Tuesday, August 21, 2012

on "nigger" and "niggerlover" and "n-word"

This is another grabbag of old posts on a theme, inspired in part by the kerfuffle over Weird Tales and Save the Pearls. The most sensible post about it that I've seen is The World in the Satin Bag: The Weird Tales / Save the Pearls Fiasco: Preliminary Reactions.

• defining "nigger"

“If you define 'niggers' as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then Good News! You don't have to be black to be a 'nigger' in this society. Most of the people in America are 'niggers'.” —Ron Dellums, co-founder and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

• Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on speech codes

from Presidential Lectures: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Commentary: J. Slaughter:
People do bad things, things they know that are bad, for what they feel at the moment were good reasons. One is to institute speech codes. Trample all over the First Amendment, the right of free speech, because we decide that using certain language hurts our fellow human beings--it demeans their humanity. While that might seem like a good idea, the long-term consequences on the right to free expression are far greater than whatever immediate hurt or pain a woman would feel for being called a bitch or a black would feel for being called a nigger. If we're talking about actual physical harm, laws against that exist already. It's not worth it to me to assuage the pain by killing off the First Amendment.
Speech codes are symbolic acts. They let a group of people say, 'This symbolizes that we at the University of Wisconsin are not the sort of community where we would tolerate someone saying the word 'rigger.'' Well, big deal. But there are other symbolic consequences, like what's the effect on freedom of inquiry. I think we're all bigger and more secure than that. I think we have to allow people to say even unpopular things and nasty things in order to protect the right of us to attack our government and say whatever's on our minds.
• "No’m. Killed a nigger."

What happens in a novel does not necessarily represent a writer’s belief.* Some people misread Huckleberry Finn because it uses “nigger” and has this scathing bit of dialogue that demonstrates the thorough racism of the South at the height of US slavery:
“We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Huckleberry Finn is the story of a boy learning that “niggers” are people. Some anti-racists demand that it not be taught in school and call for its removal from libraries because it is “racist.” It is not racist. It is challenging.

* There must be a lit'ry term for this, but it's escaping me at the moment.

• about The Nigger of the Narcissus

At Sea with the N-Word by Mikita Brottman: "I don’t know how The N-Word of the Narcissus is selling, but the radical change of title does seem to be a pointless move. If the book’s original name is considered too offensive to use, then why not simply publish it under the alternative title Conrad chose for it, The Children of the Sea? As a matter of fact, this is how the novel was first issued in the U.S. because the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, felt no one would be interested in a book with the word “nigger” in its title. Did the US publishers display a racial sensitivity that was ahead of their time? Hardly. They simply thought that a book about a black man couldn’t possibly sell."

• Louis CK on bad words

Louis C.K - Cunt & Nigger - YouTube

The first two minutes are about "cunt." They're amusing. At two minutes in, he talks about "the n-word." No, not about "nigger." About "the n-word." I agree 100%.

• Boss Nigger, a blaxploitation film written and co-produced by its star, Fred Williamson

Boss Nigger - Wikipedia

Boss Nigger trailer:


• a reluctant defense of Laura Schlessinger

I don't like the woman any more than anyone left of Jerry Falwell does, but let's be clear: She didn't call anyone a "nigger." She merely observed that the word is often used in some places and taboo in others. If she had said, "Turn on HBO and and all you hear is motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker..." would there be this much outrage? If anything, progressives would defend her, because the right to speak taboo words was once a free speech issue.

As Lenny Bruce knew too well. Amusingly, the first video I could find of his famous routine is from the movie about his life, so here's Dustin Hoffman:



If anyone has any evidence that making words forbidden improves people's attitudes about race, please let me know. This seems to be another issue of faith by Critical Race Theorists.

• Patti Smith - "Rock and Roll Nigger'



The comments at youtube (when I read them) are surprisingly insightful: Patti Smith "Rock n' Roll nigger". Maybe my favorites:
My friend worked at a hotel kitchen, and was playing this song on the kitchen boom box. The manager told him to turn if off because it sounded racist, so Matt got all the black people in the kitchen together, told them the lyrics and philosophy behind the song, and asked the brothers, "Is this racist?" There was a unanimous, "No."

[They then said, "You want to end racism in the workplace? Why are all the dishwashers black, and all the cooks white?"]
And:
It's unfortunate that the Afro-American movement didn't make "nigger" an honorific as the Gay movement made "queer"--i.e., "Queer Studies," the queer vision.
• "Woman is the Nigger of the World" - John Lennon



This version starts with Dick Cavett interviewing Lennon:



• Chris Rock, classist creep



YouTube - Chris Rock-Niggas Vs. Black People Pt 1

He focuses on poor blacks for most of this, then gets to poor whites at the end. It's fascinating that he saw, in a raw, despise-the-poor way, the class divide that has 40% of black Americans saying there are now two black races.

Note the venue. The only poor folks in there were either showing the people who could afford those tickets to their seats or waiting to clean up after the audience had left. Now, Rock is funny. But his humor here is all about class rage.

I was reminded of his routine by David Mills: The 'Nigger' Top 10.

• on Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" and the Bowdlers of the world

From Wikipedia: "In all but the earliest recording of the song, the original line "Some white folk in Washington / they know just how, call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow" was altered to "give a colored man a nickel just to see him bow", presumably to avoid causing offense." In another place, Leadbelly says he heard a white man saying he didn't want a "Negro" around.



In Ry Cooder's version, Cooder uses "nigger" in both places on the grounds that's how Leadbelly wrote it.



A modern Reverend Bowdler would say the word's too racist to repeat, especially by a white guy, and should be changed to something nicer. After all, didn't Leadbelly change it?

Yes. Leadbelly changed it for middle-class folks who value words more than reality. My biggest complaint with the Bowdlers of the world  is they don't respect art. Some things are supposed to shock.  Words have power—that's why the Bowdlers want to control them. Cooder, singing the original words, hits the audience harder than Leadbelly does when he pulls his punches.

Mind you, I'm not criticizing Leadbelly. A black recording artist in the 1930s had hard, hard choices.

• You can call me Niggerlover

A social justice warrior once asked me not to call her "Dude," and then called me "William", which no one has ever done. I said I preferred "Will" or "Shetterly" or "Your Awesomeness." But I forgot to add that "Niggerlover" is fine, too. That's what racists called me when they beat me back during the civil rights struggle, so I earned it with blood. And after taking the race test at Project Implicit, I found I'm in the surprisingly large minority of white people who have an implicit preference for black folks, so it's very accurate.

Hmm. Which makes it a little surprising that I ended up with a white woman. There is a black woman in my romantic history who I often wished I could see again.

But then, there was a black guy who never knew Emma had a crush on him. Maybe her crush and mine are very happy together now, but once in a while, they think wistfully of us....

Let's end with some James Brown:



"Said the long hair hippies and the afro blacks
They all get together across the tracks
And they party..."

I started this post wanting to write something profound about insults and love, because I've always thought "niggerlover" was a bizarre insult in an ostensibly Christian culture. But I just wasn't in the mood for serious.