder'

"In a sense, it empowers the black community in the white mainstream," said Mr. Guccione, who is white. "They can use a very powerful word like a passkey, and whites dare not, or should not, use it."

But seldom has a word like "nigger" been pushed into the mainstream while its negative connotations exist, said Dr. Robin Lakoff, a social linguist and author of the book, "Talking Power," (Basic Books, 1990). "That's harder with 'nigger,' especially with so many people around who still use it in its racist meaning," said Dr. Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Many of the blacks who defend their open use of the word acknowledge that whites still cannot publicly say "nigger" without stirring up old black-white antagonisms.

"Race in America is like herpes because you can never get rid of it," said James Bernard, who is black and senior editor of The Source, a magazine that covers the rap and hip-hop scene. "There is still a line." 'A Horrendous Word'

The magazine's multiracial staff recently published a story about Spike Lee and the basketball star Charles Barkley under a headline "NINETIES NIGGERS." Kris Parker, the rapper, said such uses represent progress. But to the white Chicago writer Studs Terkel, whose latest book, "Race" (The New Press, 1992), is a series of interviews with blacks and whites about race in America, the increased use of "nigger" represents anything but progress.

"It is a horrendous word," he said, adding that the new permissiveness may have more to do with the "wink and nod" of the Reagan-Bush years of dismantling civil rights gains than with rap artists naming themselves N.W.A., for Niggas With Attitude.

Examples abound that "nigger" has not lost its wounding power when used by whites. Whether scratched into a restroom stall or scrawled on the house of a black family in a white neighborhood, "nigger" remains a graffito of hate -- the most commonly heard epithet used during anti-black crimes, the authorities say.

When a black man from New Jersey was abducted and set ablaze by three white men in Florida on New Year's Day, one of the first things they said to him, according to the victim's mother, was "nigger."

On Friday, an all-white fraternity at Rider College in New Jersey was disciplined after college officials learned the frtaernity had sponsored a "nigger night" on which potential pledges were told to dress like blacks and emulate Stepin Fetchit as they cleaned the fraternity house. Blurring a Line

The changing uses of the word have made for some curious situations on the white side of an increasingly blurred line.

Alex T. Noble, a white public relations intern in New York, said he has white friends who use "nigger" with one another as a term of endearment. Mr. Noble, who works with rappers, said when a black friend calls him a "nigger," "I feel flattered, like I'm part of something."

But, he adds, he is extremely reluctant to return the salutation.

"As a white person I would never go up to a black person and say, 'Yo, nigger,' " Mr. Noble said. "I think it's hard to outrun the legacy of oppression that word signifies. Anytime a white person says that word it is troublesome."

The attempts to demystify "nigger" are by no means new. One of the more publicized cases came in the early 1970's, when Richard Pryor used "nigger" in his stand-up comedy act with the express purpose of defanging its racist bite. He titled his seminal comedy album in 1974 "That Nigger's Crazy." Some years later, however, after a trip to Africa, Mr. Pryor told audiences he would never use the word again as a performer. While abroad, he said, he saw black people running governments and businesses. And in a moment of epiphany, he said he realized that he did not see any "niggers."

Jocelyn Jerome was born of the civil-rights generation, and when she hears the term it cuts her like a knife. 'Feel Like Crying'

Paul Green SNDL SNDL Brush Monet Metallic Womens Smoke Monet "When I hear it, it makes me angry and very sad," said Ms. Jerome, a 53-year-old mother of three grown children and the director of a program that tries to encourage more minority students to become physicians. "There are times when I honestly feel like crying."

She says she has made it her mission to discourage young black people from using the racial epithet.

In a recent incident, a group of young blacks got on Ms. Jerome's bus and spoke in a conversation that consisted of little more than 'nigger this and nigger that,' Ms. Jerome said, she decided to speak up.

"I put my newspaper down and said, 'Look, I know my talking is not going to make you change today or tomorrow, but I have a question: why are you constantly using that word? Do you know what that word means?' "

She said the youngsters listened to her respectfully, occasionally telling her that "nigger" was a term of endearment among young blacks.

Little changed, but that has not weakened her resolve.

"As far as I'm concerned," Ms. Jerome said, "no one has the license to use it."

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