If you don’t think there’s a right time and place and purpose for every word, you and I have a serious disagreement. Curse words, sexual colloquialisms and racial epithets all have interesting, researchable histories. If they had no power or proper use, they would not endure and be remembered. But they are remembered, aren’t they? Most of these words will continue to be spoken long after everyone has forgotten how to overuse “awesome”.
Powerful words should garner respect. It’s dangerous to wave them around and fire without aiming. You might hurt innocent bystanders, or get hit by a ricochet. Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” was obviously not a member of an oppressed cultural minority. It’s not the words themselves that cause hurt. It’s that huge part of the message that comes across from your vocal tone, facial expression, and the social context of when the words are spoken. You can sing or shout words to a thousand concertgoers that would get you killed if you said them face-to-face in the wrong part of Oakland. And you can say some pretty nasty things between kisses (or other actions) when having sex. Many partners find it enticing.
I’m not going to be specific about using the word itself in this space because I think anyone smart enough to read my articles already knows it. I write here for general audiences, and most of my subscribers are well-educated women, and women like it better when some things are left to the imagination. I’ll just offer some thoughts about it.
Essayists have written that persons of color are too sensitive about use of this word, because Jews have had to endure derogatory terms for much longer. The difference is that Jews, while certainly despised, oppressed and murdered by various dominant majorities for millennia, have not been recently enslaved and traded as property, as they were in ancient times. Hitler’s holocaust counts, but he reigned for a mere dozen years. By comparison the enslavement of black people, historically speaking, happened the day before yesterday, and it continued for centuries. Use of the N-word also affects Americans deeply because we couldn’t decide to ban slavery in order to found the nation, and therefore had to fight the bloodiest war in our history “four score” or so years later to settle the issue.
The N-word has been used in the names of places and various consumer products since that Civil War, lasting right up until I was a child in the 1950s. There’s an odd little subculture of collectors of this sort of memorabilia. These are examples of using the N-word in a quaint, humorous fashion. You may feel the joke is in bad taste, but I don’t think it is equivalent to hate speech. There’s a historical context for the word. It didn’t have the kind of status it has today. These kinds of collectibles alternatively creep me out, and make me laugh, because I like weird stuff. I wouldn’t buy the items, but I admit I’m fascinated when I look at them. Spike Lee might say I’ve been bamboozled.
The longstanding controversy over Mark Twain’s use of the word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is particularly irritating to me, because I’ve read and appreciate the value of the book, and Twain’s courage in writing it. It’s justifiably called the first great American novel, and it’s superlatively clever in the way it uses humor to decimate the bigoted values that enslave all who hold them, including Huck Finn himself. This is a book published a mere 20 years after the Civil War that takes both direct and satirical aim at lynchings, segregation and the white view of blacks as sub-human. By any sensible estimation, that is an enormous achievement.
Above all, Huck changes. He chooses to aid a slave in escaping even while believing that in doing so he is stealing another person’s property, an action he admits he will suffer damnation for. He undergoes an oblique kind of consciousness raising, despite being taught the opposite. It’s so important to have him use the N-word, as others in the novel do, casually, without regard for the harmful power of the term. If the reader doesn’t experience Huck’s own racism fully, it diminishes the redemptive power of his behavioral conversion. Those who want to ban, censor or alter the words of the book to soften the blow or spare the feelings of readers have missed the central virtue of what Twain wrote. I have nothing but contempt for them. Actually, that’s not true. I pity their ignorance.
Back in the early 1960s, the comedian Lenny Bruce performed a number of routines about powerful words that were taboo, including one about racial epithets. In that routine he said, “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness” and I agree with him. If we said it all the time, to anyone, black or not, it would lose the power to upset people. But I’m not courageous in that way. I don’t take those sorts of risks. I try to speak politely, even though it sometimes means I’m not being honest. I don’t like everyone or respect everyone equally, but I also don’t want to hurt people with what I say to their faces. I’m trying to learn the right balance between authenticity and compassion.