Epigram on an epithet

Jan 23, 2002 at 12:00 am

Not long ago in this space, I posed the question, “Are Arabs the new niggers?” Not surprisingly, more than a few folks were ticked off that I used the N-word. Some said I could have found another way to make my point.

With all due respect, I’m afraid there was no other way. The only word offensive enough and yet accurate enough to dramatize my point is “nigger.” That word is electric.

To those folks who understood my point, I appreciate your comments. As for those who couldn’t make that leap, I appreciate your comments as well.

I also want to suggest a book that does the best job I’ve ever seen of explaining the history, the pain, and the legal, cultural and sociological impact wrought by the word.

It’s titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, (Pantheon Books), by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor who happens to be black.

Kennedy, who has written other books on race — including Race, Crime and the Law — begins this book with a series of questions that establishes both the complexity of the issue and his own determination to deal with it forthrightly: “How should nigger be defined? Is it part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view nigger as a provocation strong enough to reduce the culpability of a person who responds violently to it? Should a person be fired from his or her job for saying nigger? What methods can be used to deprive nigger of its destructiveness?” (Emphases his.)

Kennedy establishes that, arranged in this order, these are the six most powerful and culturally charged letters in the English language. He also illustrates that the word isn’t going away, no matter how hard some try to erase it from the lexicon. The word is here and needs to be dealt with in the broad light of day.

Discussing his book in a radio interview, Kennedy made a fascinating observation — several journalists who had interviewed him confessed to carrying the book in a briefcase or disguising it with a different cover. The last thing they wanted was to be seen with a book bearing that word.

In a way, the discomfort exhibited by these journalists, who I assume were white, is a good thing. It shows sensitivity to the pain associated with this word — folks don’t want to be mistakenly associated with it in any way, shape or form.

You need only flip the calendar back a few decades to when it was considered perfectly acceptable for influential white people to utter “nigger” with impunity. Kennedy cites numerous examples of high-ranking politicians, most from the South, who wore their brightly polished racism on their lapels right next to the flag.

Today — South, North, East or West — even the dumbest politician knows better than to let any word that vaguely resembles the N-word pass their lips. Remember the white D.C. bureaucrat who was fired in 1999 for using the word “niggardly?” The word means miserly — and has no racial connotation. Once saner heads prevailed, the articulate official was rehired.

But just because most of us have been duly sensitized and programmed to not say “nigger” doesn’t mean that the attitudes that loaded the word with such venom have evaporated. It just means that certain folks are smart enough not to be heard saying the word. You might still get treated like a nigger by someone who’s savvy enough not to call you one to your face.

When those cops ganged up on Rodney King, do you remember any mention of any of them calling him a nigger? Me neither. But I’ll bet the lack of the epithet didn’t make that beating feel any better.

Am I being cynical? Probably. But my worldview is shaped by my experiences, just like yours is. Look, I’m trying. But you’ve got to try too.

Randall Kennedy argues that “nigger” and its usage is more complicated than most would prefer to admit.

He cites comedian Bill Cosby as one who thinks the word ought to be fitted with cement shoes and tossed into the deep blue sea of forgetfulness. Cosby chastises young black comedians who employ “nigger” in comedy routines, comparing them to obliging minstrels, like a latter-day “Amos and Andy.”

Yet a whole lot of ordinary black folks — a multitude that outnumbers the self-appointed intellectual guardians of culture — loved “Amos and Andy” during its heyday. And what about Richard Pryor, a certified comic genius, whose album, That Nigger’s Crazy, won him a Grammy?

Is Cosby right, or is he, as Kennedy implies, hypersensitive about how whites will respond to blacks using a word that we proclaim to hate? Was Pryor’s use of the word revolutionary and bold, or was it merely hurtful and irresponsible?

And does it mean that it’s OK for whites to sprinkle conversations with the word, since it seems to be such a cool thing to do when some blacks say it to each other? When a white kid, dressed in hip-hop gear, refers to one of his boys as “mah nigguh,” should he be embraced as an ultrahip “brother,” or should he be sucker-punched? Should blacks have the right to collect damages every time someone who isn’t black calls them “nigger”? Or should they just develop thicker skins and write it off as part of living in America?

These are a few of the questions Kennedy raises. I won’t even try to answer them.

But I will say this: Trying to stamp the word out, or pretending that it doesn’t exist, is useless. The only way to wrestle “nigger” to the mat is to realize that the word never had any power until we gave it power.

White people originally empowered it by fashioning the word into a verbal lash. Too many blacks continue to accept its power as absolute and everlasting, instead of giving it the finger it so richly deserves.

It takes more than a six-letter word to keep a people down.

Randall Kennedy will discuss his book on Friday, Feb. 8, at the Shaman Drum, 313 S. State St., Ann Arbor, beginning at 8 p.m.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]