Shortly after it was published in 2002, I went to a bookstore near Atlanta’s Northlake Mall to pick up a copy of Randall Kennedy’s intriguingly titled book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. A professor at Harvard Law, Kennedy was a Rhodes Scholar who served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Kennedy’s first book, Race, Crime and the Law, won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1998. If this man was taking on the dreaded N-word from a legal and historical perspective, I wanted to know what he had to say even if it meant searching among twenty snowy mountains.
When I got to chain-operated Waldenbooks, I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it even though it had already generated two stories in the New York Times and been touted by Publishers Weekly as a sure bestseller. Finally, I had no choice but to ask the white cashier near the entrance if the store had a copy. She checked her database and told me there appeared to be copies in the back. “Hey Zack,” she called to another white clerk working near the storage area at the back of the store, “Do we have any more...uh..." and then stopped herself.
Why was that story funny to us but might not have been to two white people? Who gets to use the N-word? Who doesn’t? And who gets to say?
That same year, I also held down a job at a call center operated by the credit division of Sears Roebuck. During a training class, the newly hired Call Center Director, the first African-American to hold the position, came in to welcome the class and wish them well. When he left, a white trainee turned to the co-worker next to her and said, “Who was that—the HNIC?” Everyone in the classroom heard the remark, and the trainee was sent to Human Resources for using a racial slur, an offense that could lead to termination. “But I’m not a racist,” she argued by way of defending herself. “My husband is black. I have two biracial children.”
I was of three minds, each holding a different question. Does interracial intimacy confer the status of “honorary African-American” on a white spouse? Did dating Whoopi Goldberg give Ted Danson the right to appear in blackface and use the n-word a dozen times at the Friars Club in 1993? Does dating a string of African-American beauties erase the boundary between black and white, exempting comedian Bill Maher from the usual prohibitions?
During that same year of working and going to grad school—the year of Randall Kennedy’s Nigger—I enrolled in a course on the history of the 20th century novel in which the professor hit on a brilliant idea for lightening his work load while at the same time providing us students with an opportunity to become fully immersed in at least one of the selected texts. Each of us was to teach a novel to the rest of the class. I was a small part of the pantomime and chose Huckleberry Finn because I’d never gotten around to reading it. Turns out, the book is as controversial in the 21st century as it was when Mark Twain published it in 1884.
African-Americans are offended by repeated use of the N-word and the author’s inclusion of hurtful and demeaning minstrel routines. School boards and libraries have removed it from their shelves. This, even though T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling have praised the book as a masterpiece, one of the central documents of American culture. In his essay, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Ralph Ellison, author of the classic Invisible Man, argues that the dignity and human capacity of Jim (the runaway slave), emerge from behind the stereotypical mask as Huck slowly comes to terms with the inherited racism that has distorted his perspective all his life. Dr. Peaches Henry of McLennan Community College, who is also president of the Waco NAACP, has produced quite a good paper, "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn," which is certainly worth a look by anyone with more than a passing interest in all this.
Question: If you bowdlerize or otherwise censor the content of one creative work, where do you draw the line? How are we to understand the significance of Huck’s transformation if we don’t understand the depths of his racism before that transformation occurs? And without which he might have become another Dylan Roof.
Should we change Huck’s use of nigger to the word slave, as some have argued, to make it more acceptable to today’s more racially aware perspective? If we allow that, would it then be okay to clothe the nakedness of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or put bloomers on the three goddesses in Renoir’s The Judgment of Paris? Can we gut Huck and leave Joyce’s Ulysses intact?
And what about William Faulkner? That same year I was lucky enough to study the Mississippi-born Nobel laureate with noted Faulkner scholar, Tom McHaney, without whose help I might never have understood the mysteries of The Sound and the Fury, Wild Palms, The Unvanquished, Light in August, and the whole terrible history of Yoknapatawpha County. The racism in Faulkner is pervasive, and I read him hungrily. I didn’t want a toned-down, censored version of how Southern whites across three classes viewed the race issue. I wanted the real deal. To get with this material the way a man and woman are one. And Faulkner delivers it, dare I say, in spades. If you don’t understand how we got here, how can you fix what we’ve wound up with?
In the Sound and the Fury, Jason says to Caddy: “When people act like niggers, no matter who they are, the only thing to do is treat them like a nigger.”
What does it mean to act like a nigger? And by whose definition?
In The Unvanquished, the former slave Ringo says this to Bayard Sartoris, son of his former master: “I ain’t a nigger no more. I done been abolished.” And also this: “There ain’t no more niggers, in Jefferson nor nowhere else. “
Richard Pryor reaches the same conclusion after traveling to Africa. “There are no niggers in Africa,” he said, resolving never to use the word again in his comedy. It’s a beautiful moment, this epiphany, and yet, I for one feel grateful he reached it after producing the uproariously funny This Nigger’s Crazy, which includes these lines: “Don’t ever walk down the street with a white woman in California.” “Blackula? What kind of name is that for a nigger?” And also his take on the difference between the ways a white man and a black man ask for sex. "Think we'll be having sexual intercourse this evening?"
Which to prefer? The pre- or post-Africa Richard Pryor? Suppose his Wino character had said: “Blackula? What kind of name is that for an African-American?” Would anyone laugh? I doubt it. Perhaps the album is funny because it scratches at the country’s scabrous central wound—but makes it feel like a tickle.
During that same year of Randall Kennedy’s Nigger, I entered the annual fiction competition run by the Agnes Scott College Writers Festival, a nationally respected event whose past judges included John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Any story you submitted had to be free of identification so the material could be judged on its merits alone. To my great surprise, since the competition also included works by faculty, I won. My story traced in the shadow an indecipherable cause. It was was called “Fear of Niggers.”
Two years later, when I sent the same story to Atlanta Magazine, the editor said she wanted to use it in their summer reading issue but asked me to remove two items. The first was an epigram from Chris Rock that goes like this: “I love black people, but I hate niggers.” She also asked me to change the title. When I asked why, she said, “There are people in our audience who might learn a lot from your story, but they won’t even read it if they see that word in the title." O thin men of Haddam, I might have said. But didn't.
Her explanation proved correct. Not only was this the right thing to do for reaching her readers, changing the title made it a better story. I was forced to look within the material itself for the most suitable title. The story deals with intra-racial discrimination and the effort required by blacks of a certain era to become “acceptable.” Since most of it takes place in a barbershop from the point of view of two young boys, it didn’t take long for me to see that “Fear of Niggers” was not as good as the title that reached up through the prose to announce itself as “The Shape-up.”
In 2013, a jury in New York awarded $280,000 to an African-American woman who filed a discrimination lawsuit against her black male employer for telling her she was “acting like a nigger.” At the trial the boss defended himself by claiming that nigger is a term of endearment between blacks. The woman said his remarks did not sound endearing. I know noble accents, and this wasn't one of them. After listening to a recording, the jury agreed. Although a federal judge reduced the award to $128,000 the following year, he upheld the judgment on which it was based.
I have used this example a lot when teaching ethics and compliance classes at a whistle-blower hotline, a place that for me stood at the edge of one of many circles. The trainees liked to argue that the discrimination code should not apply to people of color, claiming that it’s only a racial slur when used by other races, especially whites. To the contrary, my young friends. To the contrary.
So what about using the term “my nigger” when speaking to the president of the United States, as comedian Larry Wilmore did during the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner. Surely even the bawds of euphony would cry out sharply against this. I recently asked a civil rights attorney with 30 years’ experience litigating discrimination cases what he thought about the incident. It was in poor taste, the lawyer said. Even though the correspondents’ dinner is a night of joking and fun, and even though that phrase in particular is considered an endearment when used in that way, it’s not understood that way by everyone. Also, it was indecorous to address the first African-American president of the United States in the same way you’d speak to sweaty basketball players on your neighborhood playground.
But when you put Wilmore's remarks in context, you see that they were filled with love and respect. The president laughed and hugged him afterwards. But from the cry of alarm that traveled from the audience throughout social media, you could tell not everyone appreciated it.
It was during the same correspondents’ dinner that President Obama apologized for “being a little late,” adding that he was “running on CPT, which he said "stands for jokes white people should not make,” even if they are down enough and privileged enough to ride in a glass coach.
Which brings us back to the current firestorm over Bill Maher’s use of the N-word on Real Time while talking to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. Despite his apology, a series of after-the-fact tweets by the senator repudiating the remark, Senator Al Franken's decision to cancel an appearance on the show, and a hashtag calling for HBO to fire Maher, it appears that he will remain employed at least for the time being. But the question remains: Will it ever be alright for a white person to refer to himself as a “house nigger”? Time's river is moving, but will there ever be a moment when that particular "tragedy plus time" equals a joke everyone can laugh at?
In his on-air "schooling" of Maher the week after the comedian's remark, Ice Cube relied on the re-appropriation argument in which historically oppressed groups retake words that have been used to put them down in an effort to re-appropriate the meaning. "This is our word now," he told Maher. The founders of the feminist magazine, Bitch, take the same view. Will this be enough to eradicate the embedded origins of these painful words? Only the moving river of time can say.
Looking at the N-word in these thirteen different ways does not mean there aren’t countless other perspectives on that same troublesome word. Seinfeld’s Michael Richards yelling nigger, not at some mythic blackbird in the cedar-limbs but at black members of a comedy club audience. There was Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, referring to a nigger in the woodpile. This scene from Chris Rock's movie, Down to Earth. Rappers. Shock jocks. To mention but a few.
But it does mean we have not yet reached the utopian post-racial America many have wished for ever since Martin Luther King, Jr., went public with his dream more than half a century ago. People who love poetry will recognize in this blog’s title a rib borrowed from the famous Wallace Stevens poem, "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which includes this stanza:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Inflection and innuendo shape the context and lend meaning to a word, joke, or a seemingly innocent remark. As in all communication, a fundamental premise remains true: Know your audience.
But be careful, and watch your mouth. We live in Donald Trump’s America, peopled with lots of bad hombres whose use of the N-word is anything but playful.