What is your first or most memorable experience with the N-word?

Southern Connecticut State University journalism professor Frank Harris III went around America asking that question. He turned the responses into a documentary, “Journey to the Bottom of the N-word,” which he showed last fall at the Twin Cities Black Film Festival. Harris plans to show the documentary at a few more film festivals before distributing it. The trailer is viewable at bit.ly/2kHyeYc.

Harris, also a columnist for the Hartford Courant, researched newspapers for the film. “Newspapers are like ringside seats to history,” he said. “I looked at when it first appeared in newspapers, how it was used. There were some shocking things I found before I began the interviewing of people. I found a major connection to the N-word and the words ‘kill’ and ‘death.’ 

“The other thing I discovered is whenever there was a conflict, a battle for freedom, for civil rights, the word increased in its usage in America’s newspapers,” he said. “So prior to the Civil War, you had the abolitionist movement, the word spiked.”

Some rap artists believe they coined their own form of the word by replacing the “e-r” with an “a.” Not so.

“You will find ‘nigga’ as well as ‘er,’ 100, 150 years ago even the early 1800s,” Harris said. “Interestingly enough it’s rarely used in newspapers now. Most newspapers and TV stations will not use it.”

Harris said he wasn’t sure how he would be received. “How often do you have a person walk up to you and ask, ‘What’s your first or most memorable experience with the N-word?’ If I’m a black person walking up to a white person who’s a stranger, it can be quite a surprise.”

Harris, who mostly opposes anyone using the N-word, is working on a “Black Lives Don’t Matter” documentary. My video interview with Harris will be posted Wednesday.


Q: Do you use the N-word?

A: I don’t believe in using it recklessly but there are times like in this interview. It’s not a normal part of my language. I don’t call people that. I don’t want people calling me that. I don’t play music with it on it. But there are times when it is in a context when it has to be used.


Q: How old were you the first time you heard the N-word.

A: Oh, wow. The time that I vividly remember it, I was [about 8 or 9] at a creek with my brother and two other friends. My brother and his friend were on a raft and all of a sudden there were stones hitting the water. We looked up and there were these two big white boys, they were like teens, hurling stones and [N-word], which was like another stone. I remember being terrified. I wanted to run but I couldn’t leave my brother and friends out there. Plus, there was nowhere to go. There were cattails around us, the creek in front of us and these guys throwing stones, so we had to fight our way out of there. My brother said, This means war, and we just started throwing back at them. It’s unfortunate the way the climate in the country is going.


Q: Do you subscribe to the thinking that you can use a word unkind to a certain group if you’re a member of that group?

A: I don’t subscribe to that. I will say this: When I was a teen, up until college, I used to use the word. Quite ironic. I was called that word with violence behind it. I remember a little kid spat on me and called me that word, when I was one of the few blacks at this white school being integrated in my hometown in Illinois.


Q: What politician from history or today would you like to ask, while under the influence of Sodium Pentothal, if she or he had ever used the N-word?

A: That’s easy: Donald Trump.


Q: An expert in black studies once told me the reason white people have become upset about black people using the N-word is because we have made it off-limits to them?

A: [Deep sigh] One of the white guys, an attorney, I interviewed said he wished he could say it. There is a difference between when a white person says it and a black person. Historically, you didn’t have black people killing and lynching people [while using the word].


C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Jason Show.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.