The Mighty N-Word
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
When I saw the title of Randall Kennedys book, Nigger, I immediately thought of a conversation I had with my son some months earlier. I had overheard him greet one of his buddies who had called with, "Yo nigger, what's up." It wasn't the first time that I heard him say that to one of his friends. In the past I ignored it. I knew it was the way many young blacks talked to each other.
The word nigger is part of their hip jargon. They aren't particularly troubled by the odious significance of the word. This time I was. I asked him why he used it. He shrugged and said that everybody uses it. "If that's true," I asked, "then what if one of your white friends calls you a nigger?" "Is that OK?" He was silent.
We both knew that it was not acceptable for a white person to call him a nigger. When any white person, especially a celebrity, athlete or public official, slips and uses the word or makes any other racist reference, they'll hear about it from outraged blacks. Randall Kennedy, in his provocative, but conflicted, short polemic, nigge,r denounces the double standard that my son and other young blacks apply to whites, and contends that nigger is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that many blacks and whites brand it.
He is intrigued by the black comedians and rappers that sprinkle the word throughout their rap lyrics and comedy lines, and the black writers, and filmmakers who go through lengthy gyrations to justify using the word. Their rationale boils down to this, the more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian, turned activist, Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography, Nigger. Black writer, Robert DeCoy also tried to apply the same racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel, The Nigger Bible.
Kennedy ticks off the litany of defenses many blacks cite to justify use of the word. They claim that that it is a term of endearingly or affectionately. They say to each other, "You're my nigger if you don't get no bigger." Or, "that nigger sure is something." Others use it in anger or disdain, "Nigger you sure got an attitude." Or, "A nigger ain't shit." Still, others are defiant. They say they don't care what a white person calls them since words can't harm them.
While Kennedy, understands, even sympathizes with their defense, he has no truck with those blacks and whites who want to purge the word from public discourse, wage war against classics such as Huckleberry Finn, encode it in hate speech laws and impose penalties and sanctions on professors, basketball coaches, and public officials who use it no matter how instructive or benevolent their intentions.
But Kennedy, in his passionate plea to recast public thinking and debate over the word, makes the same mistake as the parade of black "N word apologists. Words are not value neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often, words reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word, as emotionally charged as nigger, will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It cant be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. Nigger cant and shouldnt be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse they give for using it.
Kennedy goes further and creates straw man enemies to bolster his warning of the peril of making much ado about the N word. He cites cases of blacks that lie for gain or publicity by claiming they were assailed by racist whites (Tawana Brawley), demand excessive punishment for offending whites (lawsuits and firings), or push to purge the word from dictionaries (Merriam Webster controversy).
These are extreme, media sensationalized examples of blacks overreacting to the word. Yet, there are dozens of daily examples where whites taunt, and harass blacks by calling them nigger, spray paint the word on their homes, businesses, churches, physically assault and even murder blacks. The word nigger still has grotesque, and deadly meaning to them. And, even if some blacks do occasionally go off the deep end and wrongly harangue whites for using the word, maybe thats because nigger, as Kennedy himself admits, pricks agonizing historical and social sores. Thats certainly the reason comedian Richard Pryor publicly admitted his complicity in aiding and abetting the legitimizing of the word. The irreverent Pryor had practically made a career out of using the word in his routines. But following his return from Africa, he told a concert audience that he now considered the word profane and disrespectful. He was dropping it from his act. The audience applauded. Although Kennedy frowns on Pryors racial conversion as a betrayal of cultural faith and freedom, Pryor got it right. And anyone who reads Kennedys nigger should immediately go rent the tape of that concert to understand why theres no defense for using or misusing the word, nigger.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).
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