Black Mischief

Black Mischief

On East Capitol Street a few years ago, I was in a taxi when a car pulled suddenly and dangerously across our bow. My driver was white, with a hunter’s cap and earmuffs and an indefinable rosy hue about his neck. The offending motorist was black. Both vehicles had to stop sharply. My driver did not, to my relief, say what I thought he might have been about to say.


On East Capitol Street a few years ago, I was in a taxi when a car pulled suddenly and dangerously across our bow. My driver was white, with a hunter’s cap and earmuffs and an indefinable rosy hue about his neck. The offending motorist was black. Both vehicles had to stop sharply. My driver did not, to my relief, say what I thought he might have been about to say. I uttered a neutral expletive or two. The black man got out of his car, face alight with rage, and walked over. "I think," he said, "that you just said something." I thought I knew what it was that he fancied I had said. Again, the driver was a real trooper. "Hey man," he said, "he didn’t say anything nasty." Unconvinced by this, our near-miss new acquaintance called me a "cracker" and a "honkie" and some other things, got back into his car and roared away.

If he had hoped to hurt my feelings by uttering these "slurs," he only succeeded in a fashion he didn’t really intend (i.e., by challenging my antiracist credentials, of which he was pardonably unaware). And he seemed to sense the inadequacy of the repertoire at his disposal, whereas all three of us knew that there was a word, available only to two of us, that could have completely spoiled the other’s day. I don’t know and can’t really imagine what it is like to be in such an unequal position.

Perhaps it is partly this inequality, and the history that underlies and reinforces it, that makes Randall Kennedy want to detoxify the word. In his new book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, he takes encouragement from the fact that many black people flaunt the term among themselves, and he seeks to extend the repeal of the taboo. Kennedy, a distinguished African-American teacher of law (and a Nation editorial board member), studies the many cases where the word has ended up in the dock, so to speak, and been adjudicated as an act of violence or incitement. "How should nigger be defined?" he inquires. "Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook?"

Well, in answer to the second question, yes it is. It is not just a term of hatred (whereas all or most of the others are terms of mere dislike or contempt) but a grim, sneering reminder and an attempt to put certain people "in their place." As to the rather oddly phrased question, I don’t know whether it "warrants preservation," but it is certainly "a part of the American cultural inheritance" that doesn’t deserve to be airbrushed or prettified.

Dick Gregory wrote a book with the same name some years ago, telling his mother that every time she heard the word from now on, she could tell herself that people were advertising her son’s work. But that’s a different type of detoxification. Many words now in uncontroversial use–such as "Tory," "Impressionist"and "suffragette"–were originally coined as terms of abuse and then adopted "ironically" by their targets. (Just to stay with color, much the same was true of the term "red.") When rappers say "nigga" they are aiming for the same effect. Professor Kennedy’s legal perspective sometimes inhibits him from enforcing a difference–the only really important one–between ironic and literal usage.

For example, recently there was a huge and needless fuss in the mayor’s office in Washington when some budgetary official used the word "niggardly" to describe an item of expenditure and had to resign. There’s a never-ending campaign to ban Huckleberry Finn from schools because Huck uses the only word available in his vernacular to describe his friend Jim. (This campaign is organized by Dr. John Wallace, a black teacher in Chicago. I debated with him once at the Mark Twain House in Hartford and was agreeably surprised, when we went for a drink afterward, to discover that he was a fairly extreme religious conservative.) These are instances of misapplied, even authoritarian, "sensitivity." But would we have emancipated ourselves from "all that" if the word "nigger" became, in general, a backslapping, denatured term of genial mockery? Assuming this achievement to be either desirable or feasible, it would come at a huge cost.

In his poem "For the Union Dead," Robert Lowell speaks of Colonel Shaw, and his death at the head of the first "Negro" regiment ("Two months after marching through Boston,/half the regiment was dead"):


Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."


How would one teach that poem to a future generation that had come to regard the word as a piece of raillery? George Orwell’s essay against imperialism, "Not Counting Niggers," depends for its effect upon the shock and bite of the epithet, and of the foulness of the thought that it expresses. The whole moral weight of Huck Finn lies in his decision to risk damnation on behalf of someone he can only, and in his innocence, "name" in one way. In other words, "nigger" must remain both employable and unemployable, and always intelligible as to context. It should never become just another element in some "gorgeous mosaic" of banal "diversity."

"As nigger is more widely disseminated and its complexity is more widely appreciated," Randall Kennedy concludes, "censuring its use–even its use as an insult–will become more difficult. Still, despite these costs, there is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative to a positive appellation." This strikes me as the reverse of the "transgressive" achievement for which its author may decently hope. What is needed is not more complexity but more irony. To maintain that the word may indeed be employed but must never be used literally is neither to ban it nor to rob it of its meaning. It is, rather, to pay it our respects, as indeed we should.

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