They hear it while walking the school hallways, shooting hoops on neighborhood basketball courts, and strolling past large groups of young people congregating on city sidewalks.
The teenagers of Calvary Baptist Church’s Imani Youth Ministry Bible study in Jamaica know the N word all too well. The group of 12 students, mostly black and ranging in ages from 13 to 16, peg the term as camaraderie among tightly knit young black peers. However, they don’t see the word’s current definition ever overshadowing its horrible history.
“You’re enslaving yourself by saying it,” said Sheniqua Lambright, 13, of South Ozone Park, who encounters black classmates at Scholars Academy Middle School in Rockaway Park throwing the word back and forth. “I think it will stay as long as there is racism in the world.”
The group’s discussion Friday came one day after Councilman Leroy Comrie announced a symbolic moratorium of the N word during the month of February, which is Black History Month. The St. Albans legislator stood on the steps of City Hall Thursday, surrounded by community leaders and supporters and called for everyone in New York City — especially the younger ones — to avoid using the term. He also established an essay contest for New York schools this month and asked students to write essays pertaining to the issue.
“It is my hope that this resolution will spark a dialogue in all communities and begin to move our society, especially in our entertainment culture, toward a place where the use of the N word is simply unacceptable in any context,” he said.
Although the Calvary teens commended Comrie for his efforts, the nonbinding resolution may not have an effect on the slur’s growing popularity. The term is even spreading among Hispanic teenagers who congregate with each other and their black friends in neighborhood hangouts. Devore McIntosh, 16, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, said Hispanic students at his High School of Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan “say it all the time.”
The moratorium “is not going to stop anything,” he said, adding that the N word “might die, but it will take forever.”
McIntosh, along with a couple of other teens in the group, admit using the epithet on occasion when greeting close friends. “And I beat myself up about it,” he said.
The group’s majority believes the N word’s popularity is attributable to influential hip hop and rap artists who use it in songs. Although the teens said they don’t focus on the lyrics when enjoying the genres’ fast beats and harmonious tones, they see how “cool” and “tough” the artists sound when using the slur.
Teens like Tyrone Taylor, 16, of Jamaica, however, feel degraded every time it is uttered, whether in a verse or inside a classroom. Taylor said he has no problem letting friends know he doesn’t appreciate the term.
“I’m like, ‘Yo, if you ever call me that again, the Lord better be on your side’,” Taylor said. “It’s a racist term, no matter what your personal perception is.”
The Calvary teens also stressed the word carries too much complexity. For example, if one black teen calls his black friend the N word out of friendship, then it’s OK. However, if one black teen calls another black teen whom he doesn’t know the same word in the same context, then it is racism. Also, a black teen who gets in an argument with his black friend can turn around and use the term as an insult.
The teens’ solution — the same solution heard from various activists in the civil rights movement era — is basic education. Community leaders stressed that younger generations need to see this term for its origin, and not how it’s used in the black entertainment industry.
“And, with these rap artists, we can very well not buy their songs,” said the Rev. Charles Norris Sr., executive secretary of Clergy United for Community Empowerment of Jamaica. “If we do not buy their material, then maybe it is best they not put that word in their singing.”
Hip hop pioneer Curtis “Kurtis Blow” Walker, a native of Harlem who became popular in the 1980s music scene, joined Comrie on the steps of City Hall last week an effort to bolster the moratorium.
He said in a statement after the event, “As one of the founding fathers and creators of hip hop, I believe if you change your mind, you can change your environment.”