Thursday, March 8, 2007

The ‘Nigger’ Top 10

So some gentle-hearted souls want to ban the word “nigger,” to abolish it, kick it out of the English language, which they can’t do, of course. No one can outlaw a word.

Nevertheless, the New York City Council last week went to the trouble of passing a “symbolic” resolution banning the use of “the N-word” in the city.

A small-town Texas mayor wanted to raise the stakes by criminalizing the word and slapping a fine of up to $500 on anybody who uttered it in public. After a backlash, the mayor (a white man) abandoned this notion.

Rather than construct a logic-based argument against the prohibitionists, I thought it’d be fun to assemble a list of the all-time most socially redeeming usages of the word “nigger.” This would show by example that the word itself is neither good nor evil. It’s an instrument with which to convey ideas – as all words are – and thus has a right to exist.

To compile this list – The “Nigger” Top 10, if you will – I brought together a brain trust of good friends, each one a sharp-eyed observer of the culture: Larry Alexander, Lorenzo Heard and Thomas Stanley. (We’ve collaborated on various funk-related documentation projects since the early ’90s.)

We spent last Sunday afternoon in a suburban-D.C. apartment, speaking freely and pausing occasionally to listen to recordings such as Patti Smith’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger” and the Last Poets’ “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.”

Our mandate: to reach consensus on the most culturally significant and/or artistically valuable utterances of the word, and to rank these according to their historical impact.

Our conversation was so rich and juicy, I’ll be posting extended transcripts in the coming days. I hope you readers will join this discussion by commenting, whether you be black, Negro, colored or African-American. Everybody’s welcome in my house!

Ahhh, just playin’, just playin’. I want to hear from you crackers too.

So here is our list:

10. Richard Pryor’s epiphany in Africa, from the movie “Live on the Sunset Strip.” (1982)

No contemporary artist has done more with the word “nigger” than Richard Pryor. His 1974 LP “That Nigger’s Crazy” even won a Grammy.

But after traveling to Africa in 1979, Pryor quit using the word in his standup comedy. Here’s how he explained it in “Live on the Sunset Strip”:

“When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ’Cause there aren't any.’ ”

Pryor’s abandonment of the word didn’t have a lasting cultural impact; “nigger” gets tossed around today more than ever in the popular culture. (Reference “The Boondocks” on the Cartoon Network.)

But the epiphany in Africa is a beautiful punctuation of Pryor’s own personal and creative evolution.

9. Sly and the Family Stone, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” (1969)

In its context – a mixed-race band addressing a mixed-race audience, at a time when trans-racial brotherhood was the dream of a generation – this song is a perfect example of how to use the word’s power against itself.

Sly wanted to shame both sides of the racial divide. Hence the rejoinder, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” (Lorenzo Heard recalls that this track from the LP “Stand!” would get radio airplay in Washington, D.C. Could a radio station broadcast the song today without catching hell?)

8. Lenny Bruce, “Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?” (early 1960s)

For token white representation on this list, it was either this or John Lennon’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” Lenny Bruce wins, because he confronts directly the toxicity of the word, which was unprecedented for a white entertainer of his era.

The notorious nightclub routine (available on the CD box set “Let the Buyer Beware”) went like this:

“Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger works here, I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers… Between those two niggers sits one kike – man, thank God for the kike. Uh, two kikes. That’s two kikes and three niggers and one spic. One spic – two, three spics. One mick. One mick, one spic, one hick thick funky spunky boogey. …”

Eventually, Bruce got around to this:

“The point? That the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, ‘Tonight I’d like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,’ and he yelled ‘niggerniggerniggerniggernigger’ at every nigger he saw, ‘boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey niggerniggerniggernigger’ till nigger didn’t mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning – you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school.”

Lenny Bruce’s reasoning may be dubious, but at least he was wrestling full-tilt with the American monster of race.

7. Dick Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger.” (1964)

On one level, a slick marketing move. On another level, a bold provocation. On yet another level, a twisted joke. On all levels, probably the earliest attempt by a black artist to tame the word. This was Dick Gregory putting his head into the lion’s mouth.

Here’s what he wrote as a preamble to his memoir: “Dear Momma – Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

Now that’s funny.

6. The “Word Association” sketch, “Saturday Night Live.” (1975)

One of the funniest sketches in the history of “Saturday Night Live,” and the funniest use of the word “nigger” ever of American network television.

Richard Pryor plays a job applicant, and Chevy Chase is a potential employer. The final step in the hiring process is a psychological test, a bit of “word association.” Chase says a word, Pryor says the first word to pop into his head.

“Dog.” “Tree.”

“Fast.” “Slow.”

“Rain.” “Snow.”

Soon comes this: “Negro.” “Whitey.”

“Tar baby.”

Pryor looks puzzled, not quite sure he heard right. “What’d you say?”

Chase repeats, casually: “Tar baby.”

Pryor says: “Ofay.”

“Colored.” “Redneck.”

The tension and aggression escalate… “Spearchucker.” “White trash!”

“Jungle bunny!” “Honky!”

“Spade!” “Honky honky!”

“Nigger!” “Dead honky!”

This sketch was written by Paul Mooney, a writing partner of Pryor’s. Mooney once told me the story behind the sketch. He said Chevy Chase was considered the “golden boy” of “SNL” in its earliest days, the standout star. In the week of preparation for this show, Chase got the feeling Richard Pryor didn’t like him. And Pryor didn’t like him… because he was the golden boy.

So Chase asked Paul Mooney to write a sketch that he and Pryor could perform together. The rest is TV history.

5. The Pino/Mookie scene, “Do the Right Thing,” written and directed by Spike Lee. (1989)

In a tenderly staged scene, Spike Lee as “Mookie” questions John Turturro’s character “Pino,” who is filled with rage towards black people. (Earlier, Pino says, “How come niggers are so stupid?” To which Mookie replies, “If you see a nigger, kick his ass.”)

“Pino, who’s your favorite basketball player?”

“Magic Johnson.”

“Who’s your favorite movie star?”

“Eddie Murphy.”

“And who’s your favorite rock star? Prince. … Pino, all you ever say is ‘nigger this’ and ‘nigger that,’ and all your favorite people are so-called niggers.”

“Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers,” Pino says. “I mean, they’re not black. I mean… let me explain myself…”

Here we have a black artist confronting the schizophrenia of whites who idolize black athletes and entertainers while classifying all other blacks as “niggers.” Lee also comments on the peculiar push-pull of admiration and envy. (“Pino, deep down inside I think you wish you were black.”)

As timely in 1989 as it would’ve been in the era of Willie Mays and Sammy Davis, Jr. (not to mention the era of LeBron James and Dave Chappelle).

4. Chris Rock, “Black People vs. Niggers.” (1996)

From Rock’s breakthrough HBO special, “Bring the Pain,” a brutally frank, devastatingly funny examination of the class division in black America. “There’s like a civil war going on with black people,” he began. “And there’s two sides: there’s black people and there’s niggers. The niggers have got to go.” The audience went bananas, and he was just getting warmed up.

“Books are like kryptonite to a nigger.”

“(sings) ‘It’s the first of the month…’ Niggers are singing welfare carols!”

Ten years later, we’re still having the conversation that Rock brought out of the closet with this routine. (Reference John Ridley’s Esquire essay.)

Five and a half minutes that shook the comedy world, and proved Chris Rock to be the Richard Pryor of his generation.

3. The Last Poets, “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” (1970)

The Last Poets were a huge influence on funk, hip-hop and today’s spoken-word scene. This particular piece, by Umar Bin Hassan, is a classic deconstruction of African-American complacency.

“Niggers fuck Sally, Linda and Sue. And if you don’t watch out, niggers will fuck you. Niggers would fuck fuck if it could be fucked. But when it comes to fucking for revolutionary causes, niggers say ‘Fuck revolution.’”

Bin Hassan says the word 89 times in about five minutes, as if this were some magickal ritual to transmute self-hatred into self-love.

(To listen to this track, click here.)

2. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” anonymous. (1960s)

Last Sunday, when me and the fellas believed (like most people) that Muhammad Ali uttered these words, we put this quote at No. 1. Come to find out, Ali never said it, according to his biographer Thomas Hauser. (Big-time hat-tip to Ralph Keyes, author of “Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations.”)

So I did some quick Internet archive-searching. Indeed, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” was a popular protest slogan of the day. It was reported in 1966 and 1967… without reference to Ali. As in this New York Times story (June 21, 1966) about a Mississippi civil rights march:

“[S]ome marchers carried signs of their own design. ‘No Viet Cong Ever Called Me Nigger,’ said a placard carried by Vince Young, a 41-year-old Negro, who is a member of the Brooklyn branch of the Congress of Racial Equality…”

And this UPI report, printed in the Washington Post (August 18, 1966), concerning a small-scale black protest at an Army base:

“One of their picket signs read: ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.’ The same slogan appeared recently in the riot-torn Hough district of Cleveland, Ohio.”

And this Time magazine coverage (April 21, 1967) of a large anti-war protest in New York City:

“Angry-looking young Negroes from CORE and S.N.C.C. paced through the meadow carrying signs that read ‘I Don’t Give a Damn for Uncle Sam’ and ‘No Viet Cong Ever Called Me Nigger.’ ”

What Muhammad Ali did say, in February of ’66, after the draft board classified him fit for duty, was this: “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong.”

Over time, due to our collective need to attach this free-floating slogan to a specific defiant individual, the “nigger” line got grafted onto Ali’s quote in our memory. It is now such an accepted piece of American folklore, Michael Mann shows Will Smith saying the words in his movie “Ali.”

Still, even as a generic sentiment, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” is the most potent and effective use of the word ever as an instrument of protest.

1. Richard Pryor, “Bicentennial Nigger.” (1976)

The word “nigger” was to Richard Pryor what the saxophone was to Coltrane. He could make it do almost anything.

Juxtaposing the words “bicentennial” and “nigger” was, in itself, audaciously brilliant. Remember the Bicentennial, y’all? The tall ships and all? America threw itself the grandest birthday party imaginable, and along came Pryor to piss in the punch bowl.

“They’re having a Bicentennial. Two hundred years. Gonna have a Bicentennial Nigger. They will, they’ll have some nigger 200 years old in blackface… stars and stripes on his forehead…”

That’s from the last track on his 1976 LP, “Bicentennial Nigger,” a two-and-a-half-minute monologue of the same title. Pryor portrays the stereotype of an old chuckling, semi-literate, subservient but nonetheless contented darky. As he catalogs the degradations of slavery, he keeps on a-chucklin’, talkin’ ’ bout how glad he be to have spent 200 years in Amer’ca. It’s a bleak bit that ends with an angry twist.

Keep in mind, Pryor unleashed this lacerating satire at a time when he was a popular guest on TV talk shows. He was on the verge of major Hollywood stardom. He had something to lose. But he did it anyway. And in the process made himself a hero to white folks as well as black.

Only a bad-ass nigger could’ve pulled off that trick.

(To listen to the routine, click here.)

Coming next: a few Honorable Mentions, plus the first of several chunks of the discussion between me, Larry Alexander, Lorenzo Heard and Thomas Stanley.

16 comments:

dez said...

I don't know if you're sticking to utterances or if you'd tossed around literary refs, but if so, I'd submit _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ for your consideration. People still misunderstand the use of "nigger" in that novel, and some would have it banned from school libraries to this day. And don't get me started on the version that replaces "nigger" with "black." Talk about diluting an artist's message....

The half-wop, half-wetback section of one has spoken :-D

S.O.L. said...

Man, UBM, this blog is like the Algonquin Round Table of Black. Thanks for letting us crackers into your world. Fastest route to understanding is knowing thy neighbor, right? I can't think of a better place to start then right here at UBM.

SJ said...

Really interesting post...I just finished watching South Park's episode regarding the whole Michael Richards controversy...I thought it was a good discussion of race too and the power the word when a white person says it to black person in a demeaning way. South Park is absurd but it does get a point across well.

Eric said...

On a related note, you don't hear "kike" or "hebe" much anymore.

I think it's because among anti-Semites, "Jew" is considered pejorative enough.

Anna Laperle said...

I agree that the word has a right to exist. The way it's used, the idea it's conveying is what matters. Same thing for the word "cunt". It's a hard, nasty word when directed at a woman. But in other contexts (think Deadwood or Shaun of the Dead), it can be hilarious and completely appropriate.

dez said...

UBM, I wasn't sure where to put this (it's not on topic for this thread), but I thought you might be interested in this:

http://fakinggoodbreeding.blogspot.com/2007/03/whiteness-makeover.html

Withnail said...

"Dead Nigger Storage" in Pulp Fiction. Yeah, at first glance it seems like talking about this instnace - or any Tarantino movie in which he's got white and black characters saying the n-word" left and right with frat-boy abandon might belittle this exercise. But I think it was at that moment that - in my college days- that I thought that the word in question had lost at least some of the hatred associated with it.

In that moment - when it became *almost* okay for white America to say the word - and giggle at it- the word almost became just another cuss word.

And I've always believed in what Lenny Bruce said, that all we have to do is rob the word of it's power.

Remember this was in the years after NWA broke, and then broke up. Nigger became Nigga. I think, in that movie, the word had a chance of not being as powerful - and as dangerous, as it once was, and it is again.

Dougfp said...

Okay, maybe not the Top Ten, but I would add "Rednecks" by Randy Newman, which cleverly skewers the notion that "the North has set the BLANK free..."

...and the scene in "Blazing Saddles" where Cleavon Little shows up and the Mayor, realizing he's black, starts stammering, "The sheriff is a ni..." and can't complete the word.

Undercover Black Man said...

Dez: Ashamed to say it's been a couple of decades since I read "Huck Finn"... It definitely deserves a shout-out, particular given the book-banners. And are you serious about the text being bowdlerized? Do they call him "Black Jim"?

SJ: My bud Larry Alexander is a big "South Park" fan, and he emailed me about this ep. a couple of days ago. I've never been a "South Park" fan. I get the sense they try to shock for the sake of shocking.

Eric: That reminds me... in the manner of blacks who took and flipped the word "nigger," have you ever checked out Heeb magazine? Smart and hilarious.

Anna: I would argue that "cunt" runs a close No. 2 to "nigger" as the foulest word in the English language. I get really skeeved out when the likes of a Woody Allen utters it in a movie (as in "Deconstructing Harry.") But like you say, in a different context, it can be used hilariously and without objection (as with Larry David's "beloved cunt" typo in "Curb Your Enthusiasm").

Undercover Black Man said...

Withnail: Quentin Tarantino's use of the word can launch a daylong debate all by itself. "Dead Nigger Storage" didn't bother me as much as the nasty speeches in "Reservoir Dogs" (Chris Penn and Michael Madsen, about being raped by niggers in jail, if I remember right) and in "True Romance" (Dennis Hopper's "Sicilians-were-spawned-by-niggers" speech with Christopher Walken). Those things seem to reflect Tarantino's own personal "issues" rather than the narrative requirements of the moment.

Doug: I had never heard that Randy Newman tune! Just downloaded it, like it a lot. I should've guessed that Newman, razor-witted satirist that he is, had put the word to use at some point in his career.

Withnail said...

I'm not about to take a guess as to what Tarantino's issues are, but, guessing from his movies, I don't think it's such a big leap for him just not to get it. As the majority of his art is collage, stealing shots and ideas from movies he saw for years at the video store, he might think it sounds cool.

In Dogs and True Romance, you cite examples of white characters using said word (Chris Penn and Dennis Hopper). Yet, at the time, I recall few critics, cinematic or cultural, taking Tarantino to task over those scenes. Indeed, the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is considered a classic. But in Jackie Brown, Tarantino puts the n-word in the mouth of a black actor, Sam Jackson, over 70-odd times. And that became a mini controversy.

If the artist is white, does it matter the color of his character's skin who says the word? Does it matter if he's using it for shock value? Does it make him no worse (or better) than Eli Roth and other torture porn directors who use blood and gore, that he uses the word for - it seems - pure shock value.

like you said, an all day debate.

dez said...

UBM: John Wallace rewrote the book in the 1980's: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/aboutbook.html

It's been a while since I've read the book myself, but I don't think Twain ever refers to him as "Nigger Jim." It's more like, "Miss Watson's nigger, Jim" or "the runaway nigger, Jim." I think the "Nigger Jim" tag was popularized by Leslie Fiedler's essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'n, Huck Honey," but I could be mistaken.

Re: "cunt": Some women have tried taking back the power of that word (as was done with "bitch"), but it hasn't seemed to have worked. I guess back in ye olde days, "cunt" had more to do with maidenhead than being a vulgar epithet, so that's what they were trying to get back to. I generally only use the word when I'm truly trying to insult someone or just feel like being totally vulgar.

Re: True Romance: I think Hopper uses his speech as a way to get Walken to kill him quickly rather than be tortured slowly, so he uses the most offensive idea he can think of and puts it in the most offensive terms possible in order to achieve his result (quick gunshot death vs. tortured for hours). Fast Eddie (Chris Penn) using it in Rez Dogs just shows the audience what a moron he is. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say Tarantino has issues in this regard.

yeyeolade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yeyeolade said...

nigger should never be used by BLACK people again,publically. It is the usual slave mentality that everything we had to do under white oppression must not be gloried because it easy not to change such slavery behaviour! Brother Pryor was right-there are no niggers in Africa and we must stop being niggers in amerikkka. After coming back to Africa,Nigeria 27 years I know it is necessary to change BLACKamerikkkan behaviour to get back RESPECT!
Your SISTER back to AFRICA,
Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade
yeyeolade.wordpress.com

Angie said...

Hi, I just read about your blog in Entertainment Weekly (I'm such a loser!) and am definitely adding it to my daily read list. I found this post after your specific mention of it and found it a great cultural look at a word.

However, I'd like to point out, and I know this seems nit-picky but it really isn't, that while John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-wrote the song, it was a phrase Ono herself coined and introduced to Lennon. It is really representative of much of her art, especially her performance art, of that period. (Cut-Piece, I think, remains a wonderful piece of performance art.)

Yes, I like Yoko Ono. Don't mind me, I'll just go stand over here in a corner and hang my head! ;)

Anyway, look forward to reading your blog consistently!

Anonymous said...

The way my husband uses it, "nigger" is the black counterpart to white trash. (Ever notice how they have to specify, WHITE trash?)

I'm white, part Cherokee...and I agree with Chris Rock, there's black people, then there's niggers.

I personally don't care if someone calls me honky or cracker. Big deal.