Sunday, March 11, 2007

Roundtable: The 'N' Top 10 (pt. 1)

This is us: (from left to right) me, Larry Alexander, Thomas Stanley and Lorenzo Heard.

When we gathered a week ago to compile our “Nigger” Top 10, the discussion got good and deep. And it was hard to limit the list to 10. So here are a few “Honorable Mentions”:

TV producer Norman Lear deserves special commendation (the Golden Nigger Award for Lifetime Achievement?). When he put black American life at the center of his sitcoms “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” he was bold enough to realize that he couldn’t ignore the existence of this word in the black vernacular.

You didn’t hear “nigger” often on these shows, but when you did, it made an impact. As it did whenever the word was uttered on “All in the Family” (once from the lips of Archie Bunker himself, in the classic “shoebootie” episode).

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles gets a nod for his triumphant on-screen text message at the end of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), when his black hero evades pursuing cops and crosses the border into Mexico: “Watch out! A baad assss nigger is coming to collect some dues.” Lorenzo Heard recalls the theater audience cheering those words.

Thomas Stanley hails H. Rap Brown’s autobiography/Black Power manifesto “Die Nigger Die!” (1969).

I tip my hat to comedian Paul Mooney for his early-’90s routine “Dial-a-Nigger.”

And Larry Alexander emailed me a couple of days ago to salute “South Park” for last week’s Michael-Richards-inspired niggerthon episode. “Trey Parker and Matt Stone served up a typically hilarious spoof on the whole word-banning issue, once again flashing their first-rate satirical credentials.”

Now, to the roundtable discussion, which began with our listening to “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” by the Last Poets
DAVID MILLS: Thomas, what’s the value of this piece?

THOMAS STANLEY: It’s complex. It’s real complex. The whole rant is about what’s fucked-up about niggers, and at the end, we’re taking ownership of that. That’s who we are. You gotta love who you are.

If I use the word, I always try to stipulate what I mean by the word “nigger.” For me, a nigger can be anybody, black or white, any race that has been extracted out of their own historical line and thrust into someone else’s historical line.

So you got Palestinian niggers, you got Armenian niggers, Native American niggers, you got all sorts of people that aren’t wearing their own history, and we’re all niggers. That [poem] is a way of dealing with the duality of that identity in a way that’s revolutionary.

LORENZO HEARD: It’s funny, because as a kid I didn’t know “nigger” was a negative word. I had no idea. Because where I grew up, it either meant the male of the species or it was a term of endearment.

It wasn’t until “All in the Family” that I found out that white folks used this in a negative connotation.

STANLEY: I went to Leland Junior High School… Montgomery County. Back then – this is like 1972, ’73 – the average mean income could’ve been, I don’t know, whatever would’ve established upper-middle-class. This was Chevy Chase, right? This wasn’t Olney or someplace out in the sticks.

I was one of three students of color in the whole [school]. The other one was Megumi, the Japanese kid, and somebody else, the Indian kid.

I got called “nigger” every day for, like, months. Months. And fought daily. “Call him ‘nigger,’ see what happens.”

Finally, it was David S----, David S---- was maybe like 19 in the eighth grade. Dude had a beard. And we were sitting at the top of this long flight of stairs, right in front of the school. David snuck up behind me, couldn’t even say that shit to my face – “Nigger!” – and he kicked me down this long flight of concrete stairs. One of those things that happens where, because you don’t expect it, you can just get up and [say], “Oh, I’m not all busted up. That’s cool.”

So by the time I had thought about “How am I gonna get back at this motherfucker?” they had already expelled him. He wound up someplace else for some other reason.

But these kids didn’t know – Their whole thing was: Here’s a word and it has this powerful effect when you use this word. They didn’t know what they were saying. (laughs) It just got this effect out of me consistently.

LARRY ALEXANDER: It’s an incantation.

HEARD: Where I grew up, there were no white folks [so] I never got that.

Now, as a teenager, when we moved into a neighborhood that actually had some white kids, these white kids thought they were black. These white kids said “nigger” all the time. But to us it wasn’t no problem ’cause we looked at them as being black. It wasn’t a skin thing. It was a nigger thing.

I’ll never forget, James S------. It was James and Greg, father was black, mother was white. First day in junior high school, we’re all together and James [said], “Hey, man, what y’all niggers up to?”

And one of the guys that went to Sousa – which we had to be bussed to – one of the guys from that neighborhood heard him, and he jumped on James. So we had to jump on him.

Teacher [said], “Why were you fighting?” “That white boy called me a nigger.”

I said, “First of all, he wasn’t talking to you, he was talking to us. Second of all, he ain’t no white boy.” Then I thought about what I had just said, and I looked at him [and thought], “Damn, I guess he is a white boy.” But he always been cool with us. I had never thought about that in a different context.

Now, he was blond, blue-eyed. His brother Greg looked like David, to be honest. So you never thought they were brothers unless you were from the neighborhood. [James] had to transfer; Greg had no problem. It was the wildest thing.

MILLS: Let’s talk about the Chris Rock routine, “Black People vs. Niggers.”

HEARD: I’ve always had problems with that routine. I always thought it was Chris Rock relating his self-loathing. Because, to me, Chris was placing black people in classes.

ALEXANDER: But it wasn’t purely economic. It was behavioral.

HEARD: His whole routine, to me, might belong in the Hall of Shame. I’ve never liked it, I’ve always thought it was offensive, I never thought it was funny.

To me, what I got out of it: if you’re black and you’re poor, he’s calling you a nigger.

MILLS: No. If you’re black and you’re a criminal

HEARD: But what he said [was] that everybody who’s black and poor is a criminal. See, I got no differentation from his routine. I never did.

STANLEY: “Niggers’ll put rims on a toaster.” That’s funny shit.

HEARD: That’s funny. But that has nothing to do with socioeconomic state.

STANLEY: It’s a mental state.

MILLS: Let me speak in defense of the routine. A great piece of comedy can act like a pressure valve and release some steam. Chris Rock did not invent the class tension in black America. It’s the eternal schizophrenia of being black in America; whose standard of behavior is in play? There’s this judging of one another.

And beyond that, there’s just the day-in and day-out of black people fucking up, and everyone feeling ashamed for the black people who fuck up. [Chris Rock’s routine] was the truth, and it acted as a pressure valve for someone to acknowledge this truth.

HEARD: This is the reason why it’s not the truth: Where I come from, you never had that thought. There was never, “Oh, black people always fuckin’ up.” Folks in my neighborhood didn’t say that, ’cause everybody fucked up. There was never this separation. Never.

Where I come from, Chris Rock was a nigger. There’s nothing that separates him from these guys who are quote-unquote criminals except the fact that he calls ’em criminals. Or maybe Chris never got caught. But that don’t make him any better than those guys.

STANLEY: There’s a paradox in that word. And I think the post-civil-rights, hip-hop use of the word has sort of accepted the half of the paradox that we ran from.

A nigger is somebody that’s not free. A nigger is not the president of the United States; a nigger is not, you know, Alan Greenspan; a nigger is not someone who is in charge of history in a way that non-niggers are.

But a nigger is free. Nigger fucks when he wants to fuck; nigger eats when he wants to eat. “High cholesterol? Gimme more of that shit.” Nigger smoke a Kool when he wants to, smoke some pot when wants to, and some crack if he needs to. There’s a freedom to being so outside of society that society’s rules don’t apply to you.

And Clinton was all about that. Clinton, his coarseness had a lot to do with seizing the power of that half of the nigger equation.

So when these guys talk about, “Yeah, I’m a real nigga,” that’s part of what they’re celebrating. “Yeah, I’m gonna take this version of what freedom is. That other version – the one that requires having a halfway decent education and some other stuff that I never had? I’ve defaulted back over to this one. I’ll be this nigger over here, and I’ll be free in a sense. Until I get locked up or shot.”

HEARD: Now that’s got to be the most unique point of view I ever heard, mixing Bill Clinton in the whole nigger equation.

MILLS: I wondered whether you meant Bill or George.

STANLEY: I meant George.


MILLS: I went to Bill too.

STANLEY: Now that I think about it, you know –

HEARD: I’m digging this Bill Clinton thing. “He’s got a point there.”


MILLS: So where does the Chris Rock routine belong on this list?

ALEXANDER: I vote it near the top. ’Cause I still think the piece was about behavior, not money.

HEARD: I don’t think it was about money, I think it was about class – class differentation – which I think is wrong.

ALEXANDER: Behavioral, though. Not how much money you have.

HEARD: It’s still a separation. It’s still a commentary and a judgment on a group of people.

ALEXANDER: Based on what they do.

HEARD: No matter what you do, I don’t think anybody has a right to judge another person. I don’t think Chris Rock has the right to judge.

MILLS: Judge who, though?

HEARD: Judge the people he’s judging – niggers. He’s judging niggers, this is what he says.

ALEXANDER: He’s defining niggers as the ones who robbed him at the ATM.

STANLEY: It’s more than that, though. It’s not just criminality. It’s all of those things that are maladaptive habits of culture that, because they’re our identity, we can’t let ’em go.

We gotta have the big hat. We gotta have the big hat when there’s no bread in the cabinet. “Bitch” and “ho,” whatever it is, we gotta do these things because that’s our identity, and, God, you can’t stop being black. So be a real nigger.

ALEXANDER: You just said the magic word. One of the biggest problems in all this is the idea of identity. The point I’m making is, if you get devalued by the world for being who the fuck you are, but if you become Clarence Thomas, oh, you’re a good colored guy – that’s the whole idea of the black context of double-consciousness.

MILLS: (to Lorenzo) The one thing where I see what you’re saying about that routine is, going beyond behavior and maladaptive mindsets, some of it just slides into style. Where you feel contemptuous of someone because of the way they talk –

ALEXANDER: That’s folks who embrace an assimilated sense of style, correct?

MILLS: Right.

ALEXANDER: So that’s identity. Versus the “acceptable Negro” identity which gives you your humanity in the views of the masses. Double-consciousness. African and American, never completely both.

But you’re right, it slides into style issues. The NBA, the dress code, Allen Iverson’s tattoos, braids, all of that shit. And white kids couldn’t love that shit more.

[NBA Commissioner] David Stern is catering to the middle-aged white dudes from American Express that he wants to come to his board room and sign off on a fucking commercial. And they both want to target white kids talkin’ about, “What’s up, my nigga?” It’s ridiculous.

That’s why I separate myself from the emotion of this word. Because I understand how circuitous the bullshit is. It’s not going anywhere. Use the word at your own risk. But understand the risk before you use it.



S.O.L. said...

"Use the word at your own risk. But understand the risk before you use it." Words to live by I think.

David - thanks for letting us all be a fly on the wall in what is turning out to be a fascinating and inciteful conversation. It feels like you guys are on to something big and important.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks so much, S.O.L. All without the benefit of beer or pot, I might add!

SJ said...

This may be a stupid question but I have almost zero about journalism, but how do you record the conversation? Just a tape recorder or something in the room? Then do you listen to it and write down everything carefully?

And David, don't lie about beer or pot! We know you had at least one of those!

justjudith said...

deep discussion. i personally don't use the word and don't care for the word. but the trippiest thing that ever happened to me was when me and my sister were sitting in front of a group of five white teenagers and they started calling each other n----s. blew. my. mind. i don't get the appeal of the word -- and it depends on the person as to whether or not you view it as a compliment or a term of endearment. i think the same is true with bitch or ho. i don't consider myself those things so don't call me that. it's subjective. however, to me, they are all insults. that's just me. great post, mr. mills.

Undercover Black Man said...

SJ: Yep, a basic tape recorder in the middle of the room. I became a pretty good typist during my journalism days, but still, typing the transcripts is time-consuming.

Judith: Thank you. That's the thing about this word... I don't think Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or anybody else could've ever imagined a day when white kids would call each by this word. All bets are off now. The meaning is up for grabs.