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#152: DIE, N-WORD, DIE!

#152. DIE, N-WORD, DIE! A short while ago the actor Viggo Mortensen, who had acted in the race drama The Green Book, while talking in an interview about the lessening use of what is now usually called “the n-word,” made the mistake of speaking the word in its full, noneuphemised, unhyphenated form, and ended up at the bottom of a media pig-pile for his mistake—a signal example of the continuing power, in a supposedly visual culture, of words. Randall Kennedy, in his concise and superlative book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Pantheon, 2002) quotes the journalist Farai Chideya in calling it “the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” (In 2002, Kennedy could not have guessed that calling it “the trump card” would have a special foul irony in 2019.) Reading the first chapter of Kennedy’s book, I was reminded of Frank O’Connor’s description of reading the censorship records for Eric Cross’s book The Tailor and Ansty: “A long, slow swim upstream through a sewage bed.” He buries you: the remembered injuries, the smug, vicious jokes, the word dropping from many a respected mouth, its clinging persistence. I grew up with it as one of the half-dozen words you never, never said, but Kennedy’s account has given the word its due special existence as an irradiated object—something that carries its historic stench with it. But he goes on, looking into its legal existence, its chameleon changes, its appropriation, its permissible uses—all subjects in which he could have gone wrong in a hundred ways, and yet navigated with something better than mere sensitivity. Kennedy has his antennae out for all sorts of twists and dodges, and the book remains an absorbing and surprising read through to the end. The only sad note is to say that, getting on for twenty years old, its rank subject is not a whit less relevant now than when published.

In Matthew Warchus’s (grand) movie Pride, one of the young activists says, “There is a long and honorable tradition in the gay community, which has stood us in a good stead for a very long time. When somebody calls you a name….you take it and you own it.” I’m pretty sure the gay community learned this trick from the Black Power movement, and one of the most ingenious bits of appropriation ever pulled off must surely have been when the comic Dick Gregory used Nigger (Dutton, 1964) as the title of his autobiography. On the cover of the paperback: “Dear Momma, Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.” This is pretty grand itself, but hardly prepares you for what follows, which is an absorbing story of coming out of the most grinding forms of poverty, using both your body and your mind (he was a national-level track star as well as a stand-up comic) to escape, and then using your mind, your celebrity and your wit and courage to speak out against the boundaries set to black experience by the racism of the mid-twentieth century (very much like the racism of our time, but even more blunt and blatant). More so than most autobiographies, Gregory’s book is not just an accumulation of events but has a through line: we watch him pit himself against one obstacle after another, and realize that all those obstacles grow out of each other. It gives the story not only its continuing interest but almost a kind of suspense. Nigger is memorable for many reasons, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read another book that made me conscious—in a manner that gets way under your skin and your defenses—not just of the evil of racism but its sheer, petty, grinding meanness, its way of keeping someone down to shore up indefensible privilege, its setting for innumerable small and intimate acts of one-on-one nastiness. There are many clips of the older Gregory still visible online, where he has the presence of a scarred prophet. His autobiography is the comic with his mask off, and the history of both the scars and the strength behind them.

H. Rap Brown was a figure in the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an activist group) in the sixties, and his book Die Nigger Die! (Dial Press, 1969) is a still-potent statement of the rage and anger of those days. He wasn’t one of the more-acceptable-to-whites activists who insisted entirely on non-violent action—his approach, his preachment, was revolution. “Racism stems from an attitude and it can’t be destroyed under the capitalist system. You can’t fight attitudes. If white people want to address themselves to that, fine. They’re the ones with the attitude, but the Black Movement cannot address itself to attitudes. Fuck attitudes. Fuck a mothafucka who hates me, because if I ever get him at the wrong end of my gun he’s in trouble….Change the laws and enforce ‘em and let the attitudes take care of themselves. Because most of the laws in this country are built on attitudes, not justice, not equality, revolution is necessary.” Die Nigger Die! is not just a personal account but a reasoned presentation of the connection of racism with the current power structure. As with Kennedy’s book, time has not lessened its relevance; indeed, it is of its time in being addressed to a mass audience, with no tinge of the academic or professional publication.

Nice white people deplore the familiar use of the n-word among African Americans as being self-demeaning. (Kennedy’s book notes the differentiation between “nigger,” always derogatory, and “nigga,” which can be a friendly greeting.) Brown’s book will be a lesson to such readers, because it is not primarily addressed to them; it was for a black audience, and we white readers only borrow it or overhear it. The n-word may be self-demeaning only to white ears, and Brown doesn’t give a rat’s ass about that. “The truth of the matter is that we cannot end racism, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism until the reins of state power are in the hands of those people who understand that the wealth, the total wealth of any country and the world belong equally to all people. Societies and countries based on the profit motive will never insure a new humanism or eliminate poverty and racism.” Once you see the scope and distance of Brown’s ambition you might not wonder that he was unwilling to sit around and wait for your help. The n-word can be used in a lot of different ways; nobody expected it would be used to bite us back.

Brown is still alive; under his Islamic name of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin he is currently in the penitentiary in Tucson over his involvement in a shootout in Georgia in 2002. Another man, Otis Jackson, has on three occasions confessed to the crime that Al-Amin was convicted for; a movement for retrial was recently denied. Go to whathappened2rap.com for more information.

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