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].
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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]