Mark Twain And Kendrick Lamar Talk About Words

If there’s a most controversial word in the English language, it’s probably what most today can only refer to out loud as “the N word.” A term coined in the depths of slavery as a way to dehumanize slaves by reducing them to nothing more than a skin color, it was and still is detested by a great many living in America today. In the years since, however, some have embraced the word, transforming it from derogatory to commonplace and infusing it with a new meaning. These discussions about what a word can mean are incredibly rich, and those on both sides of the argument make valid points, but I’m less interested in who might be right than in what the conversation itself means. Not only is it an example of the ways which the meanings behind words can change, it’s a testament to the ways in art forms such as rap music can speak on issues just as meaningfully as what we’d call “high literature.”

Mark Twain is probably the author most famous for his use of the word. It appears hundreds of times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the sheer volume of mentions has led to many contentious debates about whether or not the word should be removed from the book. On the one hand, some argue that the word is blatantly offensive, and that reading it so often in a single book brings unnecessary harm to black Americans who have to endure an offensive slur over and over. On the other, many claim that the word actually functions to indite the racist slaveholders who use it, and to remove it from the book is to deprive it of a powerful statement while also whitewashing the history of racism in America. Again, I’m focused here less on which of the two is right, and more on the idea that underlies the debate itself: that the word’s definition can change over time. Depending on who makes use of it and how, the word can potentially transform from a slur to an inditement of racism.

Kendrick Lamar actually makes a similar point in the song “i” from his album “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Toward the end of the song, after acknowledging that a great many people are “N-word controllers” who try to purge the word from colloquial use, he gives the word a new definition: “royalty, king royalty… black emperor, king ruler.” In doing so, he concedes that there are others who don’t believe what he believes, that some view the word as offensive even in casual use and try to control its utterance. However, he also embraces that he can make the word mean something different and just as real. His presentation is different from Twain’s, but his point is largely the same: a word, even one that’s virulently offensive, can be hijacked and transformed by the very people it was meant to offend, resulting in something of a triumph for those people. 

In short, then, this whole conversation teaches us two things. First off, that the definition of words really is mutable, that they can change and transform by being used in different ways. They may not change for everyone, but that’s part of the wonder of language: each of us creates in some way one of their own, built from all the individual words and what they mean to us. Second off, points like this can be made by any writer, from a paragon of American literature to our generation’s transcendent rapper. Every artist is an artist because they have something to say, no matter the medium through which they say it. All we have to do is listen.

With excitement and optimism,