by Robert Arvay, Contributing Writer
One of Paramount’s highest-grossing movies of 1972 was titled, The Legend of N-Word Charley. No, it wasn’t. The title contained the actual N-word itself. The title appeared on posters all over America, and openly on brightly lit marquees in nearly every theater where it played. And no, there were no riots, no outraged community organizers demanding the word be removed, no theaters burned to the ground. Charley was, after all, portrayed as the hero of the film. Black people in droves paid to see this movie, seated alongside whites.
It is a sign of the twenty-first century how much things have changed.
In writing this commentary, I thought about whether, I, too, should use the actual n-word, not vituperatively, but literarily. I finally decided against it. Next, I considered dancing around it. No, that too would invite the ire of those who might (and surely would) object.
Imagine! I, who have fearlessly stared down ferocious man-eating tigers in the jungles ofIndia, armed only with my bare hands, am afraid of a simple word. Okay, I just made up the stuff about tigers, but I would rather face them that than to say the n-word. Okay, almost.
Look, I understand that there are two sides to this story, and indeed, many sides. On the one hand is the free speech issue. On the other side is the issue of bigotry in its most harmful forms.
Were it but that simple, the controversy could easily be resolved on the basis of compassion and decency. There is no reason for anyone to gratuitously say something hurtful to a fellow human. All decent people understand that. It is simple common sense.
It is no longer that simple. It has gone way beyond common sense. It is a controversy that has resulted in books being censored by school libraries, such as the classical novel,Huckleberry Finn. In that work of fiction, the protagonist white boy, “Huck,” helps a protagonist black man, the escaped slave, “Jim,” to flee northward. The n-word is used frequently throughout, but never disparagingly by the heroes.
What is telling about this censorship is that the censors were utterly unconcerned about whether the word was used disrespectfully. It was used in the necessary context of the milieu in which the novel is set. Rather, the objection is to the very word itself, the word, regardless, end of story. And if you disagree, you are a racist pig, deserving of the worst punishment of all, which is, to be called a racist pig.
The precedent was thus set and enshrined. A word’s meaning and context had become irrelevant. The “word-nazis” could ban a word, merely on the basis that it was the word that they banned.
Matters then proceeded to become even more complicated than before. It seems that while white folk were berating each other for any use of the n-word at all, black folk were co-opting it, using it liberally among themselves. It is a word commonly heard, or at least overheard, when black people are talking among themselves, calling each other by one or another variant of the n-word, sometimes in anger, sometimes jovially, but in however friendly a manner it might be used between black people, white people are not allowed to join in. Don’t you dare. To do so is offensive, racist, and may well provoke serious violence.
We are not done. As complicated as it is, it gets even worse. The National Football League, the one with a team called the Redskins, is now reported to begin banning the n-word on the playing field. Oh, it continues to get more convoluted even than that. The problem in the NFL is not that white players are insulting blacks. The problem is that black players are openly using the n-word toward each other where everyone can hear—sometimes insultingly, sometimes as a so-called (get this) term of endearment.
As this real life parody gets more tangled, it is the black players who are offended—NOT by black players using the n-word, but by white management censoring the word. In sub-section three, sub-paragraph (a9z), footnote E=MC squared of this objection by black players, white players continue to be forbidden to use the n-word, but for black players, this censorship is an affront to their culture.
Not done yet. It gets worse still.
The NFL owners, at the behest of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a racial diversity association, are also proposing banning the n-word in locker rooms. They are banning it, not only for the players themselves, but for any rap music being played on radio or recordings. Mind you, they are not banning the music because it is misogynistic, not because it refers to women by the B-word (is it still okay to say bitches?), not because it calls them ho’s (whores), but because the music uses the n-word. That’s why.
One could list many more absurdities in this controversy. Advocates of the censorship against whites have claimed that the n-word was “forced” upon black people by white people. It is claimed that black people now “own” the n-word, and that white people have no right to use it. It is said that “this is not up for a vote.” White people do not have a right to have any say in the matter.
White people must, without objection, bow down to these demands, and say nothing. That is an order, white boy.
An issue that once could have been resolved by courtesy, has gotten so far out of hand that any sensible resolution is now out of the question. It is no longer a matter of, as the late Rodney King lamented, “Can we all get along?” We can’t. It is now a matter of political power and brute force. Do as I say and shut up.
By the time you read this, I will not be surprised if it is burned in a fire because it contains the N-Word—not the word itself, but the word, “Word,” with an “N” in front of it. No doubt we will be forbidden to say N-Word, or any substitute for it at all, not even “daffodil.” It’s racist, you know. After all, what word isn’t?