The dust has pretty much settled since comedian Bill Maher’s flippant use of the mother of all racial slurs and his pro forma celebrity apology that followed. I’m not a fan of Maher; his smug, smarmy style brings to mind that of an obnoxious hipster irritating everyone at the party by showing how down he is by running his mouth.
The effusion of criticism, condemnation, indignation that followed was just as irritating as Maher, due to the wholesale use of the term N-word. I can’t conceive of a sillier construct contrived to avoid saying a word out loud or written full out. What? Are we not all hearing the actual word resounding in our heads? Or maybe it isn’t resounding in our heads, and that’s my gripe.
N-word is childish: Johnny’s in trouble cuz his teacher told mom he said the N-word.
It diminishes the power and brutality of the word as well as little Johnny’s sin: Johnny called one of his little classmates a nigger!
Resorting to the N-word is like trying to ignore a pile of shit in your living room by daintily placing a paper towel over it, all the while carrying on in a calm and civil manner. But, it’s still there and it still stinks. Best you heed your nose and your gag reflex and deal with it.
The Maher affair also brought comments from numerous critics that white people have no business using that word. As a writer, that raises my hackles. Words are my tools. No one tells me which ones I can and cannot use. And like any tool, you apply it to the right job, to make a point, or advance an idea.
What idea does that word advance? Well, fear and intimidation, of course, and the notion that some human beings are less human than others. That’s the way it has been used for centuries and how over that time it accumulated its power. Today it’s a verbal hand grenade. But a deft mind can redirect its power.
John Lennon wrote, “Woman is the nigger of the world.” I think that speaks very plainly and underscores the plight of women in a way like no other.
Lennon said he paraphrased a remark by Irish revolutionary James Connolly that “Woman is slave of the slave.” And while the Irish patriot’s observation is powerful, Lennon’s packs a wallop.
Speaking of the Irish, their immigrant hordes were denigrated as white niggers by the American natives. Or even, niggers-inside-out. And well into the last century the Irish were called the niggers of Europe – at least until their economy kicked in and the Gaelic Tiger was unleashed on the global market.
The word continues to be applied to immigrant and ethnic groups. Sand nigger has manifested itself along with towelhead among ignorant cretins pouring their hate on middle eastern folks.
A powerful word, with a long and ugly history, and yet a writer can wield the word in a way that lifts humanity. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is among the books most likely to be banned, or suffer attempts to ban in public schools, because it is rife with that word. Its story takes place in a time and culture when the word was used casually and without much thought. Yet Samuel Clemens, probably the most humane of human beings to ever walk this planet, guides his young hero to an epiphany that a human being is worthy of respect and dignity, no matter what one’s culture ordains.
Not to compare myself with Huckleberry Finn, but as a youngster I had a similar epiphany. I grew up in a predominantly Irish-Polish neighborhood in Boston. Diversity amounted to a smattering of Italians and Albanians in the mix. Protestants were rare, and kept quietly to themselves. It was a blue-collar working class environment of triple-deckers where the word nigger popped up in casual conversation just as often as “a”, “the” and “but”.
Yes, it was white neighborhood. The niggers lived somewhere else and stayed there, just as we stayed in our own tribal environs. The only place you might encounter a black person was downtown or on the subway or bus. Or perhaps on the job. Not at school, though. This was before court-ordered busing, so everyone in your neighborhood school looked pretty much like you.
The niggers were an amorphous concept for most kids in my neighborhood, and the word was applied derisively, usually in jest or mocking of one’s neighbor. A guy who bought balcony tickets to an event was said to be seated in nigger heaven. Or a guy who came into a bit of money and started showing it off was said to be nigger rich.
My dad was a devout Catholic who took Christ’s dictum to heart: whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
He had this thing for giving rides to total strangers and it didn’t make any difference what you looked like. I remember being in the backseat when he picked up a black guy hitchhiking. The guy told him he was trying to make a job interview, but he didn’t have even the fare for the bus. My dad dropped him off and gave him a couple of bucks. We feared my dad would be robbed or worse, one day, but he’d say he didn’t worry about that because any one of those people he picked up “could be Jesus.”
I remember Dad complained about the quality of American cars, saying it had deteriorated since Detroit was forced to “hire all those niggers.”
And yet, he made friends on the job with a black man who often came to our house. We also visited with him.
I was about five or six years old when I asked, guilelessly as a child is wont, “Dad, isn’t Charlie a nigger?” The next thing I remember was bawling my eyes out about five feet from where I had been standing and my Dad furiously warning me, “Don’t you ever call Charlie a nigger; Charlie is colored.“
It was a fine distinction lost on a little kid, but there it was. There was the amorphous niggers and the human being you took at face value was colored.
My mother made the same distinction between a “loudmouth nigger bothering everyone on the bus” and the “nice colored girl” she worked with on the job.
My epiphany came when I went to high school. In Boston there were neighborhood-based high schools where the student populations were all white or all minority. The exceptions were the so-called magnet schools. I went to one of those schools, out of my neighborhood, in the leafy Fenway area.
My school was pretty nearly fifty-fifty, white and black, with other minorities, particularly Asian. It wasn’t a place you’d want to toss that word around willy-nilly, for obvious reasons.
I was enrolled in college-oriented courses. It was the first time I came face-to-face on a daily basis with black kids. The first thing I noticed about them was they dressed a lot sharper than the white kids. Sport coats and slacks, and they carried their stuff in brief cases. I wore a tie because I had to and carried my books in my hand.
One day a week – I think it was Thursday – you had a free period at the beginning of the day. The black kids all played chess.
I made friends, they taught me to play chess, we exchanged jokes, talked trash, and carried on like any kid might with another.
Friends – that was the epiphany. Friends enough to meet downtown and see a movie or ballgame together, or ogle the college girls in the warmer months. Yet it still wasn’t wise to meet in each other’s neighborhoods, and we’d wryly chuckle about the way things were. Also, you never knew when you were back on your home turf that some knuckle-dragging cretin would challenge you, “Hey, I saw you downtown with a nigger.”
But these guys from school were my friends. Vernon, Rodney, Ralph and yes, Charlie. You don’t call your friend a nigger.
I’ve never used the word again, except as a writer.
It’s a word, a powerful word. Yes, it can be used deftly, if sparingly, in ways other than to hurt and humiliate. It can fortify irony, and even camaraderie among people who share an understanding and history others can only poorly imagine, and have claimed it as their own.
Don’t veil its power with a silly, childish truncating. That accomplishes nothing. Say it, write it. Because, even when it’s used in its most hateful way, its power needs to shake us all to our cores.