No matter who says it, n-word stings

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

The N-word has had few friends better than comedian Paul Mooney.

Put aside that the word was long a staple of his act. Put aside the promotional pamphlet he once sent out that screamed the word in big, fat type. Consider instead what he told anyone who argued that blacks should stop using the word. He replied that he said it a hundred times every morning. “It keeps my teeth white.”

Last week, the selfsame Paul Mooney joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson and California Rep. Maxine Waters in a news conference asking black folks to stop using the N-Word. In other news, there are unconfirmed reports of pigs flying above Times Square.

Mooney says he was “cured” of his N-word addiction by Michael Richards’ infamous meltdown last month at the Laugh Factory. I tend to think he’s not the only one. From strangers online to my neighbor down the street, everywhere I turn lately, I find black folk debating the stubborn insistence some of us have on using this word.

Which leaves me as much vexed as pleased. More power to them for belatedly getting religion. Still, are you telling me that nearly 20 years after hip-hop made that word unavoidable, it takes some white TV actor losing his mind to make black folks see what should have been obvious all along?

I mean, what do we learn from Richards’ rant that we should not have already known from Snoop Dogg or Ice Cube? That the word is ugly? That it is hateful? That it demeans, denigrates, diminishes and denies? Anyone with the barest historical memory already knew these things.

So where was black outrage when black rappers began putting that word into the minds and mouths of black children? When we — African-Americans — began hating ourselves to a beat?

And if I hear one more Negro offer one more pseudo-intellectual justification for that self-loathing, I will not be responsible for my actions afterward. Don’t give me the it-means-something-different-because-we-spell-it-with-an-a-on-the-end speech. Spare me the it-doesn’t-mean-black-it-means-a-bad-person-of-any-race load of bull. And for mercy sake, don’t subject me to the addled argument proffered by John Ridley in December’s Esquire. He says that, as whites feel no particular solidarity with their impoverished racial brethren in Appalachia, it is time for “ascended blacks” to bid farewell to, as he puts it, “niggers.”

Don’t tell me any of that, because it quails in the face of historical fact. We are talking about the word that was used as Gus Clarke’s back was split open with a whip and salt was rubbed into the wounds. The word that was used when Mary Turner’s baby was cut from her womb with a knife and stomped to death in its birth cries. The word that was used when James Byrd was tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged until his body was torn to pieces.

To the people who did these things, it did not matter how it was spelled. They knew precisely what race they were referring to. And they saw no difference between “ascended blacks” and any other kind.

Nor should that last surprise us. In the calculus of race, I am not my brother’s keeper. I am my brother. Individuality is the first casualty of bigotry.

Black people, like other Americans, tend to flee from the burdens and demands of history. History, ours especially, hurts too much.

But what Michael Richards taught and what blacks may belatedly be learning, is that history doesn’t care. Not about your feelings, not about your rationalizations, not about your subtleties of spelling.

Because they don’t realize that, some blacks, Paul Mooney prominent among them, seem surprised to learn that this word still hates us. That it always has and always will.

And if Richards is the catalyst that finally forces them to understand this, there’s only one thing I can say to him:
Thank you.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com