Jennifer Lopez has attracted a recent storm surrounding her casual use of the n-word in a recent recording. But the highly popular performer is a symptom of a harder problem.
The controversy lays bare a generational divide, between the hip-hop generation, for whom the word is "no big deal," and a generation now elderly, the members of which fought against the racism they saw in that word.
Lopez's use of the word in her remix of the song "I'm Real" from her J-Lo album has offended some blacks but certainly not all. And that's precisely the problem. The controversy is about just who is "licensed" to use the term that Harvard professor Randall Kennedy calls "the atom bomb of racial epithets in the American language."
The word had its origin in a reservoir of hatred and violence.
"But that was a long time ago," argues a black teen hip-hop fan from Oakland. "To me, slavery's over. Everybody says it now. It's no big thing."
But to people like Isaac Howard, now 78, who marched in the rain and mud in the South with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the word remains deeply offensive.
"You know," he said in a recent interview from his home in Newark, N.J., "the way the word is thrown around, it breaks my heart. It don't bother me as much when a white person says it because it's part of their history of using it around other whites. What bothers me is when blacks use it. They don't really know what it means.
"Most of them are young. They don't know how we all marched and fought against that language. Some of the marchers lost their lives in the battle in the '60s. Now folks is singing it and slappin' hands with one another, like words don't mean anything. Words means a lot, and sometimes they can hurt way deep down."
He was there in Arkansas and in Memphis and in Montgomery, Ala., when armed white police and sheriff's deputies used the word to demean blacks. He took the blows and had his skull cracked open more than once trying to prohibit the use of such language toward his people.
"One thing I know," he said by telephone Tuesday. "We marched in the South to win dignity for our people. We went without food and shelter and sometimes we went to jail to change the old ways. So now here are these young people ignoring what we did, ignoring the history we made when we put our lives on the line."
Howard's view is typical of a generation of men and women, elderly now, those who served in King's nonviolent army. They helped to end segregated restaurants and hotels. They won jobs for blacks who were seldom hired. They walked, they filled the jails, and they sacrificed everything to win respect and change the treatment of blacks. Now, they feel all that they did has been forgotten.
Words don't stop at fences. Once they creep into the language, nearly everybody begins to at least tolerate them. Some say the word is no longer offensive, but to old-timers like Isaac Howard and those who defied local governments all across America all those years ago, there's nothing endearing about the term.
"I hate it just as much today as I did 50 years ago when we marched and battled to raise our people up," Howard says. "I get a pain in my heart whenever I hear that dirty term. It don't matter to me if that Jennifer Lopez woman sings it or if (comedian Chris Rock) says it in his jokes. I reach out and turn them off. I just can't sit still for that."
For him, the history and memories of it all are just too painful. For a lot of people, black and white, who joined the fight for dignity, the word will never be acceptable no matter who uses it.