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Est. April 5, 2002
July 19, 2018 - Issue 751

That N-word, Again

"The fact that African Americans have appropriated
the n-word does not negate our long history of
internalized self-hatred.  Our culture’s neo-revisionist
use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the
sting of the word from the American psyche."

Papa Johns is the latest to use the n-word and then apologize. Because John Schnatter known as Papa John blurted out the n-word during a crisis communication training session over the phone- and not in the face of an African American- he argues his use of the word doesn’t constitute as a “slur.”

"It wasn't a slur. It was a social strategy and media planning and training and I repeated something that somebody else said and said, ‘we’re not going to say that…”

Papa John will no longer be the public face of the pizza franchise.

There is some talk now that in this political climate the use of the n-word needs to be reexamined. Perhaps we should.

Blacks who defend the n-word

In 2002, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who wrote “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” said that while the word has been used to “terrorize and humiliate” African Americans, “It’s also been used as a term of endearment and a gesture of solidarity.”

In 2011 it was disclosed that at the entrance of former governor Rick Perry’s hunting camp is a rock painted in block letters with the word “Niggerhead.” When Perry ran for re-election in 2010 for the governorship, no one knew of the rock that sits on a secluded 1072-acre property in the West Texas town of Paint Creek. For decades Rick Perry’s hunting camp hosted fellow lawmakers, friends, and supporters.

In discussing the offensive racial moniker of Perry’s property, talk show host Barbara Walters of the “View" used the n-word, sparking a debate with her then-co-host Sherri Shepherd.

"I’m saying when you say the word, I don’t like it," said Shepherd, who said she has used it among African-American family and friends. "When white people say it, it brings up feelings in me."

Many Black and White comedians never get the laughs they were going for

Obama’s send-off at the 2016 White House correspondents’ dinner ended with the n-word.

Larry Wilmore, comedian, and then-host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” in his closing remarks thanked Obama for his tenure as president, and the mark he made in the world said “…to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n—-. You did it.” And, at that moment you heard audible gasps and saw visible grimaces of shock, pain, and embarrassment.

In December 2006, Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” used the n-word. The racist rant was an n-word tirade aimed at hecklers in the audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. The tirade was aired nationwide and shocked not only his fans, but it also shook Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history and derailed his career.

However, when the word slips from the mouths of race-conscious allies such as Bill Maher last year– the comedian and political commentator on HBO talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” – a lot of shock and hurt was felt. Guest U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska invited Maher to visit Nebraska and “work in the fields with us.” Maher mockingly declined: “Work in the fields? … I am a house nigger.”

Whites trip up in using the n-word

In 2015, President Barack Obama used the word on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” during an interview about America’s racial history – creating shock waves. Legal analyst Sunny Hostin said Obama’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office and the history of the word itself. New York Times columnist Charles Blow countered Hostin’s assertion, saying Obama used the word correctly: as a teaching moment.

If the word is used appropriately as a teaching moment, was Dennis Lehane – Boston native and best-selling novelist of “Gone Baby Gone,” “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River,” to name a few –wrong when he used the word at Emerson College’s commencement last year? In talking about Boston’s 1970s busing crisis, Lehane highlighted how white opponents of school desegregation shouted, “niggers out” at protests. Twitter blew up attacking Lehane, and he apologized immediately.

Another failed teaching moment was in January 2011. The kerfuffle focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as Mark Twain, in the NewSouth Books edition of his 1885 classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the original edition, the epithet is used 219 times. In an effort to rekindle interest in the Twain classic while tamping down the flame and fury the use of the word engenders, Alan Gribben – editor of the edition and an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama – replaced the word with “slave.”

And, in 1998, a national controversy ensued over the April headline in the Boston Magazine profile of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates as the recent “Head Negro In Charge” of the black intellectual enterprise in this country. The appellation was intended to be a compliment, but the controversy once again opened a dialogue about the n-word.

The title “Head Negro In Charge” where the “N” doesn’t stand for “Negro,” but instead the other N-word. And, in common parlance among African Americans, it’s referred to by its initials “HNIC.” The appellation derives from an abuse of power where a white slave owner chose a field slave as his overseer to maintain his relations of racial and labor exploitations. In keeping his fellow enslaved laborers in their place, the overseer was held in place, too, because his survival was dependent on executing the demands of his master. Today, the term in black vernacular still conveys and maintains the same power inequities where the white establishment chooses one African American as a spokesperson and gatekeeper for other blacks.

Is there a double standard here?

Shortly after Maher dropped the word, many on Twitter chimed in to defend him, saying he used a modified version, meaning it ended in an “a” rather than an “r” – and that this morphs the term into an endearment. I contend that you cannot conjugate the word, because it is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. Many slaveholders pronounced the word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s many African Americans used the “a” version as a pejorative denoting class difference.

Last year, Martha Stewart dropped the N-bomb during a taping of “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.” Stewart, still a neophyte to hip-hop culture, asked during a filming with Lil Yachty on the show, that was reported to be - both maternal and clueless - and with no mal-intent, “Yachty, does it upset you when Snoop says ‘nigga shit?’”

The confusion, however, illustrates what happens when an epithet like the n-word, once hurled at African-Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society.

Many African-Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, say that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it. In other words, only they have a license to use it. However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

Reasons to end use of the n-word

The fact that African Americans have appropriated the n-word does not negate our long history of internalized self-hatred. Our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

Language is a representation of culture. Language reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation that we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally. My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.

Our use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as a people- both white and black Americans- have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets. Many activists argue that Michaels Richards and others like him should do volunteer work in a predominately African American community anywhere in the county. However, others claim they would find there too that many African Americans keep the n-word alive. What would work for them and many in my community is a history lesson, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing fraught racial relations among us.

Instead, it keeps the hate and hurt alive. John Schnatter a.ka. Papa Johns just proved it. Editorial Board member and Columnist, The Reverend Monroe is an ordained minister, motivational speaker and she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Rev. Monroe does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM), on Boston Public Radio and a weekly Friday segment “The Take” on New England Channel NEWS (NECN). She’s a Huffington Post blogger and a syndicated religion columnist. Her columns appear in cities across the country and in the U.K, and Canada. Also she writes a  column in the Boston home LGBTQ newspaper Baywindows and Cambridge Chronicle. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Rev. Monroe graduated from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church in New Jersey before coming to Harvard Divinity School to do her doctorate. She has received the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching several times while being the head teaching fellow of the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard who is the author of the best seller, THE GOOD BOOK. She appears in the film For the Bible Tells Me So and was profiled in the Gay Pride episode of In the Life, an Emmy-nominated segment. Monroe’s  coming out story is  profiled in “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America" and in "Youth in Crisis." In 1997 Boston Magazine cited her as one of Boston's 50 Most Intriguing Women, and was profiled twice in the Boston Globe, In the Living Arts and The Spiritual Life sections for her LGBT activism. Her papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College's research library on the history of women in America. Her website is  Contact the Rev. Monroe and BC. 




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
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Peter Gamble

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