Rethinking the N-Word

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.


Filed under Communications, Emotions

26 responses to “Rethinking the N-Word

  1. No doubt you know the conditions under which Dr. Laura lost her daytime radio show. Maybe she was trying to take “the power, the violence, the viciousness” out of the N-word. But if that was her motivation, it backfired big time. You are probably wise not to take those sorts of risks.

    • I didn’t know, not having been a fan of Dr. Laura, but I looked it up thanks to your mention of the situation. It does seem like she didn’t do much research to understand why or how the word became a weapon. To me she was a fraud all along, like “Dr.” Phil, pretending to be qualified as psychological counselors with no actual academic credentials in either counseling or psychology. Thanks for your contribution, Jozie.

  2. I’ve read this several times this morning; it’s a fascinating and complex subject. You reminded me that a version of Huck Finn was recently published in which the n-word and the word ‘injun’ were taken out. I looked it up again on Google:

    Your analysis is a clear rebuttal of the argument in favour of the excision as expressed in the Guardian article, as is Dr Churchwell’s response (also noted in the article).

    It’s also interesting that much-abused sections of society sometimes claim back words: the n-word being a prime example.

    I tweeted this, hope that’s OK. (Beautifully written, too.)

    • Thanks, Deborah. Of course you are welcome to tweet anything you like of my work. I don’t have a Twitter account myself. I did know about that ill-considered edition of the book, and I do agree with Dr. Churchwell’s response. Thanks for the link. (Cat the Beatnik also wrote an elegant defense of Twain in her post about literary censorship a while back.)

  3. I have never read Huckleberry Finn, though I know of it. Thanks to your critique of the book in the context of using the N word, I will now go and find it, though if what Deborah says is true, I may only be able to get hold of the revised version.

    I don’t care who uses the N word, I don’t like it. Even used as a term of endearment, it’s violent and aggressive. It doesn’t sit well with me at all. In light of the (long overdue) conviction this week of two out of the group of five men who murdered a black teenager in London in 1993, merely for his existence, your post is very timely. Once again, you’ve given us something to think about. Thanks, Mikey.

    • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has such a reputation of high esteem I expect you will find an unexpurgated version available at most community libraries. I truly think only weak-minded or misguided people try to change or suppress it. It’s part of the school curriculum here for most, for all the right reasons.

      I nearly wrote about the F-word instead, but I kept laughing and lost my focus. This topic was Plan B. I don’t use the word either, but I hear teenagers speak it casually, and it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. I won’t mind if its power to harm is neutered by changes in culture. I thought your crime story was quite absorbing. Perhaps reading it influenced my thoughts?

  4. You know I wanted to post a witty and challenging post on this topic Mike.. guess what, Im too damn tired LOL. Its a great post (as always bud), however I think its really a blog about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and not the social or cultural taboos in the US on certain words.

    And (bad grammar) censorship.

    I read your post while at lunch and was talking to a couple of young college kids who work with me where your post came to mind as one was talking about the books banned in US schools. Its just plain silly.

    US born I grew up in the UK (Repeating myself I know, stop laughing). The Grammar school had a HUGE library and we’d get thse huge suggested reading lists one you reached the “senior” years (15+) I actually brought that list with me when I came back to the the states. Funny thing, about 30% of it was on the list of books not allowed in US schools.

    I guess it makes sense. American basic education is so much superhero to.. ummmm.. never mind

    • I remember public school 40-50 years ago as having been much better, more diverse, more progressive and intellectually challenging than it seems to be now. I’m no expert, though. Perhaps I was fortunate, and my experience was atypical.

      The Huck Finn paragraphs are the best ones I agree, but I would invite you to take a second look at the others when you are more rested. I always toss out about 75% of my first drafts in an attempt to relay more idea content in fewer words. The results can be hit and miss, because I also write quickly, in between calls to go to the clinic and take x-rays. I could have droned on and on about hip-hop culture or other divergences about taboos. I decided it wasn’t necessary. Less is more. I do appreciate the specificity of your perceptions. Thanks again for sharing them.

      I loved Speaker’s Corner, by the way. Haven’t been there since 2002. I like London more than any large city I have visited, with the exception of San Francisco, where I lived briefly. (Prague came in third.)

  5. I guess I am fickle when it comes to the use of taboo words. I, like you, believe that all words have a place and a use and I believe that any word only has as much power as the user gives it.

    Hence, I think sometimes dropping the f bomb is entirely appropriate…if not the only thing appropriate. I also agree with Lenny Bruce. It is the suppression of the words that give them their power.

    However, (here comes the fickleness) there are some words that have no place being used anytime or being directed at anyone. I will let you use your imagination on these.

    • I can’t guess the never usables. To me, that’s a very individual choice. I’m pretty fond of the F-word in person, but I refrain from many words in print. Is the guy online “better” than the one in the real world?

  6. Admittedly I found Huckeberry Finn a slog to read it. It must have been Jim’s English dialect.. I actually never finished the required reading. It was around the same time, as a kid a read with fascination all about the Underground Railroad History (which there is a place in southern Ontario near a friend’s home, the site for Uncle Tom’s cabin).

    As for myself using a word that was/is deragotary, this is my rule of thumb: Does my family background at all, by blood/birth own any part of that history? Should I use Negro, Paki? I let them those who feel the direct hurt and spend decades of effort trying to rise above those epithets…I let them own those words to turn them around into artifacts of hurtful history to remind us and future generation. Whether it is use in comedy, art, etc.

    • It isn’t an easy question to answer, is it? I think the fact that your usage is considered with compassionate intent is about as good a choice as one can make in most instances. Part of the nature of comedy, and trying to shed light upon difficult truths using comedy, comes directly from taking risks, which is why things like faith-based sitcoms and stand-up are rarely funny. Jim’s dialect in Huckleberry Finn is certainly an artifact of its time, as is Huck’s and everyone else’s in the novel. The most remarkable thing to me was Twain attempting it at all so soon after the Civil War. Middle English is pretty hard to get into as well, but if you can manage it then Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales become bold, bawdy and hilarious in the reading. Thanks, Jean.

      • “The most remarkable thing to me was Twain attempting it at all so soon after the Civil War. Middle English is pretty hard to get into as well, but if you can manage it then Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales become bold, bawdy and hilarious in the reading.”

        Yes, Chaucer had lots of fun –clever guy. Twain was ahead of his time in his writing subject.

        About 1-2 wks., there was a retail clerk in the U.S. who was fired for referring to a customer with the “chinky eyes”.

        I was watching tv in a hotel cafeteria with my partner (who is white of German descent). 6 young folks in their early 20’s or so, all white, all laughed at the news. But I couldn’t figure out if it was: a) thought it was stupid funny b) it was funny (and they were just callous) c) funny but they didn’t know how else to respond.

        1 of them turned around, after remembering I was sitting behind them. I just looked at them calmly, unsmiling and so did my partner.

        It chilled me….because I have 7 nieces and nephews from 3 sisters, of which 4 of them are half -Chinese. Some of them have visbily inherited their mother’s almond shaped eyes. One of them has light brown hair.

        I hope her mother will gird her with strength, self-respect…to defend herself for any callousness ahead in life.

        • Another part of the topic I didn’t go into in this article was the fact that the whole idea of “race” is a false and misleading construct. People develop cultures and traditions within historical and geographical contexts, but there’s only one human species. Cats, dogs and horses have superficial exterior variations, but remain their own species in anatomy and physiology. We humans are all much more alike than we are different.

          Of course I don’t know the truth in the situation you described, but I don’t find it uncommon that younger people find much of what older people react to as significant to be a source of amusement. They aren’t from our planet, so they don’t get what the big deal is to us about these things.

        • I would have laughed too at the ridiculousness of it personally. Not as any opinion of a class, race or culture. I mean really? They were fired?

          Note; you are passing some judgement on the white and especially Germanic peoples.
          I wasn’t there, and I do wish to express my sadness of the dissapointment in your comrades, but was their discomfort from their prejudice, or a misunderstanding, or the stupidity of the firing (which was bigoted and laughably moronic)?

  7. As for the F-bomb, I use more often. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s age. But only verbal. In written words, I’ve got more vocabulary than that.

    Keep in mind I was raised by a mother who swore in Chinese. Raising 6 kids was tough work on her patience…

  8. I think it’s important to steer clear of whitewashing the past just to make it seem more palatable.

    Recently I saw something on PBS. African American director was explaining his reasons for nominating “Birth of a Nation” to the (dang I forget that title, but it’s like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for filmage.) Anyway, he said it’s important to include it because it was such an influential film, one that led to a lot of pain and suffering for African Americans, who were tragically dehumanized and falsely accused in that film. Propaganda for the KKK.

    I wouldn’t dream of using that word though. Can’t imagine a single reason for a white person to use that word to address or describe anyone period. But by the same token, we have no right to tell others how to process their own pain, how to handle the language of their own oppression. (Tim Wise has a great piece on that topic too.)

    (I guess I should also say that my daughter’s baby is half african american.)

    • Oops I meant to start out by saying I agree with what you’re writing here.

    • The 1915 film of Birth of a Nation is an interesting example, because even though the script (like the book it’s based on) is racist trash, the film still contains many innovations in cinematography and editing technique. The actors who portray the black villains are white men in blackface, and some of the acting is atrocious, but there’s also huge Civil War battle sequences that look like Matthew Brady photographs, and a stirring depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. I put it in a class of films like Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Stereotyped stories and propaganda films may still employ brilliant techniques that can and should be studied.

      I figured you more or less agreed by your statement about not sanitizing history artificially, and thanks for commenting Tess.

  9. rahkyt

    I’m not sure I agree with that Bruce quote about suppression. For many centuries the word was not suppressed at all. It’s only been non-politically correct for a relatively short time by comparison.

    Huck’s attitude toward blackness and his use of language is indicative of this. Also, indicative of the type of attitude displayed by those who keep lawn jockeys and collect mammy jars and sambo statues.Paternalism continues to have its place.

    • You are quite correct about the use of the word being commonly accepted in the past. Since Bruce was presenting that statement in a routine, live, in a situation where he was expected to be commenting on current events, I took it to mean as the word is used “now” (now being 1960 for him). There’s only so much one can do to understand the experiences of people outside their own group. It’s so difficult, maybe impossible, to overcome our own biases. We just don’t see them. Still, it’s worth trying to do.

      In thinking about your comment, I believe Twain was also struggling with how to change the minds of his white readers, a formidable task. He retreated several times from completing the book in a kind of philosophical agony, writing other, safer works instead. I also chose the Spike Lee film poster because I think he’s every bit as brave as Twain, and he hasn’t been deservedly rewarded.

  10. I always think back to when I first returned to the USA, and how much when growing up in a foriegn country I’d look home and keep thinking, why do “they” (Im American in my mind) so over-analyze every damn thing? Its a matter that stops our America from being taken seriously. The idea of “superpower”, and “leader of the free world” I hear on TV is amusing, as I know that no where but here is that even considered real. Its showmanship. Old countries smile and say “Of course”, like a parent.

    No country in the world scares the hell outta more people. Not Korea, not Iran, not (insert scary country here) than the USA. 100 Years ago it was the Chinese and IMHO it should be now. However, our continued isolationist insistence on making the mistakes other nations had already made and ignoring any advice makes us appear immature and unstable.

  11. “Note; you are passing some judgement on the white and especially Germanic peoples.”
    OldWolf- My dearie partner who has been with me for last 20 yrs., is German-Canadian descent. Check out my blog….I’m more than appreciative of German culture. He didn’t think the young people’s comments warranted any laughing for anything.

    Internet never helps to know a writer’s background very well at all, doesn’t it? It’s ok…onto other things in life beyond this topic.

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