We Need to Talk About “The ‘N-word'”

Ladies and gentlemen… *sigh*…  nigger.

Some of you are offended right now.  Some of you were offended when you saw the headline.  Some people are just plain offended, in a general sense, but I’ll assume for the sake of getting anywhere that you, dear reader, are a reasonable and thinking person who is not already in the process of writing an angry comment that accuses me of being a racist.  The point is, I just wrote down the word.  I didn’t use it to berate or degrade anybody, I didn’t shout it at someone in the street, and I certainly didn’t pour it out in gasoline and burn it into somebody’s lawn.  I just wrote it.  In some contexts I might even say it out loud.  And context is what it’s all about.

Richard_Pryor_-_That_Nigger's_Crazy_front_coverYesterday morning I was listening to a segment on NPR, an otherwise thoughtful and candid look at the life and comedy of the great Richard Pryor through edited clips of his material along with the discussion of a new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, with the book’s author, Scott Saul.  Naturally, both host and author avoided saying the word, because (understandably indeed) it’s not the kind of thing that you want going out on the airwaves of a liberally-inclined national radio station at 11 o’clock in the morning.  For the most part their conversation was only passingly affected by this reserve, the way is any such dialog today, but it began to satirize itself when Fresh Air host Terry Gross began referring to Pryor’s 1974 album as “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.

Now, Richard Pryor never cut an album called “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.  The album is called, “That Nigger’s Crazy” (as you can see emblazoned proudly on the album’s cover, above).  And it’s rather obvious that the phrase is used in this context as a play on the demeaning quality other people’s perceptions, in the sense of race yes, but more broadly in the sense of wholesale judgment of a person based on the absurdity of their lives and circumstance, a sentiment which is very much at the core of Pryor’s comedy.  But the point isn’t to dissect the effectiveness and existential significance of the album’s title.  The point is, that’s what the album is called.

That means that that album title is a point of common human reference, just as much mine or yours or Terry Gross’ as it is anybody’s.  That is the name by which that work is known to the U.S. Copyright Office.  That’s how it was referred to in promotional materials at the time.  Most importantly, that’s what that artist wanted the album to be called.  It’s an example of someone claiming an epithet as their own, and using it against the ideas that produced it, not some shameful throwback headline that was leveled against them, and it’s condescending to clip the word from discussion in some misguided feat of political correctness; by attempting to preserve racial dignity they ended up neutralizing one man’s act of personal dignity.

What am I to do if I want to quote Muhammad Ali saying, in reference to whether he would go to fight in Vietnam, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger'”?  A powerful statement, and worthy of examination.  It speaks to the idea that multiple wars were being fought at the time, one by the establishment and one against it, one military and one social.  It speaks to Ali’s sentiments about what was worth fighting for, as a man of his position, in his day and age.  Am I supposed to undercut and neuter that sentiment by saying “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘N-word'”?

What about when I listen to Hurricane, one of the all-time, best ever protest songs, and Dylan sings, “To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum/And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger/No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”, a searing and accurate depiction of the real paradox that beset a wrongly convicted man, running down a focused melody with a driving rhythm, and one of the most emphasized passages of the song?  The entire song is about a real man caught between what people though of him and what he was capable of because of his race and his reputation.  Am I supposed to belittle and diminish that experience by asserting that the people from whom he was alienated thought of him as “just a crazy ‘N-word'”?

In all three of these cases, it isn’t “nigger” that’s disrespectful, it’s the euphemistic attitude, and the idea that it’s one person’s responsibility to decide what’s appropriate to say about the ideas and experiences of another.

But I’ll take it a step further and acknowledge what everybody thinks a story like this is about: the double standard.  Richard Pryor was black, Terry Gross is white, and to a lot of people that means that there are just some things that Richard could say that Terry isn’t allowed to.

For starters, I don’t believe that black people possess a historical prerogative that I do not.  And again, some of you are offended.  But that’s not the same as discounting the difference in our various historical narratives and lineages, or the idea that people have a right to feel however they do about their connection to the past.  I just don’t believe that that connection, whatever it is, should be allowed to define the present.

It isn’t just that I don’t think slavery gives angry black people or sensitive white people the right to be word police, I don’t believe in the individualized historical prerogative, full stop.  I don’t believe in the divine right of kings or blood feuds between families that are passed on for generations.  I don’t think ancestry gets you anything, politically speaking, whether it’s a right to be sensitive or a claim to a thousand year Reich.

And that cuts both ways– it also doesn’t get you what is wrongly called responsibility, but what is really a kind of moral culpability for bad mistakes, even atrocities.  I once had someone who is French, and a dear friend, say to me upon seeing the logo on the package of American Spirit cigarettes that I was smoking at the time, how ironic it was that we (Americans) put them (Natives) on our cigarettes, despite the fact that “you killed them all!”  The circumstances dictated that I responded rather more politely, but I almost shot back that I had killed the Indians about as much as she had surrendered to the Nazis.

In that case it was nationalism, but that’s the gist of identity politics today.  We’re all just proxies for whatever matches us in history, and that is a truly bizarre form of tyranny.  It’s as if I get berated and denigrated because before I was born I failed to go back in time and influence the actions of other people, who were apparently my responsibility because their skin matches mine.  It’s a lot to ask of a fetus, if you want my opinion.

And it all boils down to the central fallacy of all racism, that the only identity you’re allowed to have is that of your category (or some variant subgroup thereof),  that everyone is exactly representative of their category, that categories are homogenous and universal.  It reduces a person to what you already think you know about people like them, and reduces their liberties to the ones you’re willing to allow people like that.

I don’t believe that I should be prevented from using a particular word because I’m white any more than I think someone should be prevented from using a particular water fountain because they’re not, and for very nearly the same reason.  Language is a common resource, and to me it is among the most sacred.  Words and ideas are some of the freest and most flexible commodities we have, and they belong to anyone who can understand them.  It isn’t true just of words that can be used nastily, it’s true of words that liberate and inspire, like “freedom”, “dignity”, “respect”, and “rights”.

People act like the problem with racial tensions in this country is that there’s a word floating around out there with too many letters– if we could just chop off the “-igger” part of it, if we could just lock that string of letters away and only refer to it by proxy, then things will get better and once we’ve all gotten used to it, then hey sesame, no more racism.  But racism isn’t a problem of words.  It’s a problem of phrases, of clichés, of attitudes and suppositions, of prejudice, of synecdoche, of stupidity!  But not words.

The test of it all is how the word is used.  Of course we should decry racism, and lash back against someone who uses “nigger” or a word like it at someone.  But using a racist word isn’t enough to tell whether someone is a bigot.  You have to listen to the rest of the sentence.