SUNY Albany graduate student discusses history of the N-word

Contemptuous word has roots in royalty, holiness in Africa

Ankhnun Ptaah, a graduate student from University at Albany studying Africana studies, described the symbolic importance of the “N-word” in American culture in his talk “The Etymology of Netger,” held in Lecture Hall 9 Monday night.

Ptaah explained the historical roots of the word “netger.” Despite its often negative associations, Ptaah said that the roots of the word originally meant something royal or holy. “Netger” was originally used to address pharaohs.

“N-G-A is actually a sacred word, it’s a symbol of spirituality, it’s something beyond its typical definition,” Ptaah said. “We can go to Angola where ‘nga’ means king, we can go to Ethiopia where ‘negoos’ means king or emperor. We can go to India where the word ‘naga’ means snake or snake god.”

Ptaah described how the word devolved into a symbol of oppression.

“You have Romance languages like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and they come up with their own interpretations of N-G-A. You have nager, you have nigre, then you have neger, then it becomes negro, then it becomes nigger, nigger, nigger,” Ptaah said.

Ptaah compared the symbolism of the word to that of the swastika, which he said was a “holy symbol to the ancient world.” He described how the image of the swastika was co-opted by Hitler to oppress and murder people.

“A picture speaks a thousand words, but a symbol speaks a thousand pictures,” Ptaah said. “Every time Jewish people even see this image, they think of those horrific experiences that their ancestors had to suffer through.”

Ptaah said that all the struggles of slavery became intertwined with the “N-word.”

“When our ancestors are castrated, our women are raped, when they see their children taken away, when they’re shackled, thrown off boats, when they are thrust upon a religion, the first and last word they hear is ‘nigger,’” Ptaah said.

Unlike Nazism or the swastika, however, Ptaah said the word has again become popularized in spite of its dark history.

“I’m on the bus, going to class, and I walk past a bunch of brothers of Indian descent. I guess one was listening to a song that says, ‘My nigga, nigga, nigga this, nigga that,’” Ptaah said. “Even in my school now, you have brothers of Japanese and Chinese descent who are using the word because the word is put into the mainstream so much that even brothers and sisters from other cultures that inherit their own stereotypes.”

Ptaah said that students should not avoid cursing altogether but should understand the impact of the words they use.

“I’m not gonna lie, I curse too,” Ptaah said. “We just gotta start to think critically about how we use these words in our conversation and how we even address other words are powerful, words have meaning. Once you put them out there, they’re gone to the universe, you can’t take them back.”

Derrick Conyers, the vice president for academic affairs, who hosted Ptaah, said the event was necessary for students to discuss racial issues.

“It was important to bring out awareness about the N-word, that there are a lot of closed and shaded opinions,” Conyers said. “The event gave more opportunity to learn about African culture.”

He also said that a discussion about language was helpful with multiple reports of racial issues at Binghamton.

“We thought it would be appropriate to have an educational event,” Conyers said. “There have reports of racial slurs at Dillingers and from what I’ve heard, some slurs being used at Newing, so my office thought this could be helpful.”

Many audience members agreed with Conyers.

“There are people on campus that use the word a lot; sometimes I even hear white students using it,” said Raul Cepin, a freshman majoring in sociology. “Students should really have more information and have some history of the word itself. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about.”