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.

3 comments:

  1. I wonder if anyone has considered if it is an insidious little piece of work...just not in the way they think?

    That is, white racists don't want to read a story about the trials of black people under white slavery. They just don't. They don't care. To them, black people are all the enemy. BUT they will happily read a story about the trials of white people under black slavery...

    Why's that important? Because if you want people who don't care about your situation or your history to understand your situation, to think about it, you put them in it. You make them the victim. And then you have an opening, maybe, to discuss it...a sudden point of common ground. A way to make them consider, "What if the situation were reversed?"

    Which is a valid way to approach the idea behind the novel. Though I have no clue on the execution in this case, whether it is clumsy or or not.

    Another thing I've noticed is how people are exploding over the "coals" and "pearls" nomenclature without considering, AT ALL, the meaning of words are culturally subjective.

    For us, the modern reader, coal is dirty and awful, and pearls are valuable and wonderful -- so one is a demeaning insult and the other is a praise-worthy compliment.

    But what about in a different world where pearls are literally worthless, and coal is precious, such seemingly backwards (to our sensibilities) names would make sense?

    (Note that I've only read the author's notes on the book at this point, which indicate this is the usage and intent.)

    As apparently with you, this whole thing reminds me, in some ways, of the debate on the continued inclusion of the n-word in Twain's work.

    Its inclusion is for very serious literary reasons, but some people only see it as insult, not commentary. For those folks, the inclusion is just racist and insulting, *full stop*, and don't see any other possible side or purpose or opposed argument to it.

    You know, the way the usual mobbers from the SVU cult approach such issues -- with intellects like clumsy clubs. And given that group is all over this one the way they are, I could almost guarantee the book isn't racist just on that basis.

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  2. Also, this whole thing led me to post the following last night:

    "I like how the internet ensures we have Freedom of Approved Speech and democracy becomes not just the equivalent of, but is actually about, who gets shouted down by an angry mob."

    And to realize one day leftists are going to wake up in a world they warned us right-wingers were going to create and wonder how they got there. On that day, I will laugh at them. Except I won't, because laughing at leftists will not be on the approved speech list.

    Also, that WT caved to the outcry pretty fast. Glad to know all you have to do is call something "racist" and let the internet loose on it. Sad that pacifying internet mobs is the most important part of business and art these days.

    Can't help but see it as the very same behavior engaged in by Christian mobs when they forced Blockbuster to remove "Last Temptation of Christ" from the shelves (among others), with the age-old "Oh, but we're DIFFERENT...we're doing it for MORAL reasons" cry to protect them.

    Heck, how true does this news excerpt ring to the current situation:

    "Jerry Falwell and others were inspired in their desire for censorship regarding The Last Temptation of Christ not because it was a bad movie; they had no way of knowing that or not, since they had not actually seen it. What frightened Falwell was the threat it posed to his religion and all aspects connected to his religion. If the supposedly slanderous and libelous view of Jesus were taken as gospel, perhaps it would be damaging to Christianity's ongoing attempt to bring everyone else in the world into the fold." - http://voices.yahoo.com/the-last-temptation-christ-protests-the-60213.html

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    Replies
    1. Yep. I haven't read the novel, nor do I plan to, but the biggest clue that requireshate is an idiot is when she calls the book a "white supremacist fantasy." Hint to any would-be hero of anti-racism: white supremacists hate interracial romance so much that they have a pet word for it which you ought to have heard of: miscegenation.

      Now, sure, there are racists with weird obsessions about sex with people of other races, but they're not white supremacists.

      I also thought the outcry against coals was buying into contemporary concepts of racism. Have you ever looked at coal? Anthracite is especially beautiful. In many countries, it's used for sculpture: https://www.google.com/search?q=coal+sculpture&hl=en&safe=off&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=v1k0UMLhF66ayQHKv4HYBA&ved=0CGcQsAQ&biw=1569&bih=1083

      I can't blame Weird Tales for caving. CRT fandom works like Falwell's "Moral Majority" did: they hit hard, so people think they matter more than they do.

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