In the comments to a blogpost back in September, Andrew Bechard suggested that I write more about race. He had all sorts of good reasons and particular examples. Here's the thing: I find conversations about race exhausting. It's not that I think they aren't important and necessary, or that I don't engage in the topic occasionally. It's merely that talking about race often becomes either incendiary (So-and-so is playing "the race card", whatever that means) or trivialized (the purported "beer summit") or dismissive ("Race is just a social construct, so if we just stop talking about race, racism will just go away.")
But Andrew did ask one specific question that I WILL (finally) answer, and without ever using the word in question. "I, for one, am very curious to hear your views on why you won't use the 'N word' when I regularly overhear other black folks using it around Albany."
OK, here's the short answer: I don't like the word, so I don't use it.
Here's the slightly longer answer: I think it is hugely a matter of age. People, both black and white, of my generation, born in the 1950s, or earlier, were taught quite clearly that it was not appropriate word for right-minded person to use, certainly to use casually in the manner to which Andrew refers. That's why when Bill Cosby received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recently, he requested no profanity or the casual use of the N-word; he didn't like it. The NAACP held a funeral for the N-word at its annual conference in the summer of 2007. The use of the phrase by Bethlehem Police Chief Louis Corsi - the town of Bethlehem ins in Albany County, NY - got in him into understandable trouble.
For me, part of my antipathy towards the word comes from the circumstances in which I have been called the N-word. It was almost never face-to-face but rather by person or persons in a moving automobile or truck while I was walking or riding my bicycle. this includes more than a few times in Albany, though, to be fair, not in this century, to the best of my recollection.
Now there's a whole school of thought that if one claims a word, it loses its power. That seems to be the philosophy, not only for some blacks, but women and gays as well. That's fine for them, but it doesn't mean that I'll start using the words. I know people of Polish extraction who use a term considered a slur in talking about themselves, but I've never considered it an invitation for me to use it.
I recall quite distinctly that about 15 years ago, I was in my previous church, when one or two black kids were using the N-word in the church hallway. I said, "Don't use that word here." At which point, the (white) pastor came on the scene. One of the young men started to argue with me. And I said, in my best stern voice, "Don't use that word in HERE," and they relented. The pastor, who is about a decade older than I, was on the same page in this case.
There is a book out there by Professor Randall Kennedy, with the N-word as the title. The subtitle is The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and that sounds about right. That book and its author, incidentally, were not without controversy.
That said, I would oppose the banning of a book such as Huckleberry Finn merely because it uses the N-word. (I'm really curious what Bill Cosby, who got the Twain award, thinks of this Twain book.) The Irish Repertory Theatre, an Off-Broadway troupe, is putting on an uncensored production of The Emperor Jones, a 1920 one-act play by Eugene O'Neill, with the N-word "flung around with alarming abandon"; I can see the value in doing the production as written.
I've also found any number of songs in my record collection that use the word. Thing is, it seemed to be making a point, rather than be a casual comment. Examples include:
Don't Call Me N*****, Whitety - Sly and the Family
If There's A hell Below, we're all gonna Go - Curtis Mayfield
Woman Is the N***** of the World - John Lennon
Living For the City (album version) - Stevie Wonder
When I saw Elvis Costello sing Oliver's Army last year, I swear he swallowed the N-word in favor of "one more white nah-gah".
So, Andrew: I don't use the N-word because...I just don't.
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