Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Roundtable: The 'N' Top 10 (pt. 3)

[UPDATE (03/18/07): Elvis Mitchell emailed to say: “The discussion on the blog reminds me that when ‘Nigger Charley’ ran on the African Heritage Movie Network – remember that syndicated package hosted by Ossie Davis? – it was called ‘The Legend of Charley.’ Which means, first of all, that the ‘nigger’ was silent, like the ‘k’ in knife, I guess. But the pasteurized refitting made it sound like a ’50s sitcom.”]

Here’s the last of the discussion between me, Larry Alexander, Lorenzo Heard and Thomas Stanley regarding the word “nigger.” I hope it hasn’t been too much. (Like when Paul Mooney used to mock white people’s reaction to his comedy: “Make that nigger stop saying ‘nigger’… I’m getting a nigger headache!”)

But as far as I’m concerned, the best occasion to use the word is when trying to understand the word, and thus understand ourselves and American society.

This chunk of conversation dwells on the 1970s, the decade in which the four of us came of age. Naturally we dealt with Pryor and how he should be represented on our “Nigger” Top 10 list…
LARRY ALEXANDER: I still think that “That Nigger’s Crazy” gets the edge. Because what white people meant when they said “That nigger’s crazy” is different than what black people meant when they said “That nigger’s crazy.”

LORENZO HEARD: I remember when that won the Grammy. Roberta Flack and some white guy up there with her – he wouldn’t say the title. He said, “The winner is – Richard Pryor.” And Roberta Flack said, “ ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’!”

DAVID MILLS: I have a memory of a talk show that Richard Pryor was on – I want to say “Dinah Shore,” but it couldn’t have been “Dinah Shore” –

HEARD: Could’ve been. He was on “Dinah Shore” twice.

MILLS: But they were talking about that title –

HEARD: “Dinah Shore.” John Byner was on it. And she kept asking [Pryor] – He kept saying, “Look, it means something different when we say it.” Dinah Shore said, “Well, what if I called you a nigger?” He goes, “I’d punch you out.”

John Byner said, “Richard, you have a phone call. It’s some nigger.”

ALEXANDER: I remember that!

MILLS: John Byner said what?

HEARD: John Byner ran off stage, he came back, “Richard, you have a phone call. It’s some nigger.” Everybody starts laughing, and Richard Pryor’s laughing. Then he started choking on him. Then they went to a commercial.

MILLS: Good Lord. On “The Dinah Shore Show.”

HEARD: It shows the difference in the ’70s, the different way people perceived the word. Well, the different way black people perceived it. Because there was an episode of “The Jeffersons,” and Tom [Willis] –

ALEXANDER: The argument?

HEARD: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: “You know y’all can’t argue –”

HEARD: [George] said, “Of course y’all don’t fight. Y’all afraid to fight.” And Tom says, “I don’t understand.” He said, “’Cause you know that the moment you guys start really going at it –” [Helen] went, “Watch out.”

“– when y’all get to really arguing –” She said, “Don’t you say it.”

“– the first word out your mouth gonna be ‘nigger.’ ” And she goes, “He said it.”

And it just tripped Tom out ’cause he never thought about that. [George] said, “Y’all scared to fight ’cause you know you’re gonna be throwing ‘niggers’ all over the place.”

THOMAS STANLEY: We showed in class the episode of “The Jeffersons” where the blackout occurs and they rob his store –

ALEXANDER: Oh yeah. That was great.

STANLEY: We had an agenda for why we were showing it, about the blackout and how all this looting happened. But I couldn’t believe, during this 30-minute episode, man, they were throwing “nigger” back and forth like it was nothing. It was just in the mix.

ALEXANDER: Remember [on “Sanford and Son”], Big Money Grip said that Lamont was his son? It’s edited out now if you catch it on TV Land, but Aunt Esther said, “Nigger, are you crazy?”

HEARD: Back then, especially on the black shows, that wasn’t a problem. “That’s My Mama” – you heard it a lot on “That’s My Mama.” It wasn’t the big deal it is now.

MILLS: And there were those blaxploitation movies in the ’70s that defined “nigger” in a heroic way. Even had it in the title – “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” “Boss Nigger” – the nigger-as-hero because he lived by his own rules. Were any of those movies any good?

HEARD: I thought “Legend of Nigger Charley” was a great film. I’ve always loved it. I’m still looking for it. I never saw “Boss Nigger.”

But “The Legend of Nigger Charley” – he never called himself Nigger Charley in the movie. He called himself Charley. It was the white folks that called him Nigger Charley, the people tracking him that called him Nigger Charley.

There was a scene in the movie where they made it a point to let us know that these people didn’t view us as people. We were animals and/or property. There was a scene where he was making love to his lady and these white guys burst in, said, “Look at that. They do it just like humans.” First thing out the guy’s mouth.

When I think about it now, I’m amazed they got away with that title.

MILLS: Was it advertised in the paper like that?

HEARD: Yeah. “The Legend of Nigger Charley.” On the marquee. I remember wanting to steal the word “nigger” and take it home.

We had a [neighborhood] football team. Each street put together a football team; this was organized by the recreation center. We called ourselves the Niggers, because I kept saying, “The intimidation factor. ‘Ooh, we’re playing the Niggers. We forfeit!’ ”


STANLEY: “We’re up against the Niggers, man…”

HEARD: “Damn, we got a tough schedule.”


STANLEY: Niggers are fearless, niggers are cutthroat, niggers will do anything to win the fight. They’ll throw dirt in your eyes, they’ll steal you, you know?

HEARD: Yeah.

MILLS: And they’ll survive.

STANLEY: And survive.

ALEXANDER: Actually, when the Knicks were all-black in ’79 – when they had the first all-black one-through-12 – they were being called the “Niggerbockers.”

HEARD: Yep. “New York Niggerbockers.” I remember that. Only the white folks. White folks would call menthol cigarettes “niggerettes.” You never heard that?

STANLEY: (laughs) I like that.

HEARD: Had a white boy tell me that. I looked at him, said, “You know, you are a very brave man to say that.” “Oh, I never say it. I just want you to know this is what they call ’em.”

STANLEY: You talk about Sly Stone, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” There is no comparable term that hurts white people the way “nigger” hurts black people.


STANLEY: Nothing. You can call ’em “honky” all day and they’re like, “What does that mean?”

MILLS: “Honky” wasn’t a word I ever heard in D.C.

HEARD: I used to hear it all the time. They was honkies.

ALEXANDER: I heard “cracker.”

MILLS: I heard “cracker.”

STANLEY: I heard “cracker.”

MILLS: Thomas, you got called “nigger” in school. I got called a “white cracker” one time in elementary school by another kid, and he was yellow. He called me a white cracker, and I remember the teacher stepping up to correct him, pointing to somebody’s shirt and saying, “This is white. And a cracker is something you eat.”

That’s my thing: The whitest guy in a room full of black people, the blackest guy in a room full of white people.

Larry, when I was looking for songs on iTunes, I typed “nigger” in the search engine, and the results come up “n****r.” Do you appreciate that? Do you resent that? Do you think it’s silly?

ALEXANDER: All those are sort of emotional terms. I say: “Set all that shit aside. It is what it is. All of this shit will happen.” That’s what “nigger” is. It’s the most unique word in the English language. I’m not surprised. This has to happen.

STANLEY: To me, the whole “N-word” – that stuff explains why we’re in Iraq.

ALEXANDER: Of course!

STANLEY: It’s like, if you can buy that – if the country can buy that – we’ll buy absolutely anything. It’s that fucking stupid.

MILLS: Where should we rank the impact of “nigger” at the end of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” – that on-screen message?

STANLEY: My question would be the film. It left such a – I was ready for something, and it almost took me where I was ready to go, which would’ve been this very, you know, progressive –

And it didn’t hit me like that. I hit me just as a bunch of distasteful stuff. There was something distasteful about it.

HEARD: Well, when did you see it? Did you see it in a theater?

STANLEY: I was grown. I watched it on TV.

HEARD: You saw it much later. You saw it after the impact of this film had died down. But it was a very, very bold thing to do. It was bold for [Melvin Van Peebles] to distribute this himself. Everything about this movie said: “I’m just gonna do this. I don’t care what the white man say.”

This is what folks at the time liked about it. Even white critics actually got it. It was a statement. I still love this film.

ALEXANDER: I will say this for “Sweetback” also. If you consider the film industry and its role in shaping images, it really was a turning on its head of 60 years, going back to D.W. Griffith.

Here’s my problem with “Sweetback”: For all those things I think the film itself represents, I’m wondering about that specific usage, as a lingering moment on a Top 10 of all time.

MILLS: How high should Richard Pryor’s epiphany in Africa be? What was the impact of that, when he rejected the use of the word?

ALEXANDER: To me, the whole idea is that here’s the guy who’s more responsible than anyone for the proliferation of this word through the culture, the broad proliferation. He’s an incomplete person anyway, so he’s trying to become a little bit more whole.

STANLEY: I don’t know necessarily that Richard’s conversion in Africa argues for or against the use of the word. It’s just a beautiful expression of him dealing with the consequences of language and looking at words deeper, looking at his own origins deeper –

HEARD: My problem with it is that it had no effect on the black community whatsoever.

MILLS: That’s what I was getting at by asking. What was the impact of it?

ALEXANDER: I agree with that. I think given his position in the culture relative to that word, it is significant. But I don’t think that his conversion has made anyone else drop it.

HEARD: Amongst the black intellectuals, it was a big deal. Amongst the common folks, it wasn’t. By this time, folks were considering Richard a sellout in the neighborhood. Folks weren’t talking about Richard Pryor anymore. They were talking about Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy and “Saturday Night Live.”

STANLEY: These things all stand as documents in their time and speak as their time. And what’s neat about Richard’s thing is it does add some perspective.

He was like, “I was in Africa. And I saw people that looked a whole lot more in charge of their own destiny than we look back in L.A. and New York and D.C. They’re running shit. So maybe they’re not niggers. Maybe we’re niggers and they’re not niggers, but the word isn’t fitting this context.”

And it’s not that his conversion has to be adopted by anybody else. It’s just that that perspective is valuable.

HEARD: But his reasons never rang true to me, because nobody I know ever referred to Africans as niggers.

STANLEY: Oh, I disagree. I used to hear that all the time.

HEARD: I never did. Nobody I know called Africans niggers. I never thought Africans were niggers.

MILLS: Well, that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway. He said, “I see them and I realize I’m not a nigger.”

HEARD: Why did he have to go to Africa to realize that?

ALEXANDER: Because he’s dealing with the bullshit here all his life coming out of black Peoria. I mean, he never got to be whole as a person all along. I think it’s a closing of the circle.

HEARD: If you’re talking about the completeness of Richard Pryor, I understand it. In the context of the word, I still don’t get it.

ALEXANDER: His conversion is almost like an extension of his life as performance art. It doesn’t matter whether everyone else agreed with it. He was bleeding for us professionally.


justjudith said...

i don't use the word and don't care for the word. and the fact that it can be the topic of such extended and passionate debates just reinforces my position in my mind. everybody has their own opinion of what the word means and under which circumstances they approve of it. and today's youth believe there is a strong difference between nigger and nigga -- do you think so? i do not.

Undercover Black Man said...

Judith, I'm with you... N-I-G-G-A is not a different word. I respect your feelings about the word, and I realize that many black folks feel the same... particularly those of an older generation.

But there's no getting rid of it from our history. My friend Thomas Stanley once did a performance piece called "You Can't Spell 'America' Without the N-Word," which, in addition to being clever, makes the point that the word will always be there in our language like a virus... Even if people stopped saying it, it would be there dormant.

The word and all its ramifications are a part of our story. We can dislike the word, but we don't have to fear it. It won't turn anybody into a pillar of salt. We can study it. We can even have fun with it. But I don't think we can eradicate it, any more than we can alter human nature.

Anonymous said...

HEARD: Yep. “New York Niggerbockers.” I remember that. Only the white folks. White folks would call menthol cigarettes “niggerettes.” You never heard that?

Mexicans have a pan dulce called cabeza de negrito. It's a plain pan dulce with little "knots" on top; in English, it's referred to as a "niggerhead." I once asked my Nana what the real name of the bread was, and she said they're really called that. Whenever I buy them for my Nana & Papa, I never say the name, just point to them and say how many I want. One time, I asked the clerk what they were called, hoping for a new answer; she sort of giggled and told me the Spanish name. So it's not like Mexicans don't know there's something wrong with it.

UBM, what do you think of The Laugh Factory banning the use of the word in their venue, and then Damon Wayans using it several times there and getting fined for it?

Anonymous said...

Oops, one other thing: I used to take sax lessons from an old, white jazz musician. During one lesson, he taught me how to blow "dirty sax" by "nigger-lipping" the reed. I was shocked when he called it that, and he told me that all the black jazz musicians he played with called it that, too, so I shouldn't be upset with the name. Because the black musicians used the term, it was therefore okay for everyone to use the term. I still don't see why he couldn't just tell me to modify my umbasure. Anyway, I guess you're right that getting rid of the word is pretty impossible.

justjudith said...

david, thank you for your response. i agree that the word is an important part of American history and even though i choose not to use it, i know that plenty of people do and i respect that. and i work with a lot of college kids, mostly rich and white and they love hip hop. and i'm getting the sense that they believe that if you spell it nigga it's okay for them to use it. and some black kids even espouse this philosophy when their white friends use the word. i've always thought of it as a socio-economic thing -- maybe because i was a product of the 80's. i sense the older people, people who came of age in the 60's and 70's view it more as a social movement and not just a word. i appreciate your thoughtful roundtable and to honor the spirit of it: right on :)

Anonymous said...

hey dave -- so my two episodes of The Wire last year, I tried not to use the word at all, cause I thought it was kinda overused -- and nobody noticed, nobody commented -- and I was really pleased, an episode of The Wire without the n word -- and then when I saw the finished episodes, in at least one of them, one of the actors used it, just threw it in, improved it and I thought, aw man...

Undercover Black Man said...

Eric O: "improved it" or "improvised it"? (Or both?)

It's all good. Even in a TV show about the ghetto, one can do without it.

Although, in "The Corner," we needed to use it. As it was based on real people, we had to be true to the way those real people talked.

And I remember Reg Cathey giving a great reading of this line to T.K. Carter: "Well, Gary, you the nigga with the idea, he the nigga with the truck."

Dez: Thanks for those real-world examples! I love hearing about these... like a linguistic dirty secret.

When I had my buddies over, I provided some mixed nuts. Thomas Stanley held up a particular nut and said, "You know what this is, right?" I did: a "nigger-toe." Better known as a Brazil nut.

As for the Laugh Factory... bad idea. You shouldn't straitjacket comedians that way. But after hearing about Damon Wayans' thwarted plan to put out "Nigga"-branded clothing, I won't shed any tears for him.

Anonymous said...

no, improved and improved, both. uttered by J.D., the actor playing bodie, who was great. I was basically just trying to get over on simon, see if he'd notice. he didn't.
I remember Reg doing that line -- a classic.
and I remember hearing that term for a brazil nut when I was a kid, and being puzzled.
and in new orleans I've heard the local equivalent for "jerry-rigged" from black, white and creole workmen -- and it seems to have a double meaning around anything improvised -- shabby and temporary and fucked up, and/or inventive and clever, making do with limited resources

Anonymous said...

More food for thought, this time from today's L.A. Times article about the Rock & Roll HOF induction re: Patti Smith's set (ellipsis is theirs):

>>Such informal elegies were mirrored by two written into the program. One, graced by a lovely vocal showcase from Aretha Franklin, remembered Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. The other, by Rev. Al Sharpton for James Brown, came right after Patti Smith's performance and caused the night's oddest juxtaposition. Smith ended her set with "Rock N Roll … ," whose full title means to claim the notorious "N" word for all living "outside society." Seeing one icon of black pride memorializing another after Smith's guileless gesture of solidarity raised itchy questions about pop utopianism in light of real politics.<<

Another real-world example: Where I grew up, it was "Eeny, meenie, minie, moe / Catch a tiger by the toe." Come to find out whilst in grad school that some people learned it with "the notorious 'N' word" instead of "tiger." That one still baffles me.

SJ said...

Oh we have another Wire writer here.

David I got the book today, and I noticed that one of the chapters in the book is 'Nigger vs. Nigga'. I'm hoping it's going to be a good read.

Anna Laperle said...

The corner folk on the The Wire throw the word "nigger" around in the same way that the dirty folk on Deadwood use the word "cocksucker". It's almost neutralized in its expression. Omar (who almost never swears) humbly calls himself "a nigger with a plan". But then you'll have scenes with Colvin, Daniels, the Commissioner, Freamon or the Bunk and it's a different language being used. Because it's a different class. And Stringer demonstrates that shift in language and class when he goes back and forth between the corners and the politicians and the real estate developers in S3. And then you got a character like Brother Mouzone who declares the most dangerous thing in America to be "a nigger with a library card". And in that statement the word has more impact because Mouzone gives it more impact.

Another interesting example of usage can be found on The Sopranos in the episode "Unidentified Black Males". Throughout this episode, you hear ppl making scapegoats out of "African Americans", "Blacks", "melanzane" ("Mulunyans") and, yes, "niggers" for various crimes. The title itself, of course, refers to police warnings.

squatty roo said...

Re: the comment on "africans" & "niggers" in the main article. one of the most depressing moments in "hotel rwanda" (aside from the actual genocide, of course) occurs when Nick Nolte's character is explaining to Cheadle's character that help will not be coming:"they dont care about you; you're not even niggers"

austin said...

I think the hysteria over this word (the word being nigger. nigger nigger nigger.)is crazy.

Where is this discussion about the use of the word bitch by men?

its a degrading term used in reference to a traditionally oppressed section of he population.

whats the difference?

the difference is people don't go on and on about it...

not that im saying its ok to call people these offensive terms (or that it's not!)

I'm just saying.. any one who uses or consumes art the term Bitch (or fag or chink whatever) doesn't really have much to complain about when some one says nigger...

Yet it's only the "N bomb" that people seem to have these never ending conversations about.