Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.
Miss Georgia certainly would not have enjoyed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where comedian Larry Wilmore ended his performance by blowing past her taboo in the most public of places to the most revered of people. “You did it, my nigga,” he said, and then looked at the president, who returned his gesture of affection with a chest thump. He had just called the most powerful man in the world a nigga to his face.
Obama himself was not offended, and clearly has a long history with using the word in this light, so I feel no obligation to be offended on his behalf, or to revisit the tedium of the annual “who can say it” debate. I began breaking Miss Georgia’s taboo years ago around the time of Jay Z’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and have no real measure of internal conflict or reflexive defensiveness when I refer to my friends as “my niggas” or rap along to it in my favorite songs, or use it on social media, or write it in essays. Contrary to popular belief, Wilmore’s usage did not originate with my generation or with hip-hop; Miss Georgia’s 70-year taboo wouldn’t have made much sense if it had.