Saturday, April 14, 2007

times really have changed

The firing of the odious Don Imus last week was followed by a flurry of commentary from many which essentially amounted to "black people say 'nigger' so why can't we?"

Apart from the inflammatory nature of the word, there is a valid point buried in the subconscious racism of many making that argument.

When I was a young college student in upstate New York, back when I was starting to become politically - heck, conscious in any way - I had the treat of seeing Dick Gregory, who at that time was still known primarily as a comedian, give a speech (for want of a better word) about racism in the United States, and in particular, the use of the word "nigger."

Mr. Gregory spoke with incredible passion and clarity, remaining eloquent even as he dissected language that elicited pain and shame in some members of the audience, and embarrassment and unease in others.

At the end of his presentation, he delivered a simple summation of what he wished he could see happen. I wish I could reproduce it exactly, because the content has stayed vivid for all these many decades, but the best I can do is paraphrase it. He said that he wished the word "nigger" would become the most common word in the language. He wanted to see every person in the country take the word, use it frequently, get familiar with it, get comfortable with it, make it their friend.

He quietly explained that if the word became so ubiquitous that everybody used it unconsciously, it would lose the power that it had to hurt, to inflame, to marginalize, to have all of the negative effects that a simple combination of vowels and consonants and vibrations in the air could have on human beings. It was like a spotlight was turned on in my head. The ultimate expression of the "sticks and stones" verse was to turn the word back on itself and force it to destroy its own power.

This week's Time magazine cover photograph was a close-up of the ill-fated and ill-considered Don Imus with the caption "Who can say what?" covering his mouth. The article discusses, of course, the fate of Imus and the general perceptions of the United States, as well as proffering the already-tired argument that "rappers started it, why are they so special?"

It's true.

It's time that the African-American population of our country realizes that it can't be "their" word any more. By permitting and supporting the popularization of the word in black culture in this country, to the extent that it is almost impossible to find a radio station or television program about music that doesn't broadcast multiple and frequent uses of the word, our fellow American citizens who are of African descent have, whether they wanted to or not, made the word acceptable.

No longer is it the exclusive communal language of shared ethnicity. It has been shouted from the rooftops at the tops of too many lungs for years now, and by virtue of that, it has become public property. The law of unintended consequences has acted, and with the last ritual sacrifice that starred Don Imus (who deserved to be sacked even without his remarks) all of these community words that were only acceptable for some to use are now the legitimate domain of all.

It would be the ultimate of hypocrisy for the black community to now maintain that the word is somehow still toxic when it gets casually bandied about in every kind of social situation. Sorry folks, but that tacit approval in the black community for so many years has now put the word "nigger" legitimately in the hands of everyone, even those who use it to display hatred and disprespect, and there can be no more complaining about it.

Dick Gregory is getting his wish, just not quite the way he asked for.


Blogger H. Lewis Smith said...

Things are not always what they appear to be. There is more to all of this Imus and Kramer Richards episode than what meets the eye. The fireworks show is just getting started. Please visit the following website for a further explanation.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Milo Johnson said...

I dislike advertisements and I'm inclined to delete your comment, but I will simply say that fireworks are the last thing that are necessary. What is needed is for human beings to simply follow Kurt Vonnegut's admonition and "be kind to one another."

2:24 PM  
Blogger Milo Johnson said...

After taking a little time to browse the site you linked to, I can only say that you are never going to succeed. The problem today is the general level of incivility in American culture, not people who say the word "nigger." Because the word had a time of truce inspired by the Civil Rights movement which quickly got diluted into mere political correctness in white culture, at the same time it was being turned into a highly visible symbol of machismo and social bonding in lower-income black culture which has made the word so common that it will never be successfully proscripted. Harass people all you want over it, but until you work on the real root of the problem, the fact that our countrymen are so rude, derisive, and hateful to each other these days and suffer absolutely no social consequences for it, you are going to have to accept the wider and more open re-popularization of the word as just a singular manifestation of the greater problem. We have a horribly uncivil culture in today's United States, and it's no wonder that the world scorns us. We have earned it.

4:22 PM  

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