You know Tribe, I love you , but you made matters worse…
The piece of music above is a clip of my least favorite song by one of my favorite hip-hop collectives, A Tribe Called Quest.
It’s called Sucka Nigga and by the end of this post, you’ll understand why I’m leading with it because for the next few minutes, or in my case, the next few paragraphs, we’re gonna talk about words, context, race, music and First Amendment rights.
No word combines all of these issues quite like nigger.
Now I know that’s a word that’s gotten a few folks in trouble over the last couple of weeks. Paula Deen is real, real out of work because she admitted to using it. There’s a Philly chick that’s a contestant on Fox’s “Master Chef” whom National Basketball Commissioner David Stern would probably like to have a talk with because he doesn’t like it when folks refer to his league as Niggers Bouncing Around.
Hell, CNN has become the “Let’s Talk About Nigger Network” in light of the Deen incident and the George Zimmerman trial. My personal favorite CNN moment was the discussion that anchor Don Lemon had about it that featured the best imitation of the flash card scene from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues I’ve ever seen done by a news anchor. They even devoted an hour to a special on the word.
To many folks, it’s just a word. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me and stuff.
And I get that. I believe that the First Amendment came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, so I respect free speech. I can even respect the premise that since some Blacks see it as a term of endearment (which I still don’t get), that it can’t be that bad, right? I had a former student walk up to me every morning for four months with the same greeting: “Good mornin’…my nigga…”
Okay. Like I said, I get all that. But that said, I’ve also been known to tell people “If you want to call me a nigger, fine. That’s your Constitutional right. I’d never take that away from you. But when I exercise my right to knock the shit out of you for it, you were warned. Fair?
But while some of the stuff mentioned above has been floating around in my head for a bit especially lately, that’s not what’s inspired this post.
What’s inspired this post is: (a) the perception I’m starting to get that there are White folks out there that want to use the word nigger really badly and are angry that they can’t and (b) the fact that these same White folks have decided that I can no longer get mad when it comes flying out of some racist’s mouth because of what I like to call the “Hip-Hop Exemption” or the previously mentioned “term of endearment” thing.
I’m sorry kids, but on that I’ve gotta call Shenanigans!
You see, while I understand that a lot of the White folks that read The Mad (political) Scientist are going to think that I’m being unfair when I say this, the word not only sounds different, but has a different context depending on who says it. I don’t think it’s right under any circumstance, but…
Well, I’m gonna let author, anti-racism activist and Professor Tim Wise explain it because he does a much better job at it than I do…
In other words, while you might think that it’s hip, cool and trendy to be able to throw around any word you want, until you can find a racial slur connected to white folks that has ever been uttered as someone is being dragged through the street, tied to a rope, and hung from the neck until dead, you, my well-meaning White friends, do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to the whole “Hip-Hop Exception” for the word nigger. You just don’t. I don’t care if Kendrick Lamar or Meek Mill or Nas or Jay-Z or even A Tribe Called Quest stand in front of a mic and do nothing but say nigger for 10 minutes on a record, you’re not allowed to use that word. You’re just not.
And I guess I have another question: What is it about the word nigger that is so intriguing, so powerful, so awesome to you that it’s prohibition from your list of words tends to piss you off so much?
Wanna know where I was the first time I was ever called a nigger? Church. Nope, I’m not kidding.
I was in the 7th grade and me and my friends had just finished Sunday School at Calvary Baptist Church in Pemberton where I grew up. We were sitting in a pew waiting for church to begin when a girl named Patty Laine walked up to me and told me to get out of the seat I was sitting in because she wanted to sit there.
I told her that there was no reserved seating and because my friends and I were there first, we were going to stay. There were plenty of other places to sit, so go find one, I said.
Well, I guess a combination of being the daughter of one of the founders of the church and White Privilege hit her because she not only grabbed me, but told me to “get my nigger ass out of her seat.”
I hit her as hard as I could…just as the minister was walking by…so naturally, my Dad had to take me home because Pastor Goodhart couldn’t allow me to stay after trying to bash in the head of a fellow parishioner.
But we talked afterward. And after I told him what she said to me, he let Patty…and the people who taught her to say stuff like that, otherwise known as her parents, know that if anything like that happened again, founders or not, they were out.
Because he understood that while it’s misguided for Blacks to use nigger as a term of endearment, the only way that Whites can possibly use it is as a term of disparagement. Of dehumanization. Of harm.
And that’s why, my White friends, nigger cannot be a part of your list of words. The only way it could be is if you somehow went back more than 400 years, kept the Middle Passage from happening, and disconnected it from its associations.
I’d like to leave you with a classic from the late Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. This is from the days when Saturday Night Live was actually funny…