Had I been on my own, or in all-black company, I might have asked him where he learned this word and advised him not use it with strangers. But the smirks on the white faces either side of me suggested far more was at stake. He had not embarrassed me (I did not care what they thought of me) but he had compromised me. If it was left unchallenged, I would have to listen to racist people using racist language and justifying it with the pretext that a black man had said it first. A word that I usually encounter only when white people use it in hate mail was about to be sanitised for their casual delectation. That was not an indignity I was prepared to endure.
There are few words as inflammatory or as confused as the word "nigger" has become. At one extreme, it is the most derogatory term whites can use in reference to black people. On the other, it is a casual term of endearment, particularly between African-Americans. In between lies an expanse of conflict and misunderstanding. In 1993, a white basketball coach at Central Michigan university asked his black players if he could say the word as they did - to mean toughness and determination on the court. They agreed. But he was still suspended after being overheard saying it. When he unsuccessfully filed suit on grounds of freedom of speech, some of the black players offered themselves as witnesses in his defence.
Recently a publishing company, Merriam Webster, was threatened with a review of its business structures and hiring practices by the NAACP, the oldest civil-rights organisation in the country, after it refused to redefine the word. Bill Cosby will not use it at all; fellow comedian Chris Rock has devoted an entire sketch to the use of it. Filmmaker Spike Lee uses it, but objects to Quentin Tarantino's "excessive" use of it.
Controversy surrounding the word is about to deepen with the publication in the US tomorrow of a new book by the black Harvard academic Randall Kennedy. Throwing a hand grenade into the battle-scarred landscape of Amer ica's racial discourse, Kennedy has chosen the title Nigger.
While the issue is worthy of intellectual inquiry, the title is shamefully sensationalist and opportunistic and has already caused uproar. "The word is a bit like fire," says Patricia Williams, a black professor at Columbia law school. "You can warm your hands with the kind of upside-down camaraderie that it gives, or you can burn a cross with it. Seeing it floating abstractly on a bookshelf in a world that is still as polarised as ours makes me cringe."
Kennedy's defence is self-promotion: "I write a book to be read." It is clear how it will benefit him; it is not so obvious how it will help the debate. His desire not only to explore the word, but to exploit it for his own ends is yet another example of the commodification of black culture which enriches the few and impoverishes the many.
Entire industries depend on degrading constructs of black American life, used to sell music, sportswear, fashion, entertainment and satellite stations. Social, cultural and economic deprivation has essentially been branded, marketed and sold to the highest bidder. While usage of the word is commonplace only among African-Americans, my experience in Sierra Leone illustrates that the issues it raises are international.
The dilemma is not new. When Carl Van Vechten, the original wigger and honorary white member of the Harlem Renaissance, brought out his book Nigger Heaven in 1926, the title was met with fury. A few of his black friends approved, but most pleaded with him to chose another title. Van Vechten insisted he had etymology on his side. "Nigger heaven" was the slang term for the upper gallery of a theatre, where black people were forced to sit in cheap seats - an image that he thought echoed Harlem's position as the northernmost section of Manhattan island. His defence was irony. But a black America in which most could not vote and many could not find work was in no mood for irony at its own expense. The book was burned from the podium of an anti-lynching rally.
The example is instructive. While Van Vechten understood the words, he misjudged the context. For the word did not drop out of the sky, nor is it uttered in a vacuum. It was born in a culture that was forcibly segregated and racially oppressive. It is because the races remain, by and large, separate that they have maintained their own linguistic traditions; it is because they remain unequal that such a loaded word can retain such contradictory meanings for blacks and whites. In other words, without racism both its offensiveness and its camaraderie would be meaningless.
I claim no consistency in my own view on it. It is not a word I use or am even comfortable around, but I have become immune to it in films and music. Being British may have a great deal to do with that. Nonetheless, I am well aware of the subversive quality of turning oppressive language on its head and using it defiantly. Such is the journey that has transformed former slaves from Coloureds to blacks and finally to African-Americans and lesbians and gays into queers. Nonetheless, the last noun that Stephen Lawrence heard before he was stabbed to death by racists is not something I wish to claim. The manner in which his case was dealt with shows that the people who think it can be just as vicious as those who say it. That is why it is hard to imagine a situation - outside of a court of law - where it would not be highly problematic for white people to use the word.
So long as racism exists there is no ironic or benign interpretation that cannot be miscontrued. I was in the presence of Germaine Greer last year when she referred to a "nigger in a woodpile". By the time she had tried to render a justification I was off. There is none. At least, not one that I'm interested in hearing. If white people find this restriction on their vocabulary unreasonable they need only bring forward the day when racism is eradicated - a day all black people look forward to - after which they can say what they like. Those who lurk behind the pillar of freedom of speech in their determination to use it are welcome to the right to be insensitive. But they must accept at least one basic consequence: others have the right to be offended.
Back in the twenties, the African-American diplomat and intellectual, James Weldon Johnson believed time would be kinder to Van Vechten than black critics had been. "As the race progresses it will become less and less susceptible to hurts from such causes." Lack of progress means the hurt is still there.