THE FORGOTTEN “N” WORD IN THE BIBLE
By William Dwight McKissic, Sr.
The NFL is currently discussing penalizing players who use the “N” word during a game. Two White NFL players, Riley Cooper and Incognito, have been recorded using the “N” word as a slur directed toward African American males. Black NFL players reportedly commonly use the term during games in a myriad of context, some affirmative and some pejorative. Recently, an Anglo female student at the high school in Texas where my daughter teaches—at a school-wide sanctioned event, across a microphone—made reference to all the “high yellow ‘N’s,’” in the audience. The mixed-race audience, predominately Black, screamed with laughter and approval at her remark.
The word “Christian” was originated by non-Christians, and used initially as a term of derision. However, Christians adopted the term and transformed it into a term of identification with our Lord, and as a testimony.
The “N” word had a similar transformative history. This word was originally used by White persons as a term of derision and disrespect toward Blacks. Blacks adopted the term and transformed it into a term of endearment; a term of respect; and a term of brotherhood. One of the highest compliments one Black Male can give to another Black Male is to call him a “Big N.” The “N” word was and is also used toward Blacks as a term of derision and disrespect. Context determines meaning. It is seldom, if ever, misunderstood when talking Black to Black. But, until recently, it was always a closeted term, never used in mixed company.
The hip-hop rap generation over the past 20-25 years have radically, and perhaps, irreversibly, changed the use of the “N” word, from private use to public use. They started using the term on public air waves 25 or so years ago. They sold records by the millions; yes, to White persons as well, where the “N” word was used prominently. The lyrics of their songs, including and featuring the “N” word were printed in the record label jackets. This, in a sense, gave permission to Whites and others to use the term. How could Whites attend the same rap concert; listen to the same rap lyrics; buy the same rap music; read the same rap lyrics; and not be allowed to say, read, sing, etc., the same “N” word? It is unfortunate that the church has not had this kind of inter-racial and inter-cultural impact on the fusion of Black and White culture as the rappers have had.
The public use and cross racial use of the “N” word has caused a generational divide in the Black community. Ray Lewis disapproves of Incognito’s use of the “N” word. I attended and spoke at a Men’s conference in Maryland last year where Lewis said, that would not have been tolerated in his locker room. Yet, Mike Pouncey, an African-American Center for the Dolphins, approves of Incognito’s use of the “N” word. The difference between how Ray Lewis and Mike Pouncey, both African Americans, view this differently has everything to do with their ages—about a 15-year difference.
I am 57 years old. There were two times you were expected to physically fight when I was a boy. (1) If someone talked about your mother. It was called for some reason—“playing the dozens.” If that took place, a fight was on. (2) If a White person called you the “N” word. If you didn’t fight in those two instances, you lost any and all respect among your peers. You may have even lost your parents respect, if you didn’t fight in this scenario. Most parents did not approve of fighting for “playing the dozen,” but, they were quietly supportive or understanding if you fought a White person for calling you the “N” word.
Fast forward to today and we have a generation that’s allowing White persons to call them by some derivative of the “N” word, or the “N” word itself. This is quite disgusting.
The changing use and acceptance of the “N” word documents the fact that the “N” word has a complex, convoluted, controversial and ever-changing history.
We will discover that because the “N” word has historically been misconstrued and mis-associated with other words that begin with the letter “N,” it has caused us to overlook, under emphasize or downright ignore another “N” word, that’s actually recorded in the Bible—the word “Niger” (Acts 13:1).
The word “Niger” has absolutely no etymological or social relationship to the “N” word that’s commonly used today. Yet, in a Bible study class that I was conducting recently, I discovered that several persons viewed the biblical Acts 13:1 “N” word, as synonymous with the controversial “N” word. They even pronounced it the same.
Therefore, I felt inspired to write this article on the “N” word in the Bible, and to clarify and distinguish between these two unrelated terms. Furthermore, I want to discuss the word “Negro,” a derivative of the word “Niger” and its non-association with the controversial “N” word. The “N” word in the Bible is a positive and affirming word that connects descendants of Africa with prominence, productivity, and a place at the welcome table in the Father’s Kingdom.
The Biblical “N” word Provides, Proof Positive that God loves persons of African Descent and He included us in His plan of redemption. Acts 13:1 reads:
“Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.”
“Simeon who was called Niger” was a prophet, teacher, and leader in the church at Antioch. The church at Antioch was the first Gentile congregation in history. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26). Luke found it necessary to place it in the inerrant, infallible, and eternal word of God that two men of African descent were leaders in the early church. “Lucius of Cyrene” was also mentioned by name and country of origin. Cyrene was located in North Africa. According to David Adamo, Ph.D. in OT, Baylor University, in his book Africa and Africans in the New Testament (P.52), “The city of Cyrene was in the area where Libya is today and was originally populated by black people in history before the advent and the domination of European people.”
“The word Niger occurs only once in the New Testament, namely in Acts 13:1. Adamo argues that Niger is a Latin word, which means ‘black.’ In the New Testament, the words Ethiopia and Niger were used as the equivalent of the Old Testament word Cush. The Hebrew word, Cush, in the Old Testament means black, and in the Septuagint it was translated Ethiopia, and that also means black. Roman literature described swarthy, or dark-skinned people as Niger among the various terms employed. The people in this category are Africans, including the Egyptians, Libyans, Moors, some Indians and certain persons of mixed parentage with black and white. In Latin, the adjective most frequently used for the Ethiopians who are of black skinned is Niger as equivalence of Ethiopia,” according to Adamo (p. 32) .
“The legendary Ethiopian king called Memnon (600 BCE) who fought in the Trojan War of Troy was referred to sometimes as Memnon aethiops, and other times as Memnon Niger” (Adamo, p. 33).
“In the New Testament, the Greek word Niger was transliterated “Niger” respectively by The King James Version. The Revised Standard Version, The American Standard Version, the New International, and Jerusalem Bible Versions also translated it “Niger.” The Good News Bible, The New American Standard Version, The Living Bible and the New Living Translation, translated it “the black person.” This is highly commendable” (Adamo, p. 33).
According to J.A. Rogers, a distinguished Black scholar, the term “Negro” is a derivative of the word “Niger,” and simply means “black.” Rogers further maintains that contrary to popular scholarly opinion, the word Niger was not originally a Latin or European term, but an African term originating from a native African language. There is a Niger River in Africa and countries called Niger and Nigeria. Adewunni Williams, a native Nigerian that I’m acquainted with reports that in his native Nigerian tongue, the word “Inago” is somewhat similar in spelling and sound to the word “Negro,” and is identical in meaning—“Black Man.” According to Rogers, there was nothing inherently negative with reference to Black people within the etymology or original usage of the words “Niger” or “Negro.” The Europeans borrowed these terms from Africans. The terms “Niger,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African,” are etymologically the same—originating from African language and meaning “Black” or “dark.”
There is absolutely no etymological connection between the African words “Niger” and “Negro” and the English words “niggard” or “nigger.” Unfortunately, these words have been misconstrued and mis-pronounced. The Ethiopians and the Egyptians used the word “Negus” to refer to kings and royalty. The English words “niggard” and “nigger” have absolutely nothing to do with race. These words described a stingy person regardless of their race.
So what is the proper name designation for persons of African descent here in America? In the final analysis, each person must decide for himself or herself. One must choose the term that is least offensive to his or her sensibilities. There is a context in which I proudly answer to all of these terms (African-American, Black and Negro). Psychologically and emotionally, I am extremely proud of my African descent. Nationally and culturally, I am proud to be an American. The word “Black” etymologically and ethnically connects me with the ancient Cushites (Ethiopians), Sumerians (Blackheads) and Hamites (Egyptians), who were the prominent people of ancient history. My complexion is literally “black”, of which I’m also proud.
I also proudly answer to the term “Negro.” Why? Because I understand the historicity and etymology of the term. The appellation Negro (Niger) encompasses my African roots and biblical roots (Acts 13:1) and ethnologically links me with dark-skinned persons throughout the globe who do not necessarily trace their roots back to Africa. Finally, if the word Negro was good enough for Dr. WE.B. Du Bois, the first Black to graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University; and the word Negro was good enough for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who used the term often and proudly; and if the word Niger or Negro was good enough for the pages of Scripture (Acts 13:1), then the word Negro is good enough for me. Historically and ethnically, I am proud to be a Negro. However, I repeat: There is a context in which I proudly answer to all of these terms. An older Negro preacher in Arkansas was known for saying that Black is an adjective and Negro is a noun; and he would rather be a noun than an adjective.
The biblical “N” word provides positive proof that persons of African descent were committed to the triune God, before Mohammed and Islam had come into existence. The “N” word in history was an English term that originally had absolutely nothing to do with one’s race, but with one’s attitude and disposition—regardless of race. This word was transformed into a racial insult directed toward Black people. It is now time that all people, including, Blacks of all ages, in all context consider the disallowance and non-use of this word. Now that society is integrated in ways that it was not when this word was a popular closeted term, we must accept the fact that there cannot be a word that is off limits to one set of people, but can be used by another and they are all together at the same place. The time has come to have a funeral and bury the English “N” word while maintaining the Biblical “N” word. The pronunciation, spelling and the definition of those two words are different and should not be confused. Our young people should immediately stop affirming the abuse and misuse of the English “N” word.