Monday, March 12, 2007

Roundtable: The 'N' Top 10 (pt. 2)

Here’s more of me and my associates and our discourse on the cultural life of the word “nigger.” Much of this segment deals with white artists’ use of the word. (For example, John Lennon’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”)

When we sat down, we had the notion of doing a companion list to our “Nigger” Top 10 – a Worst 10, a place to put Michael Richards and Mark Fuhrman and the like. We never got around to that. But I had it in mind when I played the Patti Smith tune “Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger” (1978) for the fellas. (Click here to hear it on my Vox music stash.)

UPDATE (03/13/07): Monday night was a big night for the “N-word.” Patti Smith performed the song after she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And I’m told Chris Rock kicked some advanced niggerology on “Inside the Actors Studio.” Damn... time for me to change the name of this blog or what?
THOMAS STANLEY: Did [Patti Smith] say Jackson Pollock is a nigger?

DAVID MILLS: Yeah. Now, I don’t like that use of the word. To just say, “I want to be a social outsider so I identify myself as a nigger” –

STANLEY: You can’t make yourself a nigger.

LORENZO HEARD: I thought she was commenting on how punk was looked down on as this inferior music form. I could be wrong. That’s the way I always took it, so I was never offended by it.

LARRY ALEXANDER: (to David) You said you don’t like the word being used that way. Again, is there another word in the English language that rises to that level of scrutiny? The word is completely unique. It’s a live grenade. And if you understand that context, you’ll never have a problem.

MILLS: Does that mean you’re not bothered by any use of the word?

ALEXANDER: I think it’s a waste of time, just for me personally. I’ve come to the point of thinking it’s a waste of time to be bothered, because it’s so unique, if you don’t understand that it’s a loaded grenade, someone’s always gonna be offended.

It just doesn’t fit with the rest of language. It can do things no other word can do. So it has to be understood uniquely.

MILLS: Is it worth scrutinizing Patti Smith’s use of it in this song?

ALEXANDER: To a point. Only to a point. Because when you make it a term of endearment, and then you broadcast it and it gets commodified, when it comes back and bites you in the ass, you’re a fool if you go, “I didn’t know you were gonna bite me!”

MILLS: Here’s another thing about ramifications. She makes this song, she becomes an icon. That gives a license to the next generation. Marilyn Manson covered it. Did he cover it just because it’s an excuse to yell “nigger nigger nigger” because he’s a shock artist?

HEARD: But check this out. When this song came out, there wasn’t a big uproar about this.

MILLS: Dave Marsh slammed her for it in Rolling Stone when he reviewed the album.

HEARD: I remember that. But that’s as far as it went.

STANLEY: I’ll tell you a musical one that may not rise into our Top 10, but it always meant something to me. Public Enemy’s “Anti-Nigger Machine” – I like that. I think it had a certain edge to it. Especially for that message to hit this generation.

HEARD: The wild thing about it is, [with] that generation, it had no impact.

STANLEY: They didn’t get it.

HEARD: No. They didn’t get it at all.

ALEXANDER: That’s sort of my point about the word. I mean, you can get bent out of shape based on what you know because you experienced something else. But every generation [doesn’t] have actual cultural education on the word. You know, Jews and Japanese have cultural education.

This word – you let it take its own shape, you ain’t gonna like what it turns into.

HEARD: We don’t have the cultural education because too many of our people want to forget that it ever happened. It’s like the slavery thing –

ALEXANDER: Jewish and Japanese kids have cultural education on Saturdays. We ain’t going to school on Saturday.


HEARD: When I was in the fifth grade, my history teacher and my math teacher got together and combined our two classes to teach us black history. Now, we had to swear that once we left the class, we couldn’t tell anybody what they were teaching us.

And because we had this forbidden knowledge, man, we thought we knew something. We’d be in the street, “Frederick Douglass was a black abolitionist!” You know, just out of nowhere. And the other kid was, “What?” “That’s right, you don’t know. Read a book some time!” This is me being the smart-ass kid I was.

ALEXANDER: This one probably can’t get Honorable Mention, but this is worth mentioning in the conversation. The black history documentary that Bill Cosby did? When he had the leather jacket on –

HEARD: I saw it.

ALEXANDER: – and he said, “See, white folks wasn’t worried about niggers back then.” Bill Cosby saying that line. I was like, “Ohhh shit!” This was 1968.

Then he takes you to a school for black kids run by black educators in Philadelphia. This was pre-first-grade. It stuck with me.

HEARD: I think [Dick Gregory’s autobiography “Nigger”] is significant because it is a book. But isn’t there another book on the word? Didn’t someone else do a book about the word?

MILLS: Yeah, a few years ago. Randall Kennedy at Harvard. [“Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”] That book gave David E. Kelley an excuse to use the word in “Boston Public.” And that’s another thing I hate is when they say: “A very special episode of ‘Boston Public.’ We’re going to talk about the N-word.”

HEARD: I think the “Boston Public” episode is significant, because it was about the word.

MILLS: But it was such a shallow understanding of the nuance of –

ALEXANDER: That is the point. How overblown this “very-special-episode” shit is goes hand-in-hand with the phrase “the N-word,” with “Let’s forget about it, let’s not talk about it.” It is that superficial understanding of the word that’s the problem.

HEARD: It might’ve been shallow and superficial, but [Kelley] did it.

MILLS: So what?

HEARD: It took nerve to do it. I mean, come on, Dave –

MILLS: No no no. What was the downside? He knows he’s gonna get every critic in the country writing about it, and he knows he’ll be saluted for his candor or whatever. What price was there to pay?

HEARD: My point is, this is something no one was doing. I got to at least give him props for that.

MILLS: No. It was only because Randall Kennedy had written the book. The discussion on the show was literally about that book. Michael Rapaport assigned it in class.

HEARD: But see, being a TV show, you actually reach more people than that book did. I know a lot of people who saw that episode [and] wanted to talk about it afterwards.

ALEXANDER: Let me mention one negative, just to see what comments there are. I personally thought that, among the Michael Richardses and the Mark Fuhrmans, I was ready to put Damon Wayans at No. 1 [among the worst].

STANLEY: Really?

ALEXANDER: Number fucking one. I don’t mind him turning that into a children’s clothing line, as long as you don’t complain every time some white kid runs up on TV, “This is my nigga over here.”

MILLS: What did Damon Wayons do?

ALEXANDER: He wanted to have a children’s clothing line, and he wanted to call it Nigga.

STANLEY: No he didn’t!

ALEXANDER: You heard about this, right? Here’s the article right here. (reads) “Patent offense: Wayans’s hip-hop line. Officials reject actor’s bid to trademark racial slur.”

STANLEY: (laughs) That’s slick, though. Guy tried to trademark the word.

ALEXANDER: I’m not asking black folks to come up with one concept. But goddamn, we keep asking to have it both ways, and complain when we get it both ways.


ALEXANDER: If you ask to have it both ways, then take it both ways and shut the fuck up. Or – you don’t have to have it both ways.

HEARD: I actually thought it was funny myself.

ALEXANDER: Which is fine. ’Cause you ain’t complaining when white boys run around calling each other niggers.

By the way, there’s one documented case, supposedly, of Eminem having used the word, and he had to do this profuse apology. He doesn’t use that word at all. Which I think is a significant non-use, given his place in the culture.

STANLEY: If we need a token white boy, I’d go with Lenny Bruce over John Lennon. But the problem with the Lenny Bruce thing is that it’s fundamentally a flawed premise. Speaking the word doesn’t make the power of the word go away. It just moves it around or something.

MILLS: Let’s plug in another word. How would he have sounded saying, “How many cunts are in the audience tonight? Oh, there’s a cunt… We need to use the word ‘cunt’ more to weaken its impact.” It’s idiotic.

ALEXANDER: The Lenny Bruce [routine] turned out to be a flawed premise, but it’s not completely insignificant for the time, in terms of what people thought could happen.

STANLEY: If we’re going by good intentions, I think that maybe Lennon’s whole thing was a little better-formed than Bruce’s thing.

HEARD: Lenny Bruce caused a dialogue with that routine. I remember this.

STANLEY: You ain’t that old, Lorenzo. Shit.

HEARD: I’m 48.

STANLEY: But he remembers everything since when he was 3. That’s the difference. (laughs)

HEARD: Yes I do. I’ve never smoked weed, I’ve never had a serious head injury. So I remember it all. I remember the dialogue about this, which is how I got into Lenny Bruce.

Frankly, I thought he had insight much earlier than most folks, even a lot of black folks. But that’s ’cause I understood where he was coming from.

ALEXANDER: I like Lenny more than Lennon because, even though it didn’t hold water, it kind of shaped the idea of a solution to this whole fear-of-words thing. It also ultimately pointed out how unique this word is.

STANLEY: And also, his whole career is defined by problematic words. So, yeah, there’s a lot to Bruce.

HEARD: It was a beautiful failure.



dez said...

MILLS: Let’s plug in another word. How would he have sounded saying, “How many cunts are in the audience tonight? Oh, there’s a cunt… We need to use the word ‘cunt’ more to weaken its impact.” It’s idiotic.

Heh, like I said in another comment, some women are trying to take that word back and neuter its power as an insult.

I have a bootleg of an old Hole concert where Courtney is getting the audience to repeat words back to her. One of them is "bitch," which the audience says with great gusto. But when she tries to get them to say "nigger," they (mostly) shut up. The point is that most of the audience knows better than to be racist, but when it comes to insulting women, all bets are off. I dunno, maybe this will dovetail with your discussion of Lennon's song? Just thought I'd throw that out there.

S.O.L. said...

Interesing point there Dez. I really feel that general disrespect for women is a deep cultural thing in America, even though we profess to be so civilized when we hear how fundamental Muslims murder their wives, sisters and daughters. There's something about how we teach our children that is telling them it's okay to hit women. It happens just too often for it to not be ingrained, you know?

With regard to the present discussion which is excellent, I've noticed in just the last few years an open racist attitude toward Jews (of which I'm one). I hardly look for it as I'm an American first in almost all things, but I've heard more blatantly anti-semetic rants, theories and slurs since, say, 9/11, than I heard in the first three and a half decades of my life.

In some ways, I feel like we're going backward as we try to move the dialogue forward. Like when Tim Hardaway blasted gays a couple weeks ago -- a lot of people gave him props for being 'honest'.

My parents taught me to respect everybody and whenever anyone used the N-word, I was supposed to speak up about it being offensive. I still do it today -- am I wrong? naive? Uncool? What?

S.O.L. said...

One more thing - I would never, ever, ever, EVER use the N-word in conversation. How interesting is it that I can't think of another word that I've banned from my vocabulary?

dez said...

Like when Tim Hardaway blasted gays a couple weeks ago -- a lot of people gave him props for being 'honest'.

Really? Jeez, I saw some people on Usenet giving him props, but they were mostly of the white supremacist/friggin' coward variety (and cross-posting their gibberish from their alt.I'm-a-Neo-Nazi-jagoff NGs into benign groups I like, which is why I saw their posts in the first place). Were there people giving him props in interviews & such?

I've also noticed the rise in anti-Semetic rhetoric, as well as increased voicing of bigotry and racism against gays and blacks (I've been exposed to anti-gay talk in my new job, for instance, which is doubly weird because one of our supervisors is out and everyone seems to like him). In part, I would blame the elevated levels of hatred being spewed by our government ("evildoers this" and "Axis of Evil that," which is having the effect of diluting the word "evil"'s power, IMHO). When your own government makes it okay to hate people because of their color or orientation, etc., it seems to make it easier for some people to start voicing their otherwise hidden opinions. It's also easier if they think you're a "dumb foreigner," as "Borat" proved!

Undercover Black Man said...

S.O.L.: Your parents raised you well. It's just that what nobody saw coming was a hip-hop trend that would muddy the waters regarding white people's use of the word. "If my favorite rapper says it so much, it must be a cool word..."

Dez: I saw a so-called hip female standup comic use the C-word onstage... as an insult directed at some woman in whatever story she was telling. Didn't skeeve me out, but I did think it was odd.

dez said...

I mostly hear the C-word used by punkers and Brits (the latter usually from men directing it at other men, or in the case of Johnny Rotten, at himself: "I'm an ugly c---," when asked why so many women find him attractive). Most women I know don't use it unless they're insulting a woman they really, truly hate, which is why the whole "take back the power" of that particular word cracks me up.

Mike said...

I only realized the word's singularity when I moved to Denmark last year. Everyone here speaks English, but they speak it without any of the connotations that we grow up with. The understand that 'fuck,' 'shit,' 'cunt' etc, are swear words, but they don't really *feel* it the way we do. Just like we don't really take 'bloody' seriously as a swear word, and I haven't been able to internalize Danish swear words (like 'satan', which sounds like some sort of Sunday school insult).
Hence, there's a chocolate-truffley dessert here that until very recently was openly called 'nigger buns'. Similarly, some of my Danish friends have a Brazilian friend who they refer to as 'the nigger' ('Have you invited the nigger to your party yet? I think she's free friday.')
It's a total punch in the stomach every time I hear it, and none of my Danish friends can understand why I've asked them not to utter it when I'm around. 'If the nigger doesn't mind hearing it, why do you?'
Is it them who 'just don't get it', or is it me? I can't imagine banning English-speaking foreign friends from saying any other word in the language.

Undercover Black Man said...

Mike: Thanks for commenting. I’m so grateful for information like yours which can shift our perspective a bit. You wrote:

“Is it them who 'just don't get it', or is it me?”

Your Danish experience illustrates the big point, to me. There’s nothing magically, intrinsically evil about the word “nigger.” It’s just six letters, just two syllables. Those who wish to ban it are behaving almost superstitiously… like it’s the ineffable sexagrammaton.

While it’s fine for you to ask your Danish friends to respect your cultural sensitivities, it would be useless to apply Americanized moral judgments to their use of the word. (Where’d they pick it up from, anyway? From hip-hop music? Am I right in assuming that the Danish have no animus towards black Americans… considering that Copenhagen has been considered the “jazz capital of Europe” for decades?)

The particularity of the power of “bad words” is highlighted when we get into foreign language. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. But when I produced a TV show called “Kingpin,” we used some Spanish dialogue to give it the flavor. Including some Spanish curse words. For instance, “pinche pendejo” – which is like “fucking asshole,” except I went round-and-round with a Mexican language coach on the show as to how bad “pinche” was… was it like “fucking” or was it more like “damned”?

To me, it’s just a sound. To someone raised in Mexico, it could cause grave offense if it emenated out of his or her TV set. I was satisfied that the word was broadcastable. Then, once it was broadcast, somebody came up to me and said, “Wow, I can’t believe you got away with that. You never hear that word on Mexican television.”

Now, back to the Danes. Even if their adoption of the word “nigger” is some peculiar pop-culture quirk, I’m sure they – like everybody else – do have their own intense epithets to describe foreigners, non-whites, etc. Especially, I would assume, with the recent influx of immigrants. What do they call their African immigrants?

It’s like the British word “wog.” Means nothing to me. But I believe it was (still is?) one of the nastier racial insults in the British vernacular… originally targeting South Asians, but broadened to classify any dark-skinned person.

dez said...

I remember hearing "pinche pendejo" on "Kingpin" and laughing my ass off because I couldn't believe it made it on the air--same as I do whenever I catch some dirty words on "The George Lopez Show" (I swear I've heard "cabron" on there before). "Pinche" is sometimes translated as "dirty little"--Café Tacuba has a song called "Pinche Juan" and it's translated as "Dirty Little Juan" to English-speaking press, but where I grew up in Monterey Park & East L.A., it meant "fucking."

The worst insult I heard when I was an exchange student in Denmark in the mid-80s was "stupid Swedes." And from what my British friends say, "wog" is still considered a nasty racial insult.

Undercover Black Man said...

Dez: You get around, dude!

There's a track I really love called "Pinche Stereo Band" by Plastilina Mosh.

I got into that rock en espanol thing during "Kingpin" and still be checking it out.

dez said...

Heh, I'm a dudette, UBM (full first name is Désirée). I've been told I post like a guy, though ;-)

One reason I watched "Kingpin" was the use of Kinky's music in it (and then I got hooked by the story & acting). Other rockeros/alternative Latino musicians you should check out besides them and Tacuba are Aterciopelados, Molotov (they have a controversial song called "Puto"), Very Be Careful, Ely Guerra, Julieta Venegas, Orishas, Control Machete, Bersuit Vergarabat, Lila Downs, and Los Amigos Invisibles. And that's just my short list :-)

Undercover Black Man said...

Oh, snap! Sorry about that, Dez. And I fancy myself being able to tell the difference... I think women and men do write differently.

I'll check out VBC and Bersuit Vegarabat... the rest I'm already into. In fact, on my list of songs I was gonna use if "Kingpin" lasted longer are:

"Luz Azul" by Aterciopelados

"Vete" by Ely Guerra

The music became my favorite thing about that show. A great way to set "Kingpin" apart from everything else on TV. Some great, great music out there. (Might I add: Manu Chao, Si-Se, Natalia LaFourcade, Los Pinguos...)

As for Julieta Venegas, we toyed with the idea of having her record a version of Santana's "Evil Ways" to serve as our theme song. She did a demo version, but we wound up going with an instrumental.

dez said...

No worries on the dude/dudette thing. My penchant for gender-neutral nicks on the intarwebs causes that confusion a lot. Oh, and I can't believe I left out Juanes, Alejandra Guzman, and La Ley. "Luz Azul" is a great song, too.