t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Sun Dec 9 05:22:58 UTC 2001
Some years ago, I got in terrible trouble because I said the "n-word" in
what I innocently thought was an entirely appropriate way. WARNING: I use
that word in what follows because I am talking about it as a word. It is
one of many words I only use when talking about them as words.
I had asked students in a course on ethnographic fieldwork to find and
critically analyze some ethnographic monograph in which the author devoted
attention to how fieldwork affects the ethnographer. In class, they said
they were having trouble finding the kind of book I had in mind and asked
me for suggestions.
I rattled off half a dozen titles or so before I fell into a hole that it
took me weeks of class to escape. I started my descent into the inferno by
Bronislaw Malinowski's field diaries, which I immediately regretted. I
explained by saying "No, I take that back, that wouldn't be a good one.
That's the one where Malinowski calls the Trobriand Islanders 'niggers'."
I thought that made it clear that I objected to Malinoski's language AND
his attitude toward his informants, and I didn't want my students to have
to deal with such problems for the purposes of this assignment. (Yes, he
did use that word. Repeatedly.) Then I went on to name some more books
that would be appropriate for that class.
Nothing happened immediately. Ten minutes later, however, an African
woman in the class exploded with objections. She said she'd never heard
"the n-word" used in a college classroom or in her graduate studies. She
found my quotation of the word so unsettling that she felt she had to stop
the class to object.
I'm afraid I made things worse, not better, by pointing out that I'm used
to talking about words in the classroom even when they are words I don't
use when speaking in my own voice. (I offered the examples of "fuck" and
"shit" -- words I would not consider using in a classroom UNLESS I was
considering them as words rather than using them as expressions of my
feelings.) I pointed out that it is literally true that Malinowski used
the word "nigger" in his diaries, and I was referring to that fact, not
joining him in his application of the word. I said that was precisely why
I could NOT recommend that students use that book for the purposes of my
Then I compounded my own error by considering two controversial instances
where I think there is some point to using that particular -- and
particularly objectionable -- word. One is in Huckleberry Finn. For me,
the apotheosis of the whole book comes in Huck's reflection that if he was
going to go to hell for considering Nigger Jim to be a human being, then he
was just going to have to go to hell. The other is the scene in Showboat
(as originally staged and filmed), where a white man about to be arrested
for the crime of having married a black woman who passed for white cuts his
wife and sucks up some of the resulting blood. Just as the sheriff is
about to arrest him for miscegenation, he says
"ask anybody here: I got nigger blood in me, too".
At the same time, I pointed out that there is another use of the word
"nigger" in Showboat that makes no point, does not advance the story, and
is quite properly excised in latter-day versions of the show. That's the
objectionable line "Niggers all work on the Mississippi" in the song "Old
Looking back at how I grew up, both literary cases I cited in class were
extremely powerful in shaping my own resistance to racism -- a resistance
so strong that I've endangered my livelihood and my social position (and
actually lost more than one job) by fighting its manifestations. (I've
also been beaten up badly enough to need hospitalization, and my life has
been threatened, because I don't accept racial discrimination when there's
a chance to stand up against it. I first got in trouble about that as a
fifth grader, when I objected to the U.S. "internment" -- I said, properly,
"imprisonment" -- of people of Japanese descent nearly 60 years ago, and
I've been in social trouble lately for objecting to our current mountains
of discrimination against Moslems and people whose ancestors came from
All right, I was dumb in class that day. And dumbfounded. And I really
compounded my error. But until that day I had never considered using such
euphemisms as "the n-word", "the f-word", and the like when talking about
words as words.
The student who found my quotation so objectionable took her complaint to
her advisor (not in my department). Luckily, the advisor knows me well;
she counseled the student to continue in my course and suspend judgment for
a while. I guess the judgment came out in my favor: the student later asked
me to serve on her doctoral committee. (I was delighted to do so. Her
dissertation really was good, too.)
-- mike salovesh <m-salovesh-9 at alumni.uchicago.edu> PEACE !!!
Ellen Johnson wrote:
> I forwarded this before, but I don't think my email went out the day the
> worm shut us down. addresses the question of whether the n-word is
> becoming less taboo or not. Ellen
> This article from NYTimes.com
> has been sent to you by fsgiles at arches.uga.edu.
> A Black Author Hurls That Word as a Challenge
> December 1, 2001
> By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
> At halftime of a 1993 basketball game against Miami
> University of Ohio, Keith Dambrot, varsity men's basketball
> coach at Central Michigan University, called his team
> together to talk about the word "nigger." Mr. Dambrot, who
> is white, had overheard his African- American players call
> each other "nigger" to denote toughness and tenacity on the
> court. He asked the players permission to use the word in
> the same sense, and after they assented he adopted
> "nigger," too. A few weeks later, after administrative
> censure, sensitivity training and two campus protests, Mr.
> Dambrot lost his job and promptly filed suit.
> His case is one of dozens analyzed in "Nigger," a new book
> by Randall Kennedy, an African-American scholar at the
> Harvard Law School. Mr. Kennedy recounts many unpleasant
> episodes, like the embarrassing use of the term by Senator
> Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in a public appearance last
> march. But Mr. Kennedy also considers the newer, more
> complicated use of "nigger" as a term of affection by young
> African-Americans and their well-meaning white friends. All
> in all, he argues, the new uses are gradually helping to
> exorcise the word's power as America's "paradigmatic ethnic
> Even before the book's appearance in stores next month, its
> uncomfortable title has elicited considerable hand-wringing
> among the mostly white staff of its publisher, Pantheon
> Books, where some executives have even refused to say its
> name. It has also become the source of a certain
> mischievous amusement on the part of its African-American
> editor. And as advanced word spreads among other
> African-American scholars, the title has provoked
> denunciations from some who vehemently disagree with Mr.
> Kennedy's thesis even before they have read the book.
> "When I show up on CNN, I get e-mails from racists calling
> me a nigger bitch, O.K.?" said Julianne Malveaux, an
> African-American economist and newspaper columnist, "so I
> don't think its use is taking the sting out of it. I think
> it's escalating at this point. You are just giving a whole
> bunch of racists who love to use the word permission to use
> it even more, like, `I am not really using it, I am just
> talking about a book!' "
> Patricia Williams, an African- American professor at
> Columbia Law School, objected to the title: "That word is a
> bit like fire - you can warm your hands with the kind of
> upside-down camaraderie that it gives, or you can burn a
> cross with it. But in any case it depends on the context
> and the users' intention, and seeing it floating abstractly
> on a book shelf in a world that is still as polarized as
> ours makes me cringe." Houston A. Baker Jr., an African-
> American professor of English at Duke University, agreed
> about the title: "I see no reason whatsoever to do this,
> except to make money. It is a crude marketing technique
> unworthy of someone with the kind of penetrating
> intelligence that Professor Kennedy has."
> For his part, Mr. Kennedy said he felt no qualms about the
> sensational title, adding, "I write a book to be read."
> He said he had come up with the idea for the book, which
> grew out of a series of lectures, after idly typing the
> word "nigger" into a database of court cases. He found over
> 4,000 entries. Even before prosecutors in the O. J. Simpson
> case argued that hearing a witness's use of the word might
> unduly bias a jury, courts have often grappled with the
> caustic power of the word's history. Some courts have ruled
> that hearing the word "nigger" constitutes a provocation to
> violence similar to receiving a physical blow. Others have
> determined that speaking the word as an insult can
> disqualify a prosecutor or judge from his job. Lawyers have
> argued that a juror's utterance of the word in earshot of
> other jurors can invalidate their deliberations.
> Mr. Kennedy writes approvingly of entertainers' penchant
> for "nigger." The comedian Lenny Bruce expounded the idea
> that repeating the word "nigger" could defang its
> derogatory impact, capitalizing on the word's shock-value
> in the process. But Mr. Kennedy notes that African-American
> rappers and comedians do not concern themselves much with
> whether they are encouraging white racists or disarming
> them. "They say, `We don't feel constrained that we have to
> burnish the image of the Negro - we think this is fun and
> we are going to do it,' " Mr. Kennedy said. "Frankly, I
> felt inspired by that."
> Erroll McDonald, Mr. Kennedy's editor at Pantheon and one
> of the few senior African-American editors in book
> publishing, was delighted with the manuscript. "I
> appreciated its importance instantly," he said, "It is just
> such a curious word that provokes atavistic passions in
> people, and I thought it was time for a proper reckoning
> with it." He continued: "I for one am appalled by that
> euphemism `the N word.' It seems an elision of something
> that would be better off talked about. There are some
> people out there talking about the `N- word' that do regard
> a certain section of the population as niggers."
> Mr. McDonald enjoyed the reactions of colleagues, almost
> all of them white. He carried a piece of paper around the
> office with the word "nigger" written on it, asking people
> to pronounce it. Presenting the idea at a planning session
> in January, he asked about 45 editors and other executives
> to say it unison. In both cases, some refused.
> "I think it is pretty fun," Mr. McDonald said, imagining
> customers asking a bookstore clerk, "Can I have one
> `Nigger' please? Where are your `Niggers'?" He added, "I am
> not afraid of the word `nigger.' "
> Some of the sales and marketing executives, however, were
> nervous, partly about how to publicize a book some would
> not name aloud and partly about the subtitle. Mr. McDonald
> picked the subtitle, "A Problem in American Culture," which
> appeared in the Pantheon catalog sent to reviewers and
> stores. But at a sales conference in August, some
> executives worried that consumers might think "nigger"
> referred to African-Americans and that by implication
> African-Americans were the "problem," said Joy Dallanegra-
> Sanger, who is white and the marketing director of the
> division of Random House that includes Pantheon.
> Mr. McDonald disagreed but acquiesced. "I always thought of
> `nigger' as an imaginary construct, like `goblins' or
> `elves.' I never thought they actually existed, but
> apparently they do in the minds of some." The subtitle was
> changed to "The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,"
> clarifying that the subject was a word and not a person.
> In the past, librarians and bookstore owners have sometimes
> removed books from their shelves for containing the word
> "nigger" in the title, including "The Nigger of the
> Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad. But several bookstores,
> including some catering mainly to African-Americans, said
> that they planned to stock Mr. Kennedy's book. Several
> noted the comedian Dick Gregory's 1964 autobiography,
> "Nigger." He wrote at the time that he hoped the word would
> become obsolete, but he also joked that it was advertising
> for the book.
> John McWhorter, an African- American linguist and the
> author of the forthcoming book "The Power of Babel" (Henry
> Holt), read an early copy. He said he shared Mr. Kennedy's
> hopeful fascination with the changing uses of the word
> among young African-Americans and even their white friends,
> suggesting that the book might further dilute the
> opprobrium the word carries. "Pretty soon we are going to
> have a book called `Nigger' that is going to be sitting in
> front of every bookstore in the United States, and that
> will be one more step toward taking the power of the word
> The most immediate effect, however, is likely to be an
> escalation of the debate over the politics of its use.
> Richard Delgado, a Mexican-American professor at the
> University of Colorado Law School, who has argued for
> restrictions on hate-speech, said that he, too, feared that
> Mr. Kennedy's defense of the term's novel uses would
> encourage racists. But Mr. Delgado also said that Mr.
> Kennedy risked slighting other ethnic groups by
> underestimating the power of other slurs. Calling "nigger"
> the "paradigmatic" ethnic slur was "parochial," Mr. Delgado
> For his part, Mr. Dambrot, the basketball coach who lost
> his job for using the word, said he favored open
> discussion, even of his own mistake. He lost his suit and
> worked as a stockbroker for five years before he found
> another job coaching basketball, for a high school in
> Akron, Ohio. This year he finally returned to coaching a
> college team, at the University of Akron.
> "I try to use the whole situation as an educational tool
> for the kids," he said. "I explain that you have to
> understand how different people understand your words. Be
> careful what you say. Every decision you make can effect
> the rest of your life, and my life can be case study for
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