As Richard Pryor told it years ago, he was sitting in a hotel lobby on a trip to Africa when he heard a voice within. “What do you see?” it asked. “Look around.”
“I looked around and I saw people of all colors and shapes. And the voice asked, ‘Do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? There aren’t any.”’
Pryor told an audience that he started crying then. The comedian, whose speech had always been peppered with that ugly word, abruptly realized that it had not passed his lips in the three weeks he’d spent among the blacks of Africa. Pryor subsequently renounced the word altogether: The most profane man in America decided that here was a term too profane even for him.
I mention this only because there is, in case you hadn’t noticed, a renewed struggle under way over the use and abuse of the N-word. And it’s left me a little ticked off at the blatant hypocrisy - of black people.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Over recent months, black activists have battled the people who put out the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a black educator has challenged Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Spike Lee has lambasted Quentin Tarantino, all over the use and abuse of the N-word.
But I haven’t seen anybody say a damn thing about black comics who fly it like a dirty flag. Haven’t heard a peep about the tiny talents of raunch rap who spill it into the ether like sewage. Haven’t heard anyone say the obvious: that if we as African-Americans truly abhor this word, then the protest ought to begin on our own doorstep.
Yeah, yeah, I know the rules. It’s OK for us to say it but it’s not OK for whites. Except that, some young blacks say it’s OK for whites if those whites are honorary blacks, down with the brothers. Yet if those same whites mistakenly use the word outside their circle of black friends, they’re likely to incite a riot.
I know the rules, but the rules are stupid. Contradictory. And confusing. If white people are baffled about what is and isn’t allowed, I can’t blame them. I blame us.
We’ve become entirely too casual, too gratuitous, with this instrument of disparagement. These days, one is less likely to hear the word from a white jerk with his bedsheet draped on his head than from a black one with his pants sagging off his butt.
I once heard a young black colleague make a point of saying it in front of a white woman, who was properly flummoxed. The colleague explained with blithe self-satisfaction that she enjoyed dropping the word into conversation in order to observe white folks’ stunned reaction.
All of which suggests to me that we as black people suffer from historical amnesia. A blindness to the suffering of ancestors. And a stubborn refusal to learn the lesson Pryor did - to grow up and leave this evil thing behind.
So the last word some beaten black man heard before gravity yanked him down and the rope bit into his neck becomes a shock tactic for a callow youth. The word that followed his torn corpse as it was dragged down dusty roads behind the bumper of a car now serves some oafish rapper who can’t find anything else to rhyme with trigger.
That’s grotesque. It is obscene.
And it renders just slightly hollow all these recent protests of mortal offense.
I’m supposed to be outraged that the word is used - with historical accuracy - in a classic novel that came out 114 years ago? No. Mark Twain doesn’t bother me. Snoop Doggy Dogg does. Def comedy does.
Because they suggest to me that behind the facade of arrogant cool, we still hate us.
That self-loathing is slavery’s hardiest legacy, Jim Crow’s bastard child. And I’m impatient to see it dead. Impatient for a day when we love ourselves enough to be offended by anyone who uses this word. Moreover, love our children enough to stop teaching it to them.
Here’s a new and much simpler rule for the use of the N-word: