What’s in a Name, N–ger?

I’m always amazed when black people say the N-word is a term of endearment or familiarity -yet the conventional spelling is rarely used to indicate this ‘truth’. Same with this painting that hangs in Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The artist, Barkley Hendricks says he means to be provocative but the spelling of the portrait’s name “New Orleans Niggah”  reveals otherwise.

From the placard:

“There’s a saying in the black community:

You put it out there and let others deal with it.

The cool realist style of New Orleans Niggah invites viewers to contemplate how they personally engage issues of identity, black masculinity, racism and the politics of language.

This is a portrait of the artist’s friend and fellow Yale classmate, art historian Jules Easton Taylor.

Instead of identifying Taylor by name or profession, Barkley Hendricks chose to refer to him by a derivation of the explosive racial epithet.

Although used here as term of familiarity and endearment, Hendricks does not ignore the complex history of the word.  Taylor had achieved much professionally, but he would not escape the racism that existed in America at that time. ”

photo of painting New Orleans Niggah by Barkley Hendricks
“New Orleans Niggah” by Barkley Hendricks – oil and acrylic on canvas on loan from the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio

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