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The last word on the 'N' word

The past, present, future and cultural consequences of America's most infamous racial slur

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"Don't tell me the shit's' going to start over a jive ass pusher." -- Cobra, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)

Comedian Michael Richards apologizes  well, attempts to apologize  for his racial tirade during an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. - COURTESY CBS TELEVISION
  • Courtesy CBS Television
  • Comedian Michael Richards apologizes well, attempts to apologize for his racial tirade during an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.

In Ivan Dixon's film The Spook Who Sat by the Door (based on Sam Greenlee's controversial book of the same name), the late actor Lawrence Cook gives a brilliant performance as Dan Freeman, the first black man admitted to the CIA. In the movie, Freeman takes the training that he receives from the CIA and uses it to teach the Cobras, an underground guerrilla military group from the Southside of Chicago, to go to war against the United States government for crimes committed against black Americans. Although the Cobras knew that the revolution was coming, they never imagined that it would jump off over the murder of a dope peddler named Shorty. Fast forward to 2006, and who knew that the revolution brewing over the use of the "N" word would jump off over a washed-up comedian named Michael Richards?

Known for his comic turn as Kramer on the hit TV show Seinfeld, Richards had a well-publicized meltdown at L.A.'s world-famous Laugh Factory in which he called some brothers, who allegedly heckled him, the "N" word multiple times, followed by racist comments about sticking a fork up their asses and hanging them from a tree if this were a different time. Well, it is a different time, but the intent behind Richards' racist rant smacks of the racist ideology that he grew up with and thought would fly in a comedic space. NOT.

To add insult to injury, he then called up Jesse Jackson to apologize. While giving a haphazard apology to all "Afro-Americans" on late-night television. Richards, who previously had been admonished for making anti-Semitic comments, which he brushed off due to his "Jewish" heritage -- which never existed since he never officially converted -- exposed himself again as the racist, pathetic, shallow real-life person that he is.

What is really troublesome is that much of the discussion that has needed to take place for years now over the use of this word is now happening due to the antics of this idiot ... and guess who is getting most of the blame? Black folks in general, and black rappers specifically. Supposedly, if black people would stop using this word so freely, then others would not use it either. YAWN.

This turn of events is interesting because black folks didn't invent the word, nor does the use of the word in many cases reflect the ill intent of Richards' use of the word.

"The outcry about the use of the word in response to his [Richards] comments is off base," says Dr. Robert Smith, assistant professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Michael Richards did not learn that venom from black people. The racial hostility he showed in that clip is something that he learned long before young black people were even born."

To add fuel to the fire, it's not just young black folks and old, washed-up actors that use the word; you can hear it thrown about freely in malls across America, on any city street or suburban enclave by a multitude of people, including whites, Latinos and Asians -- and this is largely due to the commodification and distribution of hip-hop culture and thus the commodification of the "N" word.

"Niggaz is a beautiful thing. Niggaz is a beautiful thing." -- Honeycutt, Bamboozled (2000)

The character of Honeycutt, played brilliantly by (and I am not kidding) Thomas Jefferson Byrd, sings this ditty when auditioning for the New Millennial Minstrel Show in the film Bamboozled, Spike Lee's satire of the entertainment industry. "Niggaz is a beautiful thing" as long as "they" generate money, which is what this film tried really hard to teach us, albeit in a very heavy-handed way. When discussions about the use of the "N" word arise, we sometimes clutch our pearls and gasp and swoon, all the while knowing that we love our "niggas," and there is a billion-dollar industry out there to prove it.

Not to let the rappers, or other entertainers, off of the hook -- because they have been socially irresponsible with their liberal use of the word. I thought mine eyes had seen the coming of the end of the world when at Woodstock '99, DMX had a nearly all-white audience singing to his chorus of "My Niggas." Let us not forget Dave Chappelle's comedic take on "The Niggar Family," not to be outdone by Chris Rock's infamous spiel on "Niggas and Black People," followed up by Damon Wayans' attempt to trademark the word "Nigga," having realized the financial value of the term. But, it's not just the rappers or comedians. Quentin Tarantino used the "N" word 69 times in his seminal work Pulp Fiction, coining the term "Dead Nigger Storage." The writers on The Sopranos have figured out how to use it in all eight parts of speech, and Martin Scorsese stands to win his first directing Oscar for The Departed, a film that opens up with the use of the epithet, which serves no other purpose than for shock value. (I know it woke me up; I was ready to fight Jack Nicholson and didn't bat an eye at his character's bloody demise.)

Part of the trouble with this word is that it has become such a normal part of our lexicon and is circulated continuously throughout our culture, specifically our popular culture. Popular culture is that precarious space where taboo subjects and controversial topics are supposed to be worked out -- but at what cost? In cultural and media studies, we are taught that in order for something to "work" or resonate with an audience member, he or she has to consciously or unconsciously identify with what is being said or represented. Even though some of us will not say the "N" word, we will receive it and representations of it, because we know that "niggers" do exist -- or if they don't, we want them to, theoretically.

"There is something in our contemporary culture that does not know how to deal with our duplicity in our language, which reflects the duplicity in our culture," says Beretta Shomade-Smith, author of Pimping Ain't Easy: Selling Black Entertainment and associate professor of Media Arts at Arizona State University. "People don't know how to deal with the complexity of language and culture, so they just say and do anything, which is how incidents like Richards' and Washington [Isaiah of Grey's Anatomy] surface." Language is further complicated by struggles over power and meaning in terms of who gets to use the "N" word, how it should be used, if it should be used, where it should be used, and when it should be used, which is something that society cannot agree on, and contrary to public belief, neither have black people.

DEA Agent Carver: "So, Officer Stevens. Do you know the difference between a black man and a nigger?"

Officer Stevens: "The nigger is the one that would answer that question."

-- Deep Cover (1992)

Hang on to your seats: Black people are not monolithic, nor are we dualistic, which is a very Western way of looking at the world. This is why Jesse Jackson does not represent me, but he can represent for me, and me for him, on certain occasions. Like language, race is complicated, and because of racism (and sexism, and heterosexism, and ageism), many vibrant communities get reduced to one flat image that is allowed to rule over the many personalities and cultures within a larger group. Because of internal racism or the adoption of racist ideologies circulated in dominant societies, sometimes we turn on each other and assign ourselves to certain categories -- i.e. niggers and black people -- the idea of which is as ridiculous as there being a Good Witch and a Bad Witch in the wonderful world of Oz. Thus, the use of the "N" word has never been agreed upon anywhere, including the black community.

Dave Chappelle is known for his comedic take on "The Niggar Family." - ERIN PATRICE O'BRIEN
  • Erin Patrice O'Brien
  • Dave Chappelle is known for his comedic take on "The Niggar Family."

Without tracing the entire history of the word, "nigger" is a pejorative term used to demean and to humiliate people of African descent worldwide. During the 1960s, the term was "reclaimed" and "reworked" by black Nationalists who used the word to initially strip it of its power and eventually change the meaning of it completely into a term of endearment. Some thought that this was ridiculous and refused to use the word in any way because of its racist and demoralizing roots. Others used the word only when they were in the company of blacks who "understood" how it was being used, but never using it outside of that safe space.

In 1970, The Last Poets chanted, "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution." It was not an homage to the word as some erroneously believe; it was the opposite, challenging black people to not behave in a certain way. The Last Poets used the "N" word in many of their songs to unapologetically shed light on issues impacting the African-American community through music and language, giving birth to what eventually would become rap music. Ironically, the legendary rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude) sampled the Last Poets' song, "Die Nigger," changing the words to "Real Niggers Don't Die" -- thus changing the original meaning of the song forever.

In an article written by Jabari Asim in The Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2007, Abiodun Oyewole, one of the original members of The Last Poets, discussed their use of the "N" word in their music: "Every time we used the word, we were saying this is what we should not be. One of the major focuses of the Last Poets was to eliminate the nigger in the black person so that we could get some sincerity and some work done." Oyewole also expressed his disdain at how the word and its intent have been misused by rap groups including N.W.A. "They heard it and liked what they heard but did not fulfill the responsibility of what the poem was actually outlining." For Oyewole and many others, the "N" word "is not made for public consumption. To make it a national public word to refer to ourselves is totally out of order."

Oyewole's riff on N.W.A. highlights the generational conflict over how the word is used. Major shifts in the post-industrial economy created the socio-economic and political conditions that gave birth to hip-hop culture. Young black and brown people used rap music, breakdancing, turntablism, graffiti art and fashion to express themselves, creating a cultural identity that set them apart from everyone, including their elders -- many of whom do not see themselves reflected in this generation. Many young black and brown people use the "N" word judiciously and as a term of endearment, even with their non-black friends. Having become the most influential cultural movement in the last 30 years, hip-hop culture is embraced by youth worldwide. But post-rebellion, post-soul 30-somethings growing up with hip-hop culture experience it differently than new millennials who are coming up with it now. Black culture has always represented what it means to be "cool" in American society and hip-hop culture is one of the spaces in which anyone can become "cool," theoretically. Norman Mailer's essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the White Hipster discussed the superficial appropriation of black culture by whites in order to obtain a "cool" identity, despite the privilege of being white, particularly in this country during the 1950s. It is the superficial appropriation of black culture that makes the use of the "N" word problematic in a multitude of ways, and tossing it around like a Frisbee can yield many results, one of which is the Michael Richards fiasco.

"Nigger, you wanna die?" -- Richard Pryor as Slim in The Mack (1973)

Although Richards was pretty much being a jerk, the incident highlights the contemporary problem with using the "N" word: media and technology. Using a camera phone, Richards' fate was sealed when the video was released to the public. Now there are other times when video proof doesn't mean anything, i.e. Rodney King. But in this case it meant that Richards could not deny his mean-spirited and venomous use of the word. Legendary comedians like Paul Mooney, who built a career on the use of the "N" word, spoke out and stated that he would never use the word again because of this type of incident, coming to a conclusion that the late Richard Pryor had reached decades before. What Pryor knew then was that the use of the word had gotten out of control and moved far away from the term of endearment that some had professed it to be. It was socially irresponsible to use it then and is certainly irresponsible to use it now, considering our mass-mediated culture. Images and words are distributed throughout the world in seconds, and most of our society does not care about the root of anything. We like to pretend that race is no longer a factor and that racism does not exist anymore, when it truly does. "The Richards' incident is indicative of what is present in society and the racist underpinnings of our popular culture. We think that we are much further along in our race relations than we actually are," states Shomade-Smith. We are also living in a culture that is obsessed with today and could not care less about what happened in the past or what is happening in the future. The historic root of the word is not even known by many, and for those who do know, many do not care. Thus, the proliferation of the "N" word by anyone in American culture is highly problematic, because it can co-sign on racist ideologies that are pervasive in society, thereby normalizing racism and racist language.

The Ku Klux Klan (yeah those idiots) is notorious for using racial epithets to demean minorities. - ZUMA ARCHIVE
  • Zuma Archive
  • The Ku Klux Klan (yeah those idiots) is notorious for using racial epithets to demean minorities.

An example of this is our country's failure to properly address these blatant acts of racism in the media. Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto opened at No. 1 the week of Dec. 10, 2006, and has grossed almost $50 million in spite of his anti-Semitic rant. Seinfeld DVDs flew off of the shelves in November, making it the highest selling DVD of the week despite Richards' comments. Let's not forget former LAPD detective Mark Furhman, who has built quite a successful post-trial career as an author and expert on crime-solving, despite his generous use of the "N" word, which he denied on the witness stand of the O.J. Simpson trial -- making him a liar in addition to being a racist. What about Black Entertainment Television and record companies that have profited billions by allowing this word to be used publicly and in a depoliticized way?

"Die Nigger Die!" -- H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin

The use of the "N" word is complicated. We laugh at Hollywood stars and dubious politicians entering rehab in an attempt to right their wrongs, but perhaps our society needs a 12-step program to deal with our nonsense. The uproar over the use of the "N" word has led many to call for a ban on the word all together, which is actually quite intelligent but undermines our First Amendment right of free speech. I'm actually glad to know that Gibson, Richards and Washington are evildoers so that I can choose not to support their projects. If the word were banned, how would I know? Can you really determine when a word as tenuous as this one should or shouldn't be used and by whom? What happens to art and literature if we do ban the word? "The public use of the word personally offends me. To hear it used so freely is unnerving, but on a policy standpoint, I don't think it should be banned because of the precedent that it would set in terms of censorship," says Dr. Darrick Hamilton, professor at the New School for Social Research, a university in New York.

The use of the "N" word is messy, and I too hate to hear the word floating around, particularly on college campuses. It assaults my psyche, and I'm supposed to be young and hip, which of course is relative. So, I should hip people out there to another point -- the "N" word is a fighting word, even in the black community. The wrong tone or inflection when using it can get you hurt, and I'm not talking just about your feelings. While I do not ever advocate violence under any circumstances, the fact remains that the "N" word is a fighting word. The fact that Michael Richards made it off of that stage in one piece is miraculous to me.

I am currently in a 12-step program to stop using the word altogether because I believe that at this point, more harm from its use is occurring than any symbolic good. This may not be your choice, because after all is said and done, you have a choice. So, I would caution anyone to think before using the "N" word, particularly in a public forum; the only thing that is certain about this word is the uncertainty of how it will be received.

Nsenga Burton is a Charlotte-based writer, filmmaker and academician.

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