I'm not sure who started saying it first, but I remember hearing 1st and 2nd Grade kids say it on the way home.
"Who's sayin' [n-word] back there?" the bus driver would bark every so often, in addition to half a dozen other commands or intimidating interrogatories: "Turn around and face the front!" "Are you getting off here, [so-and-so]?" "Who has the gas cap?"
Kids would unhesitatingly call each other the name, even repeating it out loud to nobody in particular. I passed by one girl who seemed to be chanting it: "[N-word], [n-word], [n-word]."
It didn't matter whether somebody was actually black. One bully said to me, "You little [n-word]!"
My Queen Mother set me straight the first time I tested it out on my little brother. I didn't know what it really meant or how ugly it was. This word seemed to come out of nowhere, hitting school all of the sudden like the flu bug. Only now have I figured out how it got into my peers' lexicon: Roots.
That 1977 blockbuster miniseries that allowed us to have a national moment of clarity and humility on slavery and race wasn't shy about using the n-word on national television. Robert Reed -- Mr. Brady, fercryinoutloud -- even used it, and if kids hear something on TV, they'll be talking about it on the playground.
By high school, most of us knew better, and so did the adults. But it didn't stop black kids from using it on each other, even in a comparative context. I once heard one African-American kid say to his friend about a certain particularly dark-complected kid, "Man, that's a black [n-word]!" Some even argue there's a difference between the n-word with an "a" on the end versus and "r." One college professor told me African-Americans who used that word were trying to appropriate it as their own to take its sting away.
Psychologist and civil rights leader Dr. Alvin Poussaint along with Bill Cosby call all the rationalizations garbage:
“Gangsta rap promotes the widespread use of the N-word to sell CDs among people of all ethnic groups. In fact, the audience for gangsta rap is made up predominantly of white youth, who get a vicarious thrill from participating in a black thug fantasy.... Black youth, as well as some misguided adults, have defended the use of the N-word, suggesting they are somehow making it a positive term. Don’t fall for that nonsense. The N-word is a vile symbol of our oppression by slave masters.”My dear friend Madame Noire knows that to an angering degree.
"I've been called the n-word, spearchucker, jigaboo, darkie, sambo," she once told me in a voice that brought out the pain of growing up not only black, but mixed-race black, where black people tell you you're too white, and white people tell you to be blacker.
If my peers had heard Madame talking about that word, they wouldn't use it.