The N word

From Mark Twain to Chris Rock, it provokes book banning and nervous giggles. A black scholar asks if it's ever OK to say "nigger."

Published January 22, 2002 8:58PM (EST)

"I am addressing the contention that the presence of nigger alone is sufficient to taint ... any ... text. I am addressing those who contend that nigger has no proper place in American culture and those who desire to erase the N-word totally, without qualification, from the cultural landscape. I am addressing parents who, in numerous locales, have demanded the removal of 'Huckleberry Finn' from syllabi solely on the basis of the presence of the N-word -- without having read the novel themselves, without having investigated the way in which it is being explored in class, and without considering the possibilities opened by the close study of a text that confronts so dramatically the ugliness of slavery and racism. I am addressing the eradicationists who, on grounds of racial indecency, would presumably want to bowdlerize or censor poems such as Carl Sandburg's 'Nigger Lover,' stories such as Theodore Dreiser's 'Nigger Jeff,' Claude McKay's 'Nigger Lover,' or Henry Dumas's 'Double Nigger,' plays such as Ed Bullins' 'The Electronic Nigger,' and novels such as Gil-Scott Heron's 'The Nigger Factory.'"

And why stop there? To the list that Randall Kennedy provides in his new book "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," you could add Joseph Conrad's "The 'Nigger' of the Narcissus," Dick Gregory's autobiography "Nigger" (with its touching dedication to his dead mother, "If you ever hear the word 'nigger' again, remember, they're advertising my book"), the stand-up comedy of Richard Pryor or any historically accurate discussion of racism or the civil rights movement.

I ran into an example of the eradicationism that Randall Kennedy talks about recently when I reviewed "Reaching for Glory," the second volume of conversations LBJ taped in the White House, for the Sunday book section of a New York daily. I had quoted a speech the president made at a 1964 New Orleans fund-raiser, an excoriating attack on the segregationist Southern Democrats who unfailingly appealed to racism in every election.

LBJ told the story of a Democratic senator who said to him that his "poor state" hadn't heard a truly Democratic speech in 30 years. "All they ever hear at election time," the president said, "is nigger, nigger, nigger!" The speech was reported in every major newspaper the next day. Mary McGrory, the leading liberal columnist of the day, said it was the most moving speech LBJ had ever made. Thirty-seven years later, I was unable to quote it in a major newspaper. It wasn't my editor's call but that of a higher-up who has decreed that the word will never appear in that paper -- even, it seems, when quoting a presidential speech.

It didn't matter that the ugliness of "nigger" was precisely LBJ's point. Such blanket refusals to print "nigger" simply eradicate context and intent. You can't argue with that kind of nonthought. When it comes to this sort of cleaning up of history, the result is, of course, to erase history itself, and thus our ability to learn anything from it. But there's a problem. How do you defend "nigger"?

To say that a white person couldn't have written this book is not to insult the fine, perspicacious job Randall Kennedy, a member of the Harvard Law School faculty, has done here, or to suggest that he might be replaceable. Whites mostly use "nigger" as either a racist epithet or when describing racist attitudes. We can't use it in all the ways that black people can, as the sort of insult people make against their own (in "Ali," Giancarlo Esposito, playing Cassius Clay, Sr., refers to the Nation of Islam as a bunch of "bowtie-wearin', Arab-talkin' niggers"), as an expression of affection, as a joshing taunt, as a subversive appropriation of a word that still retains its power to wound. (Kennedy recalls Tupac Shakur's telling him that "nigga" stood for "Never Ignorant, Gets Goals Accomplished.")

Kennedy quotes Helen Jackson Lee's autobiography "Nigger in the Window," in which Lee writes of her Cousin Bea, who "had a hundred different ways of saying nigger ... it could be opened like an umbrella to cover a dozen different moods, or stretched like a rubber band to wrap up our family with other colored families ... Nigger was a piece-of-clay word that you could shape ... to express your feelings."

Kennedy doesn't entertain the romantic notion that the word can be completely defanged, that to make it commonplace would be to deprive it of its power. (For one thing, except when quoting, he refuses to soften the word into "nigga.") Kennedy includes the still-vivid memories of such people as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, August Wilson and Branford Marsalis of how the word was used to wound them. He writes of the way "nigger" has been used to powerful effect in African-American literature in the autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and in Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow."

Kennedy notes that both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson used the word, but also that Truman desegregated the armed forces and that Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, as well as appointing Thurgood Marshall (for whom Kennedy clerked) to the Supreme Court. He knows, to borrow a phrase from Jesse Jackson, to attribute their use of "nigger" to their heads and not their hearts. And Kennedy notes a host of white writers who have used the word, a list that encompasses not just Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe but Eugene O'Neill, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and Carl Van Vechten, whose novel "Nigger Heaven" is credited as one of the high points of the Harlem Renaissance.

Kennedy argues that our skittishness about "nigger" runs the risk of fetishizing it. In all the coverage of Mark Furhman's testimony during the O.J. Simpson trial, there was something infantilizing about the constant use of the euphemism "the N-word," as if to report accurately what Fuhrman said were the same as endorsing it. Take such squeamishness a little further and you have the shameful attack on David Howard, the white director of a Washington D.C. municipal agency who told his staff that, in light of budget cutbacks, he would have to be "niggardly" with funds. An uproar followed that resulted in Howard's resignation, which was accepted by Mayor Anthony Williams on the grounds that Howard had shown poor judgment.

Even some of the commentators who admitted that they knew that "niggardly" has no relation to "nigger" (the origins of the first word predate those of "nigger" by about 300 years) still condemned Howard. They were answered by the columnist Tony Snow, who wrote, "David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who a) didn't know the meaning of the word 'niggardly' b) didn't know how to use a dictionary to discover the word's meaning and c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance."

There was a similar protest about a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor who used "niggardly" during a Chaucer class -- this time the complaint came from a student to whom the professor had explained the word's origins. And a professor at Jefferson Community College in Louisville was dismissed because of the lone protest of one black student (out of nine in class of 22) upset by the professor's inclusion of "nigger" in a class discussion on taboo words.

These are examples of stupidity masquerading as sensitivity. In one sense, though, as even the professor in the Louisville case acknowledged, that sole protesting student had a point. "Nigger" is an enormously loaded word, and there's cause for worry when it's divorced from its potential to hurt (that doesn't, however, mean that hurt feelings should trump intellectual inquiry).

The irony, though, of the word's reemergence is that it's largely due to its use among African-Americans, particularly comics and hip-hoppers. Kennedy writes that the word was taboo for most of the prominent black comics of the '60s -- people like Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and the great Moms Mabley. Not that those comics didn't address racism or the battering it inflicted on black self-image. But it took Richard Pryor to make public the shared secret of the word's use among blacks.

"He seemed racially unconcerned," Kennedy writes of Pryor, "with deferring to any social conventions, particularly those that accepted black comedians as clowns but rejected them as satirists." That Pryor, as Kennedy notes, performed before mixed-race audiences made his gambit even more daring. It may be hard to remember now, but Pryor's performances were often initially very discomforting if you happened to be white. That's not just because he brought black hostility to whites onstage ("this is my favorite part of the show -- when the white people come back and find out niggers have taken their seats") but because he was offering up black rage and at the same time wasn't afraid to make fun of it.

If you were white, it wasn't uncommon to react with a nervous titter, wondering if it was appropriate to laugh. And yet such was Pryor's artistry that, in the course of his performance, those fears and taboos melted away, if not uniting audiences, then at least making them realize they were united in their preconceptions.

Arguably, Chris Rock has gone even further. Kennedy quotes at length from Rock's incendiary routine that begins "I love black people, but I hate niggers ... You can't do anything without some ignorant-ass niggers fucking it up." Anticipating charges that he shouldn't air his people's dirty laundry, Rock mocks blacks who say, "The media has distorted our image to make us look bad." To which he answers, "Do you think I've got three guns in my house because the media's outside my door trying to bust in?"

The problem is, once that door is opened, it can't be closed. Bill Cosby (whose brilliant '60s routines of family life did much to make whites and blacks understand what they had in common, and who should be honored for it) has objected vociferously to black comics' use of "nigger," saying it reinforces the worst image of blacks. (Pryor once advised Eddie Murphy to answer Cosby's criticisms by saying, "Tell Bill to have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.") And the word has become common usage among far less talented comics. Murphy himself confronted his own contribution to that dubious legacy (exemplified by HBO's "Def Comedy Jam") in "The Nutty Professor," where we see a performance by a comedian (played by the black comic Dave Chapelle) that is the worst kind of minstrelsy.

Kennedy describes a sketch on one of Rock's CDs in which a white man who approaches Rock to compliment him on the critical things he says about blacks receives a punch in the mouth. "Rock's message is clear," Kennedy writes; "white people cannot rightly say about blacks some of the things that blacks themselves say about blacks."

That may be a double standard, but it's not one that violates the basic commonsense principle that context is everything. And it's a double standard we all abide by: "Just as a son is privileged to address his mother in ways that outsiders cannot (at least not in the son's presence), so, too, is a member of a race privileged to address his racial kin in ways proscribed to others." Even Pryor, at the end of "Live on the Sunset Strip," tells us he doesn't want to use "nigger" anymore, and especially doesn't want to hear it from "hip white people" telling "nigger jokes" (presumably in the same way that white hipsters made "spade" acceptable parlance in the '60s).

So, as schoolmarmish as he sounds, Cosby has a point about the new acceptability of the word. And hip-hop deserves as much blame or credit for that change as stand-up comedy does. Despite its huge audience among white teens, hip-hop is created largely by and for a black audience, and it often seems to want to harden racial divisions. I confess to wincing at times when I hear the word employed in hip-hop even though I rarely do when I hear blacks use "nigger" as a greeting or a good-natured barb. (That could be because I'm an occasional listener and hardly as immersed in the sound as I have been with other kinds of pop.) In his recent shamefully overlooked book on minstrel performers, "Where Dead Voices Gather," Nick Tosches says, "Examining the polar temperaments of minstrelsy and rap, it is clear that the latter has grown inevitably from the former; that, polar as they are, it is the shared umbilicus of fantasy that sustains and unites them ... Is an exaggerated pretense of being bad, dangerous, and lawless anything more than a variation on the exaggerated pretense of being benign, comical, docile?"

"Nigger" is, above all, an argument for the restoration of context and intent in judging uses of the word. Kennedy isn't just a good, clear writer, he's possessed of the uncommon virtue of common sense. That's particularly evident when he's writing on legal challenges involving the use of "nigger." Kennedy abhors things like campus speech codes, but he does allow that the word can create a hostile work environment and believes employers should be held liable for such. But in every instance he cites, whether it's a legal case or not, he makes common sense his standard.

By far the most intriguing such case that Kennedy writes about is a 1988 incident in Arkansas where a white high school teacher, fed up with her all-black class misbehaving, said, "I think you're trying to make me think you're a bunch of poor, dumb niggers, and I don't think that" [emphasis added]. Parents demanded her ouster, and the school board demanded her resignation, which she gave. Except that 124 out of 147 of the school's students (all but two of them black) signed a petition asking the school board to give the woman a second chance.

Clearly, the students could see that her remark, ill-chosen as it was, was not an expression of bigotry but of frustration. Had she really thought them "poor, dumb niggers," she wouldn't have added "and I don't think that." Kennedy calls the students' actions "a sensible and humane response," and continues, "The offer of a second chance ought not to be automatic but should instead hinge on such variables as the nature of the offender's position and the purpose behind his or her remark."

If there's a weakness to the book it's that, occasionally, Kennedy is a bit shaky as a cultural critic. When Kennedy notes, of "Huckleberry Finn," that "perceptive commentators have questioned its literary merits," he unfortunately cites Jane Smiley's hapless Harper's essay on the book, a singular piece of idiocy passing itself off as criticism. You might say that anyone too dumb to see that "Huckleberry Finn" is a profoundly anti-racist novel has already displayed stupidity enough for a lifetime. Smiley (whose previous literary judgments had included professing that, as a woman, she felt excluded from "King Lear") went further, holding up "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as a far superior book.

And Kennedy seems off to me in his recounting of the brouhaha over a flattering Boston Magazine profile of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who holds the humanities chair in Afro-American studies at Harvard) that was trumpeted on the magazine's cover with the legend "Head Negro in Charge." Kennedy rightly notes that the phrase is a "softened" version of the black saying "Head Nigger in Charge," and that's the problem. (Imagine Boston Magazine publishing a profile of Colin Powell with the headline "House Negro.") This is, I think, the one place in the book where Kennedy's insistence on context fails him. "Boston" is marketed to and read by a largely white, urban and suburban-urban audience. Now, you can't blame the magazine if an audience fails to get an intended irony, but I lived in Boston at the time and nothing I saw of then-editor Craig Unger's public defense of the headline gave any indication that he saw the irony or even the potential offensiveness of it.

But I'm sure Kennedy would forgive me for calling these niggling flaws. Kennedy's argument that "nigger" has far too complex a history, far too many uses, to ever have just one meaning makes his book an implicit plea not to limit the richness of African-American vernacular. There have been other controversies over that heritage in recent years, most notably in the arguments over Ebonics. The most sensible response came from Stanley Crouch, who argued that of course Ebonics exist and no, they shouldn't be taught.

Crouch said that black vernacular derives its richness in relation to traditional English and that its invention and humor could only be appreciated by someone who knows what it's riffing on to begin with. (That's an appropriate argument coming from someone who's written so well about jazz. It's like saying you have to know "Someday My Prince Will Come" or "My Favorite Things" to appreciate the changes Miles Davis and John Coltrane wrought on them.) And "nigger" is part of that heritage; the comedy of Richard Pryor, to cite one example, would be unthinkable without it. The power of "Nigger" is that Kennedy writes fully of the word, neither condemning its every use nor fantasizing that it can ever become solely a means of empowerment. The word "nigger," in all its uses, will always be with us. The book "Nigger," for the pleasures of its clarity of thought and prose, deserves to be, too.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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