Brad Paisley and LL Cool J have a new song out called Accidental Racist. I don’t know that the song is getting much airplay, but it is heating up the news channels. Race has been a hot button topic for a long time, but looking back to my youth there was one big difference to my mind. When I was a kid the “N word” was just another word. Most people wouldn’t think twice about saying it. The word was used extensively in Blazing Saddles. Richard Pryor used the word in several of his album titles and activist/author Dick Gregory used the word in the title of at least two of his books. You could even use the word freely on television. Yes, the word wasn’t supposed to be said by white people in racially mixed company, but even that happened from time to time. Sometimes there were fights because of this, but it just led to some fists flying and a whole lot more uses of the word in question. No one seemed to fear the word.
The word people tended to fear at least to my young eyes was one that started with an “F”. When someone said that word, you knew they meant business. It was never heard on television (at least until HBO came around). It was not used as frequently in the movies. It was never used as the title of a book or movie or record album to my knowledge. It was the Voldemort of words. Everyone knew the word, but most of us didn’t say it. Soldiers and sailors said the word, but mostly when fighting or surrounded by other soldiers and sailors. I was in second grade when I first came in contact with the word. It was written on the wall in one of my classrooms by a fellow student along with the word “ass”. Now I knew what “ass” meant, but this other word? I had no idea. One of the students said it was when two people “bumped their butts together”. Being an inquiring young boy thirsty for knowledge, I simply asked the teacher. She told me that it was a word only a very dirty person would know and didn’t provide me any sort of definition. I asked my mom when I got home and even she wouldn’t tell me what the word was supposed to mean.
Since the word was not used in Disney movies of the time, I was left to ponder the meaning of the strange word for several years before I finally got clued in as to its meaning. Or at least one of its meanings. The word had power back in the day. The other word, the one that started with an “N”… not so much. Over time the “N word” and the “F word” started changing places. HBO gave comedians, who apparently had been using the word quite successfully in their nightclub shows, a national stage on which to yell this little four lettered word at the top of their lungs. Films began using it more frequently (of course this might also be because I started seeing films like Animal House instead of 101 Dalmatians). The world didn’t end upon repeated utterances, but the word did start to lose its power. Once George Burns said it in Going In Style there was no fear left in the word. And yes, the scene where George Burns said the curse word to end all curse words did end up getting cut from the film, but just knowing that the man who played God had said this word was all it seemed to take. These days we don’t even call this word the “F word”. We call it the “F bomb”, even if it’s more like the “F firecracker” or “F sparkler” than an actual “F bomb”.
Songs started using the word. I remember the first time I heard Harry Nilson sing it in “You’re Breaking My Heart” I lost it. It was the early 80s by then and the “F” word was free. One of the highlights of going to the Roaring Twenties nightclub to dance was that point in the night when they would break out “The Rodeo Song” and watch the crowd go wild. But as this four letter term for fornication shed its trench coat and sunglasses, the “N word” picked them up and put them on. Social consciousness was sweeping the land; slowly in some places and not in all areas or interactions. And while activists would have a long road to travel before they would see a black man in certain neighborhoods in America, much less in the White House, one simple step that they all seemed to silently agree upon was that they would stop using the “N word”. White guilt or shame or perhaps just peer pressure slowly made the word less accessible. While the “F word” was starring in hit movies and waiting for the birth of the Internet where it would truly shine, the “N word” was becoming persona non gratis. White people were expected to have stopped using the word cold turkey. When we want to ask for one of those early Richard Pryor albums on CD our heads nearly explode. Even words that are close to the offending word give us trouble. Many of us listen as black people tell us that we are no longer allowed to use this word. Richard Roundtree’s blaxploitation western is now simply “Boss”. The last word in the title is missing and it won’t even show up on the side of a milk carton. (Do they still put missing children’s pictures on milk cartons?)
So the next step in the life of this word is for the black community to “take it back”. All of a sudden after a few years of the word being underground or in witness protection, it shows up as a term of affection used from one black person to another. Usually the last two letters have been replaced by a single letter “a”, but this is the equivalent of putting Groucho glasses on the Batman. You still know it’s the Batman, and if you say the wrong thing to Batman or about Batman, Batman is going to kick your ass. Now we have a word that is off-limits to a large segment of the population while simultaneously becoming heavily used by another segment. This creates a covetous attitude in many white people. Why can’t we say the word? Why is it okay if they say the word? I don’t like being denied my opportunity to sing along to Jay Z songs if I want to. Now the word has enormous power. If a white person says the word, he is almost always immediately branded as a racist (except for Quentin Tarantino, he seems to get a pass from much of the black community). The idea that a white person must never be allowed to utter this six letter word seems almost codified as national law which makes people who would normally never want to use the word, want to use it all the more. It’s like not smoking pot or obeying the speed limit. Even those that follow the law have thoughts about breaking it, and a lot of them will if they think no one is watching (or in this case listening).
Of course with blacks having their “off-limits to all but us” word, other groups hopped on board. Women despise the “C word” and gay people have fought to get their least favorite “F word” treated the same way that the “N word” is treated. They can say it. We can’t. So far they haven’t tried removing the last two letters and replacing them with the letter “A”. I really hadn’t noticed how much they had done to eradicate the use of this term until I was re-listening to an old Eddie Murphy stand up act and I realized how jarring it now seemed when he used the word in question. I couldn’t concentrate on the jokes any longer because I was trying to process how a comedian could get by with using this particular word these days. It couldn’t be done, but then this was an album from the early 80s.
What’s the answer? I don’t know. I just write a blog because I enjoy sharing my thoughts in a printed format albeit an electronic one. I do know that we need to start talking to each other and explain the linguistic problems that we have. For example, to keep from offending the currently preferred racial label is African-American. Many don’t like to be called black and they certainly don’t like negro or colored, both of which conjure up more images of a less enlightened time. But America is not the only country with black people. Is Lenny Henry, the British comedian, an African-American? No. So is he an African Brit? What about Nelson Mandela? Is he an African-African? Black just feels like the most accurate and least racially insensitive term that can be used, but I’m open to ideas and enlightenment myself.