In 1980, when the late comedian Richard Pryor, back from a trip to Kenya, was asked by Ebony magazine why he would no longer use the N-word in his humor, he replied, "While I was there, something inside of me said, "Look around you, Richard. What do you see? I saw people. African people. I saw people from other countries, too, and they were all kinds of colors, but I didn't see any 'niggers.' I didn't see any there because there are no 'niggers' in Africa. Can you imagine going out into the bush and walking up to a Masai and saying, 'Hey nigger. Come here!?' You couldn't do that because Masai are not 'niggers.' There are no 'niggers' in Africa, and there are no 'niggers' here in America either. We black people are not 'niggers,' and I will forever refuse to be one."
Pryor, whose humor had been built around the use of the N-word, had experienced an
epiphany during his Africa trip ("I had grown," the comic retorted when challenged by some of his fans for having dropped the expletive), and refused to profit from the use of a label not of his making or to perpetuate its implications.
Now, in 2016, the courageous stance assumed by this deceased and respected African-American celebrity seems to have been all but ignored by none other than Don King.
On September 21, at New Spirit Revival Center, a Cleveland Heights, Ohio church, Don King, the 85-year-old retired boxing promoter, introduced Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to address those gathered. Mr. King is a Trump supporter.
During the event, Mr. Trump advocated for extensive use of the controversial stop-and-frisk policing strategy in American cities, which he believes would reduce violent crime in black communities. This policy has been decried by citizens and political leaders alike, such as by New York City's mayor Bill de Blasio (who has overseen the dismantling of stop-and-frisk as official police policy), and by Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Despite Mr. Trump's unsteady -- and some would argue, too late, -- attempts to garner support from African-American voters, polls reflect a stubborn skepticism of the candidate, whose enthusiasm for stop-and-frisk is like rubbing salt into a very sensitive wound where this group is concerned.
What Mr. Trump has garnered is ridicule and scorn from African-Americans, resulting from pronouncements such as when he said, appealing for their vote, that "you're living in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed - what the hell do you have to lose?"
So when Don King stood in the pulpit of New Spirit Revival (he was chosen by Mr. Trump to introduce him), he proceeded to offer a primer on how society classifies African-Americans, distinguishing between the "talented, intellectual Negro," and the "dancing and sliding and gliding nigger," at which point he quickly caught himself. "I mean Negro," he said, realizing his faux-pas. Mr. Trump, looking on from a few feet behind King, was grinning. In the racially mixed group there was laughter, but it was a tight, nervous laughter, the kind we emit when we know that what we are laughing at does not merit laughter.
In his seminal work with the attention-grabbing title Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published in 2002, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy (who is African-American) wrote that the N-word is "arguably the most consequential social insult in American history." While utterance of the word has frequently preceded and accompanied some of the most violent actions visited upon African-Americans, and was the derogatory name of choice by white supremacists, it has been stubbornly resistant to attempts to remove its use from the American linguistic landscape. At the same time, blacks have used the word toward and in reference to each other, either as a term of endearment or as an expression of extreme castigation. The word has appeared in popular music, most notably in rap and in hip-hop, as well as in the humor of stand-up comedians such as Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Chris Rock. To use the N-word in a casual manner, some blacks have argued, is to defang it, to divest it of its power to inflict stigmatizing damage.
Was the N-word slip due to a senior moment on the part of the octogenarian King? I doubt it. Was it a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, we're-all-in-on-this-joke bit of humor shared with "friends?" That, too, is subject to debate.
What cannot be debated is that we are at present in a very unpleasant place in America where it feels as if each day some fresh racial hell grabs us by the short hairs, and where everything, including the words we speak, is fraught with meaning.
The N-word is still, in my view (and in the view of countless others), such a word. It is too historically burdened to be uttered without eliciting strong, often negative, reactions, is still too potent to be received indifferently. I am directing this point not just to white people, but also and especially to African-Americans, and more particularly to African-American youth who, in their re-emerging sense of racial pride have been re-examining various aspects of their identity.
Given that we assert that our lives matter, we should therefore be all the more censorious against the use of the N-word.
Not only should it not be used in jest or in anger, it should not be used at all, least of all in the presence of those who, in spite of all claims, do not have our interests at heart.
It is time to say "No" to the N-word. Just like Richard Pryor had done.