The Old Rugged Cross
What is sacred to you? What is offensive? And does it matter who says it or how it is said? These are questions designed to examine values about race and what constitutes insulting behavior. Let’s start with The Old Rugged Cross.
I played the piano at my Sunday school. We frequently sang a song called The Old Rugged Cross. The lyrics I want to focus on were:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross…
Why would anyone love an emblem of suffering and shame?
The cross and crucifixion were considered very shameful in ancient times. Roman citizens were not crucified. In the Roman world, crucifixion was a punishment handed out to the lowest, most reviled criminals. Only slaves, foreign captives and those non Romans convicted of crimes against the state (as in the case of Jesus) suffered crucifixion as a capital punishment.
I was taught (in Bible study) that, generally, Christianity first adopted the cross (and/or the fish) as a way of recognizing friends and like minded believers. Christianity also adopted the cross as an emblem of defiance. And finally Christianity adopted the cross as a reminder of the nature of sacrifice (there’s a lot more to it but let’s leave it there for now).
Now I ask you, “Have you ever heard of someone who follows The Old Rugged Cross feeling insulted by being called a Christian?” I suppose if it was said with enough venom and vitriol it could be an insult, “You sanctimonious Christians!” Perhaps it isn’t the word itself but how you say it and how you mean it that makes it an insult.
[Warning: This next section contains actual, unedited and uncensored quotes of children and may be offensive to some readers.
Please proceed with caution and an open mind.]
The ‘N’ Word
I was talking with an African-American colleague and telling her about something that happened in class and I quoted a student who used the word ‘nigga’ and I quoted the student word for word and used the dreaded ‘N’ word without any softening. My colleague was outraged and said, “I don’t like you using that word. I find it offensive.”
I said, “I was only quoting what I heard. Since it offends you, I won’t use it around you again. But, if that word is so offensive, why aren’t you out here busting students for using it, since I get to hear Black students saying ‘nigga’ FAR more than I hear the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’?” She had no answer for me other than indignation that a white teacher would quote a Black student word for word.
It’s true. I heard ‘nigga’ coming from Black students far more than any other word of friendship or derision. It was mostly used as a catch-all word.
Nigga as a word of frustration:
I was teaching with my door open. My classroom opened out into the P.E. area right on the basketball courts. An African-American boy was shooting baskets right outside my door and every time he’d miss (and he missed a lot – about 80% of the shots) he loudly shout, “Nigga.” I asked him to moderate his language – he did – for a while.
Nigga in sports:
During P.E. the class outside was playing football (I had conference and was in my room with the door open grading papers). The ball was snapped. The quarterback handed off to a Black teammate who took off running. A young Black man from the opposing team shouted, “Throw some heat on that nigga!”
Nigga as entertainment:
I was returning to my classroom after lunch and a group of Black males was gathered around my door practicing their rapping skills. As I walked up I heard the rapper say, “I’m a big-assed nigga…” To which I said, “Hold on now! That word ‘nigga’ is considered offensive to many people. Maybe it’s not offensive to you but, trust me, it is a word you want to avoid. Besides, if you can’t rap without using offensive words your rap is wack!”
They felt the gauntlet had been thrown and challenged me to rap. I said, “Give me a beat…” and I proceeded to bust a rhyme which made me a superstar and a homie. Luckily, they had never heard the original version of the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies! [For more on the use of the ‘N’ word in entertainment see what I wrote about Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour in my blog 3 Things to Know About Bullying.]
Nigga as threat:
I was trying to get my students on task. I became rather insistent about getting to work and one young Black man jumped to his feet sending his chair flying behind him. Then he shouted, “Man! You ain’t got to yell at me like I’s your nigga bitch!” [Read all about it and what I did in Two Choices Technique and the Gangsta’]
From the front office:
I complained to an administrator about how frequently I was hearing ‘nigga’ and how little impact I was having in stemming the tide of its use. I was given an explanation of how it was common among inner city Blacks. My administrator considered it a low priority problem since we had many more important behavioral issues to deal with. I had to agree that we did have issues a lot more serious than vulgar teenage language. But that administrator decided to increase the priority level of vulgarity when an Hispanic girl was in talking with him about her Mexican boyfriend and she said, “So I told my nigga…”
Why use it?
I grew up hearing various family members use the word ‘dago’. I was in my 30’s before I learned it was an ethnic slur. I grew up hearing it from so many of my Italian family members, I always thought it was just another way of identifying an Italian like ‘paisan’ which means both peasant and friend and is generally not considered an ethnic slur.
For many, the use of ‘nigga’ is simply a result of not hearing anything different in their lives. The word is ubiquitous in inner-city culture. But why is it so common?
According to Ice-T (aka Tracy Lauren Marrow, the rapper who ironically wrote a song called Cop Killer and then later gained fame portraying a cop on television) young Black men use ‘nigga’ as an emblem of defiance or rebellion.
“It was used against us, now we made it our own.”
Like those early followers of The Old Rugged Cross, I have noticed that some Blacks use ‘nigga’ as a way of recognizing friends and to show their inclusion in the racial group, as well as as an emblem of defiance. Unfortunately this leads to the very divisiveness and ‘us against them’ mentality that we label as racism.
Back of the Bus
I was teaching about Brown vs. Board of Education and the word ‘nigga’ came up. One Black girl informed me that “Y’all say ‘nigger’ we say ‘nigga’.”
I said, “Oh. So if I pronounce it right then it’s okay for me to say it?”
She cried out, “NO! We can say it but you can’t.”
“Because you’re white.”
I then asked, “Why do you want to sit me in the back of the bus? Isn’t that what you’re doing by saying, ‘We can but you can’t’? Isn’t that simply judging me by the color of my skin rather than the content of my character?” Unfortunately even quoting Dr. King had no impact and she stuck to her argument of, “We can but you can’t because you’re white.”
And that’s the issue of I’m writing about here.
It’s not a call for vulgarity.
I’m not advocating the use of any crude or vulgar language. I do have to admit that there is a time and place for everything – even vulgar language. Comedian Red Fox once said, “During love, nobody ever cried out, ‘Intercourse me!’”
But the concept that ‘We can but you can’t because of skin color,’ is outdated and dangerous. I’m worried that social permission to use a word based on race, as well as social prohibition against the use of a word based on race increases the division between us when we desperately need to learn how to live together.