N-Words

On his June 9th HBO program, Bill Maher responded to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s invitation to come to his state to work in the fields, presumably to tassel corn. In a characteristically flippant response, Maher said he would decline because he is a “house nigga,” that is, one that does domestic chores rather than hard manual labor. In his apology for his intemperate remark, he explained that the utterance was a function of the way the comic mind works, through a series of rapid free association.

Maher might have also said that the comic mind is drawn as most human minds are to analogies. In the comedian’s case fanciful or absurd analogies are used for comic effect. The Maher analogy can be broken down as follows: celebrity figure: ordinary citizens::house slaves; field slaves.

All analogies “leak,” that is, the comparison invoked is not an air-tight or perfect one. While some analogies leak a little, there are some analogies that are plain wrong-headed. The efforts to compare Adolph Hitler in 1933 Germany to Trump in 2016 America are unconvincing to historians. The differences far outnumber the similarities. On the other hand, the comparison between President Trump’s attempt to curtail the investigation into Russian meddling in the US election and Nixon’s Watergate cover-up has met with more approval.

It’s hard to believe that Maher would insist on the literal meaning of the analogy he employed. He would hardly compare his comfortable celebrity life and white privilege with the enslavement of an individual, no matter how comfortable that individual’s daily life or privileged status within the group of the enslaved. He frequently mocks privileged individuals who present themselves as victims and would not want to present himself as such.

Most analogies are designed to reduce complex subjects down to a few simple ideas. My guess based on following his work is that Maher is aware of the stratifications in the slave society beyond the simplification of a division between house and field slaves. Some house slaves were forcibly raped by their owners; some field slaves were granted autonomy in decision making about crop rotation and organization of work crews. One thing that we have learned from the massive scholarship about the “peculiar institution” is that it was not monolithic. The experiences of individual slaves were diverse, as documented in the autobiographies of ex-slaves like Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of the Slave Girl) and Frederick Douglass, in the accounts of obscure ex-slaves whose experiences were recorded by Works Progress Administration field workers in the 30s, and in the contemporary fiction of Tony Morrison and Colson Whitehead. Often these accounts reveal the aspirations of field slaves to enter domestic space where work was not as back-breaking and opportunities for freedom earned through good work done under the watchful eye of the mistress of the house were greater.

Certainly we can say that Maher’s knowledge of the complexities of slavery and the lives of those who resisted is more extensive than that of President Trump who during a Black History Month speech revealed a very superficial knowledge of Frederick Douglass and whose awkward remarks about Douglass’s growing popularity suggested that he thought Douglass was still alive.

I would also surmise that Maher is more than aware of the intra-group conflicts and jockeying for status that are found in all ethnic groups. There are hierarchies within the binary work-related hierarch of field and house. To the social positioning based on work life, we can add distinctions based on gender, sexual identity, level of education, and, pigmentation.

Michael Eric Dyson, who interrogated Maher about the incident on his June 9th HBO show, told a Chicago Tribune Printers’ Row Book Fest audience the next day, June 10th, about his approach to confronting Maher and the way in which his approach differed from the more aggressive Ice Cube, another one of Maher’s guests. In speaking about the complexities of “the black community,” he pointed to the ways in which blacks have unfortunately embraced white standards of female beauty, belittling and even ostracizing those who don’t measure up. He specifically talked about the acute color-consciousness, which he first became aware of when he looked upon the purple-black face of his own father, that has served as the impetus for social distinction.  And as an ordained Baptist minister of 38 years standing, he confronted directly the homophobia that still lingers in certain black churches in America.

Had Maher been in the audience at Jones Commercial HS, the site for Dyson’s interview with Jennifer White, these ideas would not have come as a surprise given the fact that the discussions of intra-group  arguments have been conducted in the public spaces of university classrooms, media old and new, and in neighborhood bars.

How much of the intra-group conflict is attributable to blacks imitating the cultural attitudes of the oppressor, as Dyson suggests, is open to question. I think it’s safe to say that throughout American history whites have amplified and distorted the built-in desire found in all groups to make status distinctions; the human propensity to create social hierarchies in order to achieve an advantage existed long prior to the era of African slavery in the Western World.

But the Maher-Sasse conversation rose to the level of scandal not because of a weak analogy but rather because one of the terms of the analogy was the “N-Word” or more specifically a variation on the “N-Word.” Had Maher compared his exemption from field work by claiming that he was not a John Deere combine, the moment would have passed into obscurity.  So Dyson and rapper Ice Cube where there to talk about language and its misuse.

In his Chicago appearance Dyson described himself as friend and ally to Maher and saw his role as that of older brother reminding a wayward sibling about the harm that his remarks had caused, hurts that Maher readily admitted to having caused. Or as the minister who condemns the sin but not the sinner. [Some of the commentary on the show suggested that Maher got off too easily by following the now well-established, televised absolution ritual that celebrities, especially the liberally minded, go through when they violate the code. The argument goes that the act of contrition is too easy, is performed in front of a black collaborator, and carries no serious consequences. Maher will be back next week to the regret of the outraged.]

While displaying a special talent for “sampling” the lyrics of rap groups like N.W.A., Dyson distinguished himself from his “bad cop” partner Ice Cube who hammered host Maher about his use of the “N-Word” and compared Maher to the red necks that Maher has historically despised.  For Cube (as Dyson calls him) blacks own it and whites don’t get to use it.

But as black intellectual and linguist John McWhorter says in his latest book Talking Back, Talking Black, confusion arises over exactly what “it” means. Beyond dispute, nigger has been used as a label of inferiority and as a signifier of contempt. At its best it was part of the acceptable common vocabulary used unconsciously by whites. But what was acceptable in the antebellum south that Twain portrays in Huckleberry Finn or that Faulkner portrays in his novels set in Oxford, Mississippi in the late 20s is no longer acceptable. And yet, as Dyson explained, some blacks can and do use it, mostly as a way of expressing disapproval for certain low behaviors of fellow African-Americans, much in the same way that well-to-do immigrants from Ireland (the lace curtain Irish) used the term “shanty Irish” to shame those who embarrassed the ethnic group.

But notice that Maher did not use nigger but nigga instead. In the heat of the moment, did he realize that the bad analogy could be partially redeemed (and that he could get himself off the hook) if he used a less highly charged word? In fact, nigga as used by Ice Cube and many other blacks, is comparable to using the word “buddy” to express familiarity, acceptance, and even intimacy. To be address as “my nigga” is not to be handed a provocative insult but is instead to be offered an invitation to solidarity. Yet in this case Ice Cube seems to conflate the two; nigga becomes synonymous with nigger when used by non-black speakers, even well-intentioned ones who know the differences in connotation.

McWhorter, a descriptive linguist, is interested in how language is used rather than how it should be used. The strict regulation of language is the aim of the prescriptive linguist. McWhorter like all socio- linguists is aware that language change happens, that change cannot be engineered by language mavens, and that language change energizes the language far more often than it depreciates it. He is also a promoter of the idea that dialects of standard language (like Scotch or African-American English) are alternate rather than inferior ways of communication. And most of all he believes that no judgment about language use can be made without a full understanding of the setting in which the communication takes place. An analysis of the rhetorical situation which involves the motives of the speaker and listener is required.

Thus, I think that he would find Ice Cube’s attempts to enforce language use amusing. To Ice Cube, who once put out a song called “F___ the Police,” McWhorter might say “F____ the Language Police.” While McWhorter might find admirable Ice Cube’s vigilance against the racist use of nigger, I think he might plead that nigga, though derived from the incendiary nigger, should be left off its chain to roam freely through the culture and be made available as yet another example of healthy cultural appropriation and cross-pollination. While we can agree to banish nigger, we should not grant ownership of nigga to one group. He might predict that were Maher to have the same exchange with Senator Sasse in ten years, it would not produce anywhere near the heat that it does today. It might evolve and become as non-controversial as “homey,” a term for friendship or association that has easily spread in white and Latino teen cultures.

On the other hand, the “N Word” and the right to use it might be a cultural “hot potato” for a long time. Dyson was on Maher to support his ally but also because Minnesota senator Al Franken backed out as a result of Maher’s exchange with Sasse. The politically wise senator did not want to get ahead of the curve on this issue.

See Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy who has been writing about this issue for 15 years.

 

 

 

 

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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