Friday, July 18, 2008

Nigger Discussed on the View

Nigger is getting a lot of publicity lately. It all started when Nas threatened to title his new album “Nigger”. Under pressure from community leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he backed off. The cover art depicts Nas stripped to the waist, the letter “N” outlined in ugly scars on his back as if he were the victim of a horse-whipping.

Nigger found its way to my blog, and the comments came rolling like a might cloud of witnesses. I used the occasion to have an open discussion regarding race, censorship and varying opinions related to the way we approach both.

Nigger took center stage again last week after Jesse Jackson used it during his comment about chopping off Barack Obama’s nuts. Jackson proved that even the most staunch critic of the word reserves the right to pull out the Nigger when it’s the best way to describe the deep angst felt in that moment. Nigger is a multidimensional word. It is a term of endearment. It can be used to separate a person from the ideological views of another person. That Nigger is crazy; as it was used by Jackson.

Jackson led the charge in condemning Michael Richards for shouting Nigger at a black patron at the Laugh Factory. Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada joined Jackson in calling for a ban on the word’s use. Now that Jackson has been caught using the word, Masada says he wants Jackson to do what comics do every time they say the word on a Laugh Factory stage-pay a fine.

Nigger became the hot topic on the ‘View’ when co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck said she doesn’t like when black people use the word, and cried while trying to explain why. She said no one should be able to say it because “it perpetuates stereotypes and hate.”

“We use it the way we want to use it,” Whoopi Goldberg countered. Goldberg then became upset when Hasselbeck claimed that they both live in the same world, and Goldberg let her know “we do live in different worlds. You don’t understand.”

Barbara Walters also chastised Hasselbeck during the discussion.” You’re not listening, you're just talking," she said.

The conversation came to an end when Hasselbeck burst out in tears asking, "How are we supposed to move forward if we keep using words that bring back that pain?"

Nigger gets so much attention, and it is so misunderstood. White people struggle with discerning how and why black people use it while rebuking them for doing the same. The word is a reminder that we are living in two different worlds, and that these worlds are further complicated by the escalating generation gap in the black community.

Nas said it best during an interview on BET to promote his now untitled album. “The youth think the older generation has let them down,” he said. “They don’t care about how they feel.”

The youth listen to us older folks scold them for using Nigger as a term of endearment. We remind them of the history of the word, and how it stirs up so much that we would rather place in a time capsule never to see again. They tell us they have taken that word and remade it into something useful. The spelling is changed. The meaning is different. If that is true, and I’m not so sure how you can do that without visiting the historical meaning of the word, why is it that they get so upset when white people use it?

They say, those angry young folks, that it is there’s to use in the way they decide. It’s a private word, limited to conversations with other Niggas. If that’s true, and again I’m not sure how you do that, why is it so prevalent in their music? I would be more willing to accept that logic if the primary consumers of Hip-Hop music were black youth. White youth purchase Hip-Hop more than black youth, creating a social and psychological dilemma that will take decades to process.

What happens when you take the terms of your former oppression (and in the minds of some, your current oppressors) and recast them to define yourself? If our identities are structured from the residue of a hideous past, what does that mean related to how we refuse to use new language to communicate who we are?

Nigger brings to the forefront deeper sociological and psychological constructs. It reflects the black communities divide around the ways it views history and the ways it interprets the significance and relevance of that past. If Nas is right, and black youth are angry at older blacks for letting them down, then Nigger stands as a social protest against a generation so enamored with their own quest for the American Dream that they left behind a generation in need of more than they were willing to give.

Elisabeth’s struggle to understand on the ‘View’ reflects black America’s grapple with its own identity. In other words, she is not able to comprehend because black people aren’t able to understand themselves. Black America is left fighting to find meaning within the chaos caused by the burden of history. The youth say take it and remake it. The older say cast it to the pits of Hell, burry it and refuse to revisit those villains from our past.

There’s one problem. When Jesse uses Nigger to communicate his rage, it reminds us that black folks use it behind closed doors, and white folks are confused because of our own bewilderment around the power of our words.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taking Down to Black People

When I first heard Jesse Jackson’s rebuke of Barack Obama for “talking down to black people,” I conceded that old dude is jealous and in need of medication for an obvious mental illness. It must be tough to witness the rise of a young, vibrant, intelligent, articulate, spokesperson able to accomplish what he couldn’t.
With that being said, I’m not sure this is all about an old man refusing to take his seat in the rocking chair as the next generation takes control.

I listened in disgust as Jackson whispered his desire to cut Obama’s family jewels, and thought homeboy has taken this thing too far. He needs to check himself, take a nap, and rethink all that hostility. This is a new day, and it’s time out for playa hating on Obama. Those old crabs in the barrow were tugging at the best chance black folks have at the White House, and I fumed at each assertion Jackson made.

For a brief moment, I celebrated Obama for telling the truth. Black people are slack. We don’t take care of our children. We cry the victim game whenever things don’t go our way. Our boys are enamored with the thug culture, and our young girls are mimicking the image of the video vixens on BET. I listened to Obama challenge black people to rise above the lure of the streets. I watched as those gathered at the NAACP annual convention rose to their feet in a resounding Amen.

I wanted to join them. I wanted to participate in this great moment, but something was wrong with the rhetoric of his message. An opportunity was missed. Obama made the same mistake as Bill Cosby. He overstepped in his claim, and, in doing so, participated in the further dissemination of negative information regarding the state of Black America.

There is another side to this story, a piece that we all should cheer. Not all black people are poor, drug addicted and pregnant before the age of 20. Not all black men are absent from the lives of their children, hooked on stupid, treat their women like garden tools or measure their manhood by the bulge in their pants. There is more to black America, much more, and I wanted to hear Obama communicate the good rather than fuel the stereotypes that hinder our ability to see past our assumptions.

By casting that large umbrella over black America, Obama has further victimized black people by reminding us of how the problems of a few can be used to categorize what it means to be a part of the whole. Isn’t it time to rethink what it means to be black in America? Isn’t it time to shed light on the good examples instead of casting a bright light on the few among us used to classify what it means to be black?

My mother and father have been married for over 50 years. My father is my role model. My uncles are like my father-black men who took care of their children. My cousins take care of their children. My father and uncles passed on meaningful lessons that have helped nurture me into the man I am today. This is not an anomaly. It’s what happens with black families across the country.

Instead of feeding the flame of negative sentiments regarding the black man, woman and family, let’s tell the truth. What you see on BET doesn’t define black life. I’m fed up with that assumption, and Barack Obama needs to help others understand the truth.

Yes, there are some knuckleheads out there. Some of them are black. Some are white. Some are Hispanic. Some are bi and tri racial. The bad in America can’t be reduced to the state of black America, and I would love it if our leaders would stop and celebrate the good that is Black America.

Maybe that’s what Jackson meant when he said Obama talks down to black people. I understand the need to challenge us to do better, but it sure would help if he could help America see there is more to black life than all those stereotypes pasted in the minds of most Americans.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Jesse Helms: Lessons Learned

My pops voted for George Wallace. I remember the rage I felt back in 1976 when we debated his decision to support the symbol of bigotry during the desegregation period. “All politicians are liars,” he said. “I’d rather vote for one who tells me the truth than to support one who will lie in my face.”

That dinner table discussion has radically impacted the way I reflect on the political process. My father is a rare breed. He possesses the ability to look past the race of a man, and to find those good qualities that we all have locked deep inside. He was able to look past Wallace’s hatred toward African Americans, and supported him for one reason-he was honest.

My father wasn’t able to convince me to vote for Wallace, but he taught me an important lesson regarding how to measure the content of a person’s character. He taught me to admire those who say what they mean and mean what they say. He taught me to look past the cant of slick politicians to discern how they feel when reporters go home.

The words of my father helped me appreciate Jesse Helms. He stood for what he believed in, even when I despised him for taking those positions. When others demonized him, I saw beauty in the man. He fought against the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, funding for the arts and stirred hostility against gays and lesbians.

The dude stood against everything I believe in. He epitomized the Old South mindset that had me concerned when I moved from Missouri to North Carolina. I assumed North Carolinians must all be like Helms. They voted him into office, and I feared rearing my children in an environment hostile to African Americans.

I wanted a diverse community that celebrated the worth of different cultures, not a closed minded community trapped in the days of Dixie. I feared racial slurs and cross burnings. I soon discovered the beauty of living in a community that had struggled to redefine what it means to be community after such a hostile history.

It took extensive dialogue to move communities past many of its assumptions. I soon realized the emotions behind Southern symbols. I listened as old, proud Southerners talked about the Confederate flag. I watched them fight through the assumptions of their upbringing to embrace the worth of those of another race. This took hard work.

I’ve witnessed African Americans hindered by the memory of oppression. As white Southerners fight to overcome old assumptions, many African Americans are unreceptive to the efforts of those who are doing the best they can to embrace the new South. This is hard work that takes time and persistence, but it is work worth engaging.

It is what I love about the South. It is what I celebrate about Jesse Helms. Southerners don’t hide how they feel. They tell you what they think. I love that in your face approach. It is what drives my column writing and the work I do on this blog. Time isn’t wasted on sifting through well chosen words. I’d rather a person tell me how they feel than to waste time in an effort to uncover the truth.

It reminds me of a conversation I had at a local coffee house. An older gentleman was sitting at the counter next to me. “You know, I just don’t like Niggers,” he said. “I’m trying to do better, but I just don’t like them.”

His comments startled me. Not because he said it, but because he said it to me. In that moment I realized that he was working through his issue. He saw in me a person willing to discuss the matter. I was honored that he trusted me. His eyes weren’t filled with hostility toward me, but rather sadness rooted in his upbringing. He feared being too old to change. I could see it in his eyes.

“Come on old man,” I said. “You don’t hate all Niggers. Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

He laughed. We talked. I walked away overwhelmed by it all. I refused to allow that word-Nigger-to hinder our conversation. Transformation came in that moment. His truth met my truth, and we were better served due to the conversation.

That’s the South of Jesse Helms. When people speak their truth honestly, change can emerge from the ashes of our past.

Rest in peace Jesse