[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?
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?
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.