Not surprisingly, St. Petersburg, which has a history of racial division, once again finds itself confronting a situation that could reopen old wounds. This time, black youths or black organizations are not the instigators. It is mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford, a 52-year-old white lawyer.
I am not accusing Ford of being a racist. What I do know, given her actions and words, is that Ford does not understand the complexities and language of race.
The incident involves Ford's recent appearance on Bubba the Love Sponge Clem's radio show. The shock jock described St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis III, who also was the city's first black police chief, as the "quasi-leader of the African-Americans."
"To me it's like talking down to them, that they have somebody to quell them and keep them in line," Clem said.
Ford responded: "Actually, Cornel West has a whole explanation about the HNIC theory, and I agree with that. We don't need one spokesman for a group."
After being challenged by blacks and whites alike for her use of HNIC — which most blacks consider to be a racial slur coming out of the mouth of a white person — Ford tried to explain herself.
"I was quoting the eminent professor from Princeton. … He gave a long talk on race issues at Eckerd College,'' she told the St. Petersburg Times. "He described this concept, and this is what I was referring to. I was using his words. I was using his concept."
In his book Race Matters, West writes: "The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for Black America. The days of brokering for the black turf — of posing as the Head Negro in Charge — are over."
During the Eckerd speech, which I attended, West did discuss the place of the "Head Negro in Charge" in black culture. I believe that every black and most educated white people in the audience knew that West, who would never utter the vile n-word during a public address, settled for "Negro" instead.
Furthermore, when Vintage Books published Race Matters in 1994, the decision was made to use "Negro" instead of the real term, the n-word, to avoid an inevitable firestorm of criticism. West is a scholar, and he knew what the N in HNIC stood for. He knew that he was bastardizing its meaning for public consumption. If Ford is ignorant of what West was doing, more's the pity.
HNIC came into use during the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate in college. It was popular among revolutionary black groups, signifying "authentic" black leaders who were not part of the establishment, who had not been appointed by whites. Many of these leaders proudly displayed "HNIC" nameplates on their desks and office doors. The word "Negro" was not on any of them.
One of the best-known uses of HNIC comes in the film Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark, the tough high school principal who tells his staff that he is the only leader on campus, the "HNIC." A teacher asks him to define the term. Another teacher says, "Head N----r in Charge."
The acronym caught on among hip-hoppers with the profane rap song I Be the HNIC / The Head N---a in Charge by Prodigy of Mobb Deep. In his book The New HNIC (Head N----s In Charge): The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, Todd Boyd argues that "the people who form the hip-hop generation are the New HNIC," young people, thugs and all, who are "keeping it real."
Anyone who regularly watched the sitcom The Jeffersons often heard George Jefferson proudly describe himself as the HNIC.
By claiming to mean "Negro," Ford still was insulting Davis, at least in the opinion of blacks who hold the word in contempt.
Here is how "Negro" is defined in Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang: "To call someone a 'Negro' is another way of calling that person an 'Uncle Tom.' A 'Negro' was a black person accused of cultural or racial disloyalty." The book Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, states that "Negro fell into disfavor during the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, and has come to be used for African-Americans opposed to black causes and / or those who identify with European-Americans."
Whether Ford meant "Negro" or the n-word, she showed gross insensitivity and ignorance by speaking as she did of Davis with Bubba the Love Sponge. Her remarks created a racial rift the people of St. Petersburg do not need, forcing them to talk about a race issue she created.