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april 21, 2001
Ken Hardy, a white adjunct professor at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Kentucky, taught a class on "interpersonal communications." As a part of that class, he devoted a session to taboo words, and their historical evolution. He asked his class to volunteer taboo words and they suggested the usual suspects: 'faggot', 'bitch', etc.
One of the students proposed the word 'nigger'.
Hardy repeated the word, asking the class to analyze its social and linguistic impact.
One of the students, Julia Pierre, one of nine blacks in the twenty-two student class, took umbrage at Hardy's vocalization of the word.
She complained to college administration.
Although other blacks in the class defended Hardy, saying he was merely discussing the context and impact of the word 'nigger', by the end of the month, Hardy, a three year veteran of Jefferson, was fired.
He was fired because of a word he uttered.
Lenny Bruce, the great nineteen-fifties comic, used to pause in his nightclub act occasionally to ask, aloud, how many niggers were in the audience.
"I see a nigger over there by the kitchen doors, and there's two niggers talking to each other towards the back.
"How many kikes are in the audience? How many wops?"
You get the point.
He'd end the routine by repeating the word 'nigger' over and over again until it lost all meaning. It became nothing more than a sound.
The word 'nigger' comes from the Latin denigrare, meaning to blacken, which became, in English, the word 'denigrate'. To 'denigrate' a person means, taken literally, to blacken them. Webster's defines 'denigrate' as "to cast aspersions on; to deny the importance or validity of". From the same source word 'denigrate', the Spanish came up with the word 'negro', which retained its spelling in English.
'Negro', in other words, in its entomology, does not merely refer to color. It refers to a person upon whom aspersions should be cast; a person we should deny the importance or validity of.
It's an insult.
'Nigger' is a variant of 'Negro'.
It's meant to be an even bigger insult.
The word 'nigger' was used casually in America for most of our nation's history, both in everyday speech and in our literature. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, for example, uses the word 'nigger' almost as much as any Quentin Tarrentino movie.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, one of the policemen initially investigating the crime scene, Mark Furman, was asked on the stand if he had ever used the word 'nigger'. He said he never had.
Everyone following the trial knew he was lying, because everyone knows we all use the word 'nigger' from time to time. I've used it myself, in discussions about the word. I'm using it in this column.
Blacks have had a particularly interesting struggle over the decades of the twentieth century as to how they prefer to be addressed. Early in the nineteen hundreds, and into the nineteen-fifties, the term 'colored people' was considered the proper, dignified term to use, to the extent where the first national organization of blacks and whites devoted to securing rights for blacks was named the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Towards the late nineteen-fifties, the term 'colored person' fell out of favor. Growing up, I knew George Twine Sr., head of the local chapter of the NAACP in my home town (he was the father of one of my friends). His belief, like a lot of other blacks I knew during that period, was that 'colored person' was no longer acceptable because all people were one color or another, and so the term did not relate specifically to blacks. Which made sense to me. After that, into the early sixties, the preferred term was 'Negro', but then that was felt to not be assertive enough, and we all switched to 'black' ('Black Power' sounded a lot more powerful than 'Negro Power'). This term lasted into the seventies, at which point 'African-American' was put forth as the better term. Again, it made sense. We refer to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. Why not African-Americans? In the mid-nineties, I attended a "diversity training" course given by the company I worked for then, Equifax. The purpose of the course was to discuss racial issues in the workplace. I thought terminology was important, so in one of the workshops I asked several of the black men and women I worked with what term they preferred to be referred to as (at that point, nearly everyone was using the term African-American). To my surprise, they all opted for 'black'. One black woman put it best: She preferred 'black' to 'African-American' because (1) a large percentage of Africans were not black (white South Africans, Egyptians, etc.), and (2) she felt she really had nothing in common, culturally, with blacks who emigrated to America from Africa. To her, 'black' meant 'American black.' Which is why I use the term black. 'Colored Person' has surprisingly come back into fashion, but now reconfigured as 'Person of Color'. I don't use 'Person of Color' because I remember how much George Twine hated the term.
It was during the O.J. Simpson trial that 'the 'N' word', first became popular as a substitute for the actual word 'nigger'.
Many people began saying 'the N word' rather than saying 'nigger', out of politeness. Very quickly though, it became an issue among some groups, white and black, that only the term 'the N word' was permitted. The word 'nigger' would no longer be allowed to be pronounced in America.
There's a TV show in America called 'Politically Incorrect', hosted by Bill Maher, a comedian. The show started on the Comedy Channel, and was a roundtable of four or five celebrities from different disciplines (literature, politics, show business), who would meet and discuss the day's news. After it became successful, it was sold to ABC, who put it on late at night. I've seen it only a few times since then, but it seems to me the frankness of the show has declined (for one thing, the guests on the nights I watched were all from TV shows). On one show I watched, a white guest used the word 'nigger', which caused Bill Maher to rear his head back, looking momentarily panicked.
How politically incorrect is that?
Freedom of speech doesn't mean saying only that which is inoffensive. Freedom of speech means saying anything we want.
Steven Spielberg got in trouble because, in his movie The Color Purple, following the plot of the Alice Walker novel upon which the movie was based, he portrayed one black man as a jerk. Several black organizations protested the negative presentation of a black man. Are there no black men who are jerks? Why shouldn't that truth be shown in a movie? Why shouldn't we allow blacks the same degree of complexity we allow any other race? Why should black men only be portrayed as grinning, happy-go-lucky guys who shake their shoulders to jazz all night, and impart 'authentic' wisdom to the white star during daylight barn scenes? On its face, this sort of benign lie may appear to benefit blacks, but in truth, it's just another 'black guy as pet' scene.
Americans have sadly become, over the past few decades, a more and more intolerant people, to where one of our most popular slogans now is 'zero tolerance'. Because of zero tolerance for illegal drugs, we are raising a generation of children who are being trained to accept sometimes daily inspections of their person and private property by the police. Because of our zero tolerance for smoking, many of us are pushing for the government to be given the right to ban cigarette ads from newspapers and magazines, setting a dangerous precedent allowing the government the power to control the content of our free press. And because of our zero tolerance for racism, we are creating a society in which no one is allowed to say anything out loud which might offend another person.
In the same year, 1999, in which Ken Hardy led a reasonable classroom discussion on the derivation of the word 'nigger', David Howard, a white mayoral aide in Washington D.C., was forced to turn in his resignation (which Mayor Anthony Williams accepted), because he had used the word 'niggardly' in a conversation with a black official, and the black official was too stupid to understand 'niggardly' has nothing to do with 'nigger.'
We are goose-stepping towards 1984. We're starting small this time. We're not burning books. We're burning words.
I don't know how Ms. Pierre feels now about protesting Ken Hardy's well-meaning discussion of the word 'nigger' in his classroom. Maybe she regrets ever having brought it up, or maybe she feels a new empowerment, and is even now seeking out other examples of "wrong speaking" to correct. In any event, the word 'nigger' is going to be around for a long time to come. If we become so fearful of the word itself we dare not pronounce it, we are simply giving the word even more power, because then it becomes even more of an insult when it is pronounced, giving those who would pronounce it even more control.
There will always be some people in this world who are prejudiced. If we are truly free, then we must agree, in the spirit of freedom, that people have the right to be prejudiced. I would rather live in that type of society, flawed though it is, than a society in which the government or special interest groups decide on our behalf what we will think.
Some of the more frequent users of the word 'nigger' these days are blacks themselves, a number of whom now address each other as 'nigger' in an attempt to take some of the hateful sting out of the word, similar to the attempt by the police during the sixties to defuse the word 'pig' by turning it into an acronym which stood for 'pride', 'integrity', and I forget what else (maybe 'guts' or 'gut').
I hope blacks are successful in their efforts to turn 'nigger' into a term of affection. Take this stupid, ugly word away from those who hate, and give it to those who love. Because someone can insult you with a word only if you agree to treat the word as an insult. If 'nigger' becomes a compliment, we'll all vie for the honor of being so addressed. That's the true power of words. Some people never change. But words do.
In addition to the N word, we also have the F word. In case you don't know, the F word is 'fuck'. If we're going to persist in the assignment of letters to disturbing words, then I do have a concern as a practical matter, since we only have 26 letters in the alphabet, and two of them are now taken. That means we only have 24 letters left to act as a code for the words we find objectionable in our modern society. As a service towards reserving the remaining alphabetical letters to the most deserving of bad words, I suggest the following:
Some of them need work.
I'm open to suggestions.