Why I Oppose Banning the N-word and Other Assorted Topics
So now the Michael Richards apology tour has kicked into overdrive.
The former Seinfeld actor stopped by Jesse Jackson's radio show Sunday to apologize again and answer questions about the "personal work" he's doing to explore why he got so pissed that he called a black nightclub patron a nigger when he felt the guy was heckling him.
Of course, in the same way Seinfeld used Richards' apology to insulate his upcoming DVD release (which didn't work; Jesse still asked people not to buy it), Jackson used this most recent apology to push his own oddball agenda -- convincing black folks to stop using the n-word as well.
“We want to give our ancestors a present,” Jackson said at a news conference today. “Dignity over degradation.”
Most surprisingly to me, Jackson was joined by Paul Mooney, a legendary comic who was Richard Pryor's running buddy and writing partner back in the day. He also wrote for everyone from Sanford and Son to In Living Color, with a stage show so blue he once used the n-word about as many times as Robin Williams changes accents onstage.
Now, Mooney has joined his famous pal Pryor in renouncing professional use of the n-word, saying Richards was "my Dr. Phil. He's cured me."
All of which puts me in a weird position. Because I, a proud professional black man who rarely if ever uses the n-word, simply do not agree.
I can't help thinking of all the great art I've enjoyed which featured the n-word prominently: standup routines by Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock; movies by Spike Lee, Murphy, the Hudlin Brothers and Keenen Ivory Wayans; music by Public Enemy, The Roots, N.W. A., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kanye West and more.
I find myself thinking: Was all that work somehow self-defeating or wrong because it spoke the way many black people speak? Shouldn't we be judging the ideas expressed and the creativity on display rather than just the words themselves? And does insisting on such a standard for artists just force them to choose between middle class intellectuals who hate the n-word and working class fans who use it everyday?
Don't bother using these questions to challenge my belief that black folks can use the n-word in a way non-black people cannot. See here for my past thoughts on that.
But as Jackson and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and a host of other well and not-so-well meaning activists stand up to challenge black pop culture to improve itself, I find myself concluding that this is a linguistic shackle which shouldn't be accepted.
It's like watching the disintegration of Chappelle all over again. A Muslim who I suspect is more militant than his easygoing public image indicates, Chappelle left his blockbuster comedy show because he felt fans were regurgitating his trenchant satires on race as empty stereotypes -- using his Rick James and crackhead characters to wallow in the degradation of black people instead of absorbing the larger message.
Should we raise the bar for our artists? No doubt. Should we challenge the rampant misogyny, homophobia, violence and self destructiveness which fills some black-focused movies, music and television? For sure.
But no word is so awful it can't be used creatively and incisively by someone. and banning a word without addressing the ideas behind it feels more like a panacea than anything -- a feel good moment which hobbles geniuses while letting the knuckleheads continue their awful work without reproach.
So forgive me for standing behind the artist's right to use the n-word, even as I emphasize others: Creativity. Quality. Cultural awareness. Substance.
If we as black people demand those words from our entertainment, it won't matter whether they use the other one.
With so much race and media stuff out there, I feel I've been missing other topics.
* Think NBC would have had the stones to declare Iraq a civil war if the GOP hadn't been handed its you-know-what during the last election?
* The Project for Excellence in Journalism learned one important thing about media on election night: The two most valuable things the news media offers on these fast-moving election nights now is a quick summary of key results for those wanting the headlines and deep veins of data that users can mine on their own. That may explain why TV Web sites fared well.
* Forget about lame-o TV comedies like the Class and Two and Half Men -- to see a couple of interesting new television comedies, watch TBS, and get a look at the future of TV comedy.