- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

A black member of the Baltimore City Council is seeking to dispel negative influences and raise the consciousness in black communities by sponsoring a resolution to ban use of "the N-word."
"There is no denying that the use of the term 'nigger' is becoming more prevalent," reads the resolution by Melvin L. Stukes. The document urges "people of all colors to refrain from using the word in anger or camaraderie, and to condemn the use of the word in any form or fashion in popular music, film and literature as an accepted variant of artistic expression."
Mr. Stukes, a Democrat, introduced the resolution Monday during a City Council session. At its first hearing, nine of the panel's 19 members six black, three white immediately signed on as co-sponsors.
The resolution, if adopted, would not be backed by the force of law, Mr. Stukes said yesterday. "I know legally and constitutionally you cannot ban it," he said. "However, this is a conscious-raising effort."
He said he has grown upset that the word has slipped into casual usage among blacks, especially young people inspired by comedy acts, rap music and popular films.
The issue crystallized for him when he accompanied his 14- and 18-year-old daughters to a hip-hop concert, where he was appalled by how easily and often performers used "the most offensive word in the English language," said Mr. Stukes, 53.
"They're using this word all over the place, like there's nothing to it," he said.
It has been debated for years whether blacks' use of the term is empowering or insulting. For example, comedian Richard Pryor, who used the word frequently in his early stand-up career, swore off the term after a visit to Africa in the 1970s.
In 1999, a white D.C. official was forced to resign for using a word that sounded like a racial slur. David Howard used the word "niggardly" during a meeting, which a black staffer mistook for an epithet. Webster's Tenth Edition Dictionary defines "niggardly" as "grudgingly mean about spending or granting."
Debate about the word was renewed with the January release of Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy's book, "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." Tracing the word's origin to the Latin "niger," which means black, Mr. Kennedy decribes its transformation from a pejorative by whites to a term of affection by some blacks.
Mr. Kennedy, who is black, says the word has several contradictory meanings not all negative. He opposes banning the word as well as banning books in which the word is prevalent, such as Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."
Mr. Stukes refers to Mr. Kennedy's book in his resolution but rejects the law professor's argument.
"Race relations in this country have not reached a point where [the word] has lost its cultural and historic relevance," the resolution reads. "Just as the most profane words in the language, though frequently used, remain offensive in most contexts, so [it] retains its sinister meaning."
Lois Garey, a white Democratic member of the predominantly black Baltimore City Council, said she does not use the word and does not tolerate its use by others. But she didn't sign Mr. Stukes' resolution, largely because she thinks it unnecessary.
"I understand Melvin's reasons for introducing it," she said, "but I just think if people don't get it by now, are they ever going to get it?"
Mrs. Garey said she doesn't oppose the resolution but feels banning even offensive words could start people down a slippery slope toward censorship.
"It's very hard when you get to telling people what they can and cannot say," she said. "I think there can be a danger of that whenever you start limiting what can be said."
Mr. Stukes, who heads the council's education subcommittee, agrees that books containing the word should not be banned and says his goal is to make children realize that "it's not cool" to use the word.
"That's in the past," he said. "We're not trying to change literary uses. I'm talking about an American society that needs a wake-up call."
G.I. Johnson, president of the Baltimore City branch office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, declined to offer an opinion on the resolution. He said yesterday that his chapter planned to prepare a response to Mr. Stukes' resolution at a meeting last night.
The resolution will be debated in June before Mr. Stukes' education subcommittee, after which the full council will vote on the measure.

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