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"Grandpa!," Mary Hardy shrieked, arms stretched, sprinting down the supermarket's aisle, ready to leap into his familiar embrace.

But he pushed the 6-year-old from his path.

"Get your hands off me, little n----r!"

It was 1948 in segregated Alabama, and Mary, a black youngster, had mistaken a white man for her fair-skinned grandfather.

"I started crying and ran home to my mother," recalls Hardy, now 69. It was the first time she had been called that name, and it hurt.

"It means you're nothing, you're less than," she said. "I cried my eyes out that day."

Now Hardy hears the painful slur that stained her childhood almost daily. But it's not being hurled by a white Southerner. It is tossed around in casual conversations by unfazed black teenagers on Buffalo's East Side.

"The kids say it often, and it breaks my heart," she said. Hardy is a part-time receptionist at the Delavan-Grider Community Center, where banter laced with the word drifts from the halls, playground and gymnasium.

"What's good, my n---a?," is how 19-year-old Maurice Brown welcomes a fellow basketball player onto the court.

"I use the word all the time with my friends; it's a big part of our vocabulary," Brown said. "It's just a word to us."

But it isn't new. The word has been a part of black vernacular for centuries.

"The truth is, before the early 1800s, blacks were referring to themselves as "n---a,'" said David Pilgrim, a sociology professor and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He noted that the term appears in slave journals and older literature written by blacks.

"I've certainly heard it all my life in my household," said 34-year-old Samika Sullivan, an African-American resident of Niagara Falls. "If I'm at a family event, we're likely to say it 40 times."

From scores of lynchings to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls to the brutual 1999 dragging death of a black man, the n-word has long been spewed in racially motivated assaults against blacks in America. Today, it's still the most used racial epithet in hate crimes. And the word continues to be a source of deep-seated anguish for African-Americans.

When a white person uses it toward a black person, "they're calling up all that stuff, all that negativism – discrimination, inequality – experienced from the time they were brought to this country as slaves," said Frank Mesiah, president of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But alter the pronounciation with an "a" ending and change the race of the speaker to black, and the word loses its sting, becoming innocuous, even endearing to some blacks. Still, the n-word, however fraught with puzzling linguistic and political complexities, is simply the cornerstone of American racism, he said.

As a people stripped of their culture, language and religion, the identity of blacks in this country was redefined by slave owners who used the term, Mesiah said.

"The country created this thing called a n----r, and they called him 3/5 of a person, subhuman," said Mesiah, 83. "They had to create something to justify the inhumane treatment of blacks by these so-called Christians. See, when you're 3/5 of a person, you no longer have a soul."

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a 1787 law that allowed states to count 3/5ths of their slave populations for representation and taxation purposes.

Pilgrim said blacks' casual use of the n-word is a psychological vestige from slavery.

The term was originally used generically by slave owners to refer to blacks, who themselves adopted it, passing it onto subsequent generations, eventually ingraining it into their culture.

"It just became internalized," he said.

The birth of the word is unknown, but it's believed to have derived from "negro," the Spanish word for "black," and was coined from a mispronunciation by Southerners.

The Jim Crow Museum has 9,000 racist artifacts, including a sizeable collection of memorabilia that depicts how the word was deeply intertwined with the American way of life. Whites' usage was so rampant and accepted, the word appeared in advertising and marketing of everyday products – from toys to detergent to shoe polish, Pilgrim said.

But since the civil rights movement galvanized African-Americans and raised awareness among whites, casual, public use of the word by most whites has faded significantly. Many whites are uncomfortable saying it for any reason, using "the n-word" instead if they have to refer to it.

For the ones who do use it publicly, there can be grave consequences. Last spring, Clarence Middle School's girls lacrosse team was slapped with a four-game suspension after it was alleged white players hurled the word at black and biracial players from Sweet Home Middle School's team during play.

"I couldn't believe it," said William Miles, an African-American parent whose daughter is a Sweet Home player. "We moved here from Buffalo to live in a better environment."

The suspension was lifted amid outcries from parents and denials by Clarence players.

For their "1-2-3 N----rs!" pregame chant, Kenmore East's varsity girls basketball team last year endured national scolding, school and game suspensions, loss of an award and mandatory sensitivity training.

Tyra Batts, the team's lone black player, attacked a teammate over the chant.

"You're not allowed to say that word because I don't like that word," she reprimanded her teammates in the locker room after hearing the pre-game ritual.

African-Americans' visceral response to whites' usage often prompts whites to ask, "If you use it, why can't we?"

"But then the question becomes, why would you, as a white person, even want to use the word?" said Pilgrim, who is also Ferris State's vice president for diversity and inclusion.

As a youngster on the West Side, Mesiah overheard his Italian buddies refer to each other as "dagos." Their exchanges were often amid rounds of hearty joshing. But Mesiah wasn't in on the fun. Like African-Americans' usage of "n---a," his childhood friends' alternative meaning of the Italian slur was only for Italians.

"I knew I couldn't say it," he said. "I wasn't Italian."

In-group reclamation of derogatory labels is a common phenomenon. Putting a positive spin on painful slurs can be empowering for groups marginalized by the same word.

"It's a term our culture embraced; we took back the word," said Demetrius "DJ Shay" Robinson, a 40-year-old African-American hip-hop music producer. "We changed it to an ‘a' ending, and whites say n----r, with an ‘er.' It became a different word with a different meaning for blacks, and it bonds us."

Some women, gays and ethnic groups have appropriated the slurs that long maligned them, but privilege of usage still extends only to members of their respective groups. The exclusivity fosters unity and camaraderie.

"When a black person calls me a n---a, it's OK," said 17-year-old Heywood Stitt, who plays basketball at the Delavan-Grider Community Center. "But if a white person calls me that, we'd be fighting."

While the word can be a term of endearment for some African-Americans, it's usually neutral and often refers to a black male. But even when spoken by blacks, it can at times be a pejorative. For example, the phrase "he's acting just like a n---a," is viewed as derision, describing a person who is ignorant and lazy.

For years, when ethnicities appropriated epithets, they didn't generally use them within earshot of others. "You don't hear them singing about it on records and in videos," Mesiah said. In the past, blacks' practice was also behind closed doors.

"They may [have done it] as a joke within their own group," Mesiah said, but not beyond that.

Black comedians, like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, began incorporating the word in their irreverent routines decades ago, but their audience was largely black, especially early in their careers.

The ascension of hip-hop music in the past 20 years as a top-selling genre is often blamed for dragging the word into the mainstream spotlight. In 2005, Jamie Foxx's soulful crooning of "I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger, but she ain't messin' with no broke n---a," shot Kanye West's "Gold Digger" to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100.

"Just about all the rappers use it now," said Robinson, who produces tracks for local hip-hop artists at his music studio on Parkside Avenue, "and just about all the popular songs have the word in them."

But Austin Jackson, a black history professor at Michigan State Univeristy, lets hip-hop off the hook."Rap music is black English to the max, it's poetry," he said. "Rappers take an artistic license, and they are speaking to a very real material – a shared experience of poverty and state-sponsored violence." Pointing to the Trayvon Martin case, he said the word will live on in black America's vocabulary, as long as blacks are treated as second-class citizens.

Edreys "Billy Drease Williams" Wajed's creative and clever lyrics caught the attention of music labels in New York City, and executives wanted to sign the Buffalo rapper. But they complained Wajed's music, without profanity and the n-word, wasn't edgy enough.

"Using that word is a prerequisite for rappers," said Wajed, who is also a school teacher. "Artists are steered in that direction by record companies."

At Lilo Studios, local rappers nurture their dreams of going big, with recording time.

"And every other word is ‘n---a.' Even the young, 13-year-old rappers are using the word. And since successful rappers use it, local rappers are doing the same," Robinson said.

But Jesse "Jesse Classic" Jakubczak wraps up sessions at Lilo with tracks free of the word.

"I'm Caucasian, me using it would feel uncomfortable; it wouldn't be cool," said 25-year-old Jakubczak, who grew up on the East Side. "I don't use the word out of respect for myself and for others."

But while society continues to deem the n-word off-limits to whites, the popularity of hip-hop music has brought it into their homes; an estimated 70 percent of rap music is purchased by white consumers.

And white America's constant exposure to rappers' flippant practice puts the n-word at a crossroads: Is it still a racial slur or has it evolved into cool slang?

Some whites have boldly bucked historical rules, even using the n-word in the midst of blacks. But they do so with caution and usually with approval from close African-American friends. Even still, they're at risk for backlash.

Gwyneth Paltrow recently tweeted "N---as in Paris," after her friends Jay-Z and Kanye West rocked a Paris stage with their hit single of the same title. While the black rappers were lauded for their performance, the white actress was lambasted for the tweet.

Deana "Wenzday Atemz" Barlow, who is white, has been immersed in rap music and everything hip-hop since elementary school. She grew up in Niagara Falls and her closest friends were black, including Samika Sullivan.

"Deana was the biggest hip-hop fan ever," Sullivan said. "She was always listening to music, always had her headphones on."

Barlow became an easy fit into the culture, and by middle school, she and Sullivan, along with other blacks, greeted each other with "What's up, n---a?"

"We were like a close-knit family growing up," said Barlow, now 34. "And I only used the word when I was with my closest friends."

But Barlow, who started rapping 13 years ago, also put it in her earlier lyrics. At a rap competition in Cleveland, surrounded by a black audience, Barlow let "n---a" slip during her freestyle performance. Later an audience member pulled her to the side and offered some advice: "We all know what you meant, we know you're down," she was told, "but you might not want to use that word."

Barlow heeded the advice. She scrubbed her music of the word, and later she removed it from her vocabulary.

"I don't think anyone should say it," said Barlow, a member of the hip-hop trio Reign. "Blacks using it is like holding back your own people."

Felicia Scarfone reminds Barlow of her younger self. The white Niagara Falls teenager is a hip-hop dancer who got a "hood pass" five years ago. The honorary admission into black culture, bestowed upon Felicia by her black schoolmates, gives her the privilege of saying the word free of negative repercussions.

But her n-word habit has drawn admonitions from her parents.

"My mom tells me to stop using the word," the 17-year-old senior at Niagara Falls High School said. "She's worried because some people might take it offensively. But I don't use it disrespectfully. When I'm chilling with my friends, it's how we say hi."

Some blacks believe the widespread commercialization of the word in popular culture not only gives whites the unofficial permission to use it, overlooking its long history of pain; it also gives America the false impression that all black people use the word.

Furthermore, African-Africans who do use it create a black hypocrisy, said rapper Wajed, 37.

"I don't use it, and I don't condone it being used around me," he said. "It conjures the pain and suffering our ancestors went through – the lynchings, the murders. I don't care who says it, it has the same meaning, same connotation."

In the 1990s, rapper Tupac Shakur coined and popularized an acronym for the word, which stands for Never Ignorant about Getting Goals Accomplished. It was one of many efforts by blacks to lessen the sting. While there have been generational attempts to defang the word, Pilgrim said, they've all been in vain.

"At this point, it should have no fangs," he said. "But it still does."

email: esapong@buffnews.com