June 23, 2017
I must start off by praising you for the longevity of your marriage and your beautiful children, one of whom you proudly introduced to the world when he portrayed you on film in 2015. I must also laud you for the longevity and depth and breadth of your career. I am proud of you for all you have accomplished without even knowing you.
Here’s where I take issue with you, though: I saw you on Real Time with Bill Maher shortly after his suspension for referring to himself as a house nigger a few weeks ago. You spent much of your appearance giving him the stink eye and lambasting him for taking his “comedy” over the edge. But Bill Maher is a white man who is living in a white man’s skin. It is not his responsibility to protect a people who do not protect themselves when it comes to the use of that word.
Here’s where my experience and age can be helpful: I am the product of a Black immigrant family: with my Jamaican-born parents I lived in Liberia, Malawi and Swaziland. Additionally, I had visited more countries in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe by my teens than the average American will ever even read about. All this to say I have never been anywhere in the world where people call themselves names, let alone names with gut-wrenching historical significance. There is no precedent.
Just a little aside. Picture this: United States, 1976, Chaka Khan, at the height of her fame, does an interview where she describes her heritage as “Blackfoot Indian, French and nigger.” A group of Black teens in my school in Monrovia, Liberia—children of Liberian, Caribbean and American descent—huddles together, mulling over this debacle in hushed tones. Khan mentions every race other than the one that most obviously represents her heritage in appropriate terms, and uses the pejorative for the group of people who most look like her and to whom her music is targeted. “She called herself a nigger, what does it mean?” we whisper to one another, shocked, bewildered, confused.
Our glee over the now six-month-old Ebony and Jet magazines, and copies of Soul Train featuring supernaturally beautiful Black Americans with halo Afros (rivaled only by the Atta sisters) that have just hit our shores is sullied. A shame that we cannot dissect washes over us in its place. This is just not normal. (In researching this incident, which has clearly stayed with me for decades, I was glad to find that Khan was deluged with angry mail from the Black community state-side; well-earned).
As you can probably discern I am known as a “roots daughter” in my parents’ native culture. I love my heritage, I wear my short hair natural, and rock Afrocentric Kiini Ibura jewelry to carry this look off. I am often the lone woman in the Harlem barber shop I frequent (big-up to stylist Edgar at Levels). As you know barbershops are great labs for what’s on the minds of our folks. Whatever the topic, though, the word nigger often comes up and it is always used mockingly and derisively to describe people whom the customers and barbers perceive as clowns. Objects of their scorn range from brothers who’ve started some petty beef to the disturbed individual who ran a curb in Times Square injuring multiple pedestrians and killing one recently to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on any given day.
Another lab: the subways in the mid-afternoon when young people get out of school. In voices that are high pitched with hormones and insecurity, they berate one another in mangled dialogue peppered with this word. I won’t even start on the misogyny heaped upon ebony sisters who look like me and embrace our heritage. That is another letter.
The flimsy explanation that we as Black people are deconstructing or taking back a vicious word and making it our own is just that. If we want to own something how about another hospital, credit union, bank or something our people can benefit from? I personally could use a low-interest loan to help subsidize my overpriced graduate education. But holding fast to dreams is something you’ve taught me by example. I will prevail ….
Let’s deal with our complex, painful history by seeing it as just that. Our triumph, my brother, is in the success of you and me, the Jacksons and the McCourties, and all the African diasporic families who survived the “peculiar institution” to build something better for the ensuing generations. Let’s not disrespect our ancestors by trying to normalize the abnormal. Let’s not risk endangering other brothers and sisters by muddying the waters in today’s highly charged and dangerous racial and political climate. A racial epithet is a racial epithet when used by or against anyone. Words count. That thought is appropriately black and white.
My dear brother, the stink eye that you gave Bill Maher belongs not to him but to our collective Black community. We have a lot to do on this front. And we can start by doing what Richard Pryor did many decades ago: taking a trip to the Mother Continent (whether by physical or virtual travel) and burying the word nigger there once and for all.
Your sister always,
Truth is the ultimate power. When the truth comes around, all the lies have to run and hide.–Ice Cube