[29 July 2007]
It was grand sociopolitical theater, kick-ass agitprop for the digital age. They played the funeral motif up to the hilt, they left no stone unturned. The somber procession culminated in a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries. A bevy of speakers gave moving eulogies. And everyone went away satisfied once the symbolic shovels of dirt were heaped upon the casket.
And thus did the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pat itself on the back on 9 July, having buried the word “nigger” on the first day of its annual convention, held this year in Detroit. It took, apparently, the transgressions of Michael Richards last fall for some black people to discover – “I’m shocked, shocked!” they must have said – that black folks have been using the word, or offshoots like “nigga”, for years as terms of endearment. The infamous sartorial judgments issued in the spring by Don Imus, while not “nigger”-centric, served to fan the flames, especially when he attempted to justify his choice of words by saying that black rappers talk like that all the time, therefore it’s okay for him, too.
The ensuing debate kept pundits, race observers, hip-hop artists and activists, and a linguist or two busy for a week or so. Some argued that when blacks use “nigger” or “nigga”, it’s a deliberate attempt to declaw a word from its toxic history and all that it symbolizes. Others held that any use at all was a symbol of ongoing black self-loathing, the ultimate remnant of internalized degradation. Everyone blamed black standup comics and rappers for the modern dissemination of “nigger” into pop culture; some of them promptly got religion and swore off their wayward habits (though none to the dramatic effect of the Africa-inspired epiphany Richard Pryor related in his 1982 concert film Live on the Sunset Strip).
In the aftermath of the mock funeral, many applauded the NAACP for doing a mighty good thing by burying “nigger” and proclaiming that black people should no longer use the word or any permutation of it, however collegial or subversive the intent. And the world seemed awfully receptive, judging by the massive amount of favorable news coverage the event received. It was also an effective media moment on at least two other tactical levels. It showed that the venerable organization, not often linked with the cutting-edge of black culture, has been paying attention to the year’s hottest black pop brouhaha. And it distracted people from asking the musical question, “What are you going to do now that your most recent president, former Verizon executive Bruce Gordon, bailed after only 19 months on the job, and now that money’s so tight you’ve had to lay off a third of your headquarters staff?”
I don’t like the word “nigger” or its offshoot “nigga”. I think they’re ugly and hateful, and I don’t use them in conversation with my peeps. I respect the impulse that tries to flip the “nigger” script into “nigga”, but I don’t think it does much of anything in the way of speaking truth to power. If anything, “nigga” is a way to facilitate the in-group usage of “nigger” without having to curl one’s lips to form the formal word, which I’m not sure can really be done without feeling or expressing some of the hatred and belittlement with which that word was (and is) used against us.
But that does not mean I want to bury “nigger”. You’ve no doubt noticed that I’m using it in this essay: resorting to the awkward polite-company substitute “N-word” ironically reinforces the power of “nigger” to hurt by implying the word is so radioactive it’s unsafe under any circumstance. No mere word should have such a hold over anyone. We have to be able to talk openly and intelligently about “nigger” and its consequence, as Randall Kennedy (Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word; Vintage, 2003) and Jabari Asim (The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why; Houghton Mifflin, 2007) have done, if we’re ever going to truly come to grips with what we ought to do about it and the emotions it invariably conjures.
There’s also the pesky matter of the First Amendment. Under no circumstance will I ever advocate that any word in any language be buried. The First Amendment protects all speech, even the most hateful. Once we decide to start burying words, where do we stop? Do we start burying ideas? Do we start burying their advocates? And who gets to make that call? And what if the person making that call simply doesn’t like one group of Americans or another?
There is no line that anyone who believes in free speech can rightly draw to separate one piece of language from the others. Black people ought to be especially protective on this point: we might well still be riding in the back of the bus, or trying to escape slave masters in the dead of night, without generations of brave men and women exercising their rights of free speech. A general agreement to not use a word is one thing. But words can’t be officially excised from the American lexicon, not if the basic principle behind that lexicon is to serve us well for another 231 years or so.
Those are general philosophical concerns. My specific issues with the NAACP’s headline grabber hew closer to the practical side:
It wasn’t original.
Just a few days earlier, they held a mock “nigger” burial in Houston. There had been others across the country, and New York City’s legislators passed a non-binding resolution condemning it. Then there was Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario who hasn’t had much of anything hands-on to do with actual hip-hop music for years, calling for rappers to stop using “nigger”, “bitch” and “ho”. In fact, there have been groups like Abolish the N-Word openly campaigning for banning the use of “nigger” for several years, well beyond the short and shallow attention span of mass media towards black cultural currents. But these grassroots efforts weren’t brought into the wider discourse even after Richards’ ridiculous rant blew up last fall.
It was ignorant and disrespectful of hip-hop culture.
For the NAACP, Oprah Winfrey and all the other right-thinking black grownups to suddenly start wagging their fingers at black hip-hop artists, a segment of the world they’d more or less previously ignored, for using offensive words and images neglects the minor consideration that hip-hop, and by extension black youth culture, has been having this discussion for years. If, at any random point in the last three decades, anyone who came of age in the civil rights era had been paying critical attention to hip-hop instead of belittling it out-of-hand, they would have heard numerous voices throughout the music’s history speaking up not only for black self-respect, but also for the uplift and respect of women, and peace and harmony among all people.
They would have found their way to fans, artists and journalists who love the music and the culture but hate its violent and sexist strains. They would have confronted the stranglehold multinational corporations and broadcasting conglomerates now hold on the manufacture, distribution and promotion of rap music (all pop music, in fact), and how that affects what people, fans and non-fans alike, think of the genre. They would have discovered thoughtful and thought-provoking performers beyond the oft-cited Common. Mos Def, and the Roots, who are fighting the progressive fight without the slightest dollop of mass-market exposure, save for the Internet.
And they would have realized that, between the morally offensive language and imagery, the corporate-imposed sameness, and the artistic simple-mindedness of what’s been passing for hit rap records lately, screw the mock funerals: hip-hop spent much of 2006 asking itself, with no small amount of prodding from Nas, whether or not it was dead for real.
Burying “nigger” and its offshoots doesn’t solve the problem.
It must be axiomatic that black people will seek a way to greet and refer to one another that flows more freely in everyday talk than “African-American” and sound less like an Afro-era relic than “brothers and sisters”. Lately they’ve been using “ninja” on the East Coast, “nucca” on the West Coast. There’s also the issue we seem to have of what to call the less enlightened of life among us, those whose behavior regularly sets them back and makes the rest of us tear the nappy hair out of our heads – the niggardly, if you will. Back in the day we referred to them by turning “Negro” into a pejorative with an exaggerated pronunciation (Greg Tate once phonetically spelled it “knee-grow”). I know a woman who puts a little extra sardonic twist into even “African-American” when the situation calls for it.
“Nigger” isn’t the only word that offends people.
I am sure that there are a lot of people who would like to have thrown “bitch”, “ho”, “faggot”, “dyke”, “spic”, “wetback”, “slit-eyed”, “kike”, “towelhead”, “honky” and a few more into the symbolic casket right next to “nigger”. I would have had the same First Amendment issues, even as I find those words just as offensive as “nigger”, but an across-the-board affirmation of tolerance and respect for and from all certainly would have earned the NAACP some love from potential partners in the broader struggles it faces.
The real issue isn’t the word “nigger.”
It’s the notion that we would even want to use that word in the first place. You can’t tell people to disengage from an act redolent of ingrained self-loathing by imposing limits on language any more than you can cure an alcoholic by hiding the booze. To tell people not to use “nigger” without getting at why so many do it (and will continue to do it no matter how many mock funerals right-thinking black grownups can stage) doesn’t address the psychic and psychological damage centuries of second-class status did to us. Our enemy is not the word itself; it’s whatever propels people to use it. We need healers, not language nannies.
There are far too many real funerals happening in the ‘hood.
In Philadelphia, Chicago and many other places, our children are killing each other by the droves and we seem to be unable to do anything about it. This epidemic is making people prisoners in their own homes. It is reinforcing a sense in some of our children that there is no way out for black people stuck in poverty. It is taxing our civic resources. It is picking off our future, one truncated life at a time. By getting hot and bothered over a word, no matter how noxious, the NAACP squandered its bully pulpit, during the one week in the year the media regularly pay attention to it, on a lesser immediate threat when there’s a far more lethal strain of black self-hatred running unchecked through our communities.
Empty symbolic gestures are the last thing the NAACP needs to be doing in 2007.
Far more to the point, if they just had to bury something, would have been a mock burial of the Iraq war, followed by their righteous condemnation of the policy that fuels it and a demand for our troops to be brought home before next year’s convention. The organization could have had a mock George Bush and a mock Dick Cheney bury the Constitution, to call attention to their running roughshod over the principle of checks and balances. Or it could have had mock Supreme Court justices bury the notion that the courts have a role to play in ending and preventing racial segregation, as part of scolding the court (and the president who appointed half of the Court’s current far-right bloc) for standing on its head the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision, a case the NAACP helped win 53 years ago.
The NAACP doesn’t need to be rack up hits on YouTube to assert its relevance. It can do that far more effectively by being a player in the fight over voting technology (it’s great that they advocate for those who have served their prison time to get their franchise back, and that they continue to keep an eye out for malfeasance at the polls, but their voice could have helped push the technology standardization debate past the recently declared point of stalemate in Congress).
It can keep the atrocities going on in Darfur on the forefront of the political agenda. It can demand that if our schools can’t be integrated, then they damn sure better be teaching our students well. It can educate the black community about why media ownership is an issue worthy of its attention. It can remind the environmental movement that in the ‘hood, carbon-neutrality is way down the list of concerns. It can also encourage the ‘hood to get greener in attitude and action. It can tell people that using the emergency room as a family doctor isn’t the best way to ensure good health—and it can push for a national health care policy that will make such doings less prevalent. And it can remind us all to keep lifting up New Orleans.
But instead of any of that, or focusing attention on any number of other important issues we’re grappling with as a people and a nation, it wasted resources on a meaningless stunt. An organization whose founders include W.E.B. DuBois let its agenda be driven by blowback from the antics of a stumbling comic and a loudmouth radio jock. Instead of policies, we got posturing. For those who want and need the NAACP to be a beacon for justice and liberty, to see it involved in such a trivial pursuit is simply sad, and far more offensive than a thousand rappers screaming “nigger” at the top of their lungs could ever be.