Saturday, January 8, 2011

The N-word

There’s been a small uproar recently about New South Press’ decision to publish a heavily revised edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Long story short, “Injun Joe” will become “Indian Joe” and “nigger” will become “slave.” I’ve got a lot of problems with this, not least of which is a sanitizing of American history on par with the most egregious acts of the Texas School Board, but I’ll save my rant against mucking about with Twain for another day. What I want to talk about today is “the N-word.”

This cowardly little phrase has crept into the English language until every article or television news report dealing with the use of the word nigger begins to sound like the titillated exposition of an 8 year old showing how good he is by using cute euphemisms instead of swearing while simultaneously demonstrating a thorough knowledge of forbidden language. How far off is a report of protesters “allegedly shouting the N-word at members of the Black Caucus” from “Sally said the S-word Mommy, an’ wanted me to say it too, but I would never, ever say the S-word *giggle*?”

I believe the late, great George Carlin said it best:

“I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse.”

The word nigger is as American as apple pie. It just represents the side of America that reeks of rotting blood and horror. Nigger represents a half millennium of slavery and brutal oppression followed by a hundred years of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, followed by forty-five more years of crawlingly slow progress against ideas about race which are demonstrably false, but which remain ingrained even in the best of us at times. I could write this paragraph in the blood of murdered children, and it would still not begin to express the history borne by the word nigger, and our response to this history, our method of dealing with it, is to cover it up with a pretty quilt and spray some Febreze around. To say “the N-word” and then congratulate ourselves on how enlightened we’ve become.

Neither individuals nor nations can effectively deal with real problems by ignoring them or dressing them up or rewriting history. Racism in America is deep-rooted and still blooming. If we really want to put an end to it, we must begin by taking a deep breath and turning to face the problem directly. We need to start talking about “nigger” and not talking around “the N-word.”

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