Paul Mooney's Toothpaste
"I say 'nigger' 100 times every morning; it keeps my teeth white." - Paul Mooney Before I got the Good Times DVDs, I bought Sanford & Son. Looking at the credits for the second season, I saw something that really tripped me out. Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney collaborated on two episodes. I never knew that Richard Pryor had written any episodes of S&S. It had never even occurred to me that he might do something like that. Anyway, when I looked back at the episodes Pryor and Mooney had collaborated on, I found a common occurrence. In both episodes, Fred said "nigger." For about 12 or 13 years, I've had serious ambivalencies about 'nigger/nigga.' Back in '94, I wrote a paper where I pegged out a specific instance in which it had a positive connotation without really dealing with the negative aspects of it. I'm not going to rehash all that here, but I will say that it's a very interesting word. Randall Kennedy called it "troublesome." It's that too. More than anything, it's whatever the speaker and the hearer make of it. If it only has currency as a negative, then it's negative. If, between individuals, it has the potential to be a term of endearment, then it can be that sometimes. To give this some perspective, last week, I did some writing on Blackness; what it is and whatnot. I didn't come to any firm conclusions because I think Blackness as an existential state is very liquid. I don't know that there is a way to be Black just like I don't know that there is a way to be a man. That is to say, in most people's vernacular, having a 'y' chromosome and achieving 18 years does not qualify one for manhood. That's the basis, but there are other variables in the equation. In my family, it's stuff like paying your bills on time and being responsible to get things that need doing done. I don't know that defines a man so much as it defines an adult; there is no gender-specific element at play. Some other people I know are hesitant to use the term "man" to describe a gay male. Likewise, there are people who seem to think that having conservative politics means that a person is not Black (or maybe not Black enough). Last year, after Rush Limbaugh (what was ESPN thinking in the first place?) made his pronouncement that Donovan McNabb is overrated (could be true) and that the Liberal Media Machine had an agenda to make Donovan look better than he really is (Limbaugh must have never been to Philly. There is no such thing as a free ride for an athlete in Illadelph.), Outside the Lines had Armstrong Williams on there with some Africana Studies professor from a California school (USC?) discussing the whole incident. Well, somehow, the word nigger came up and the professor cat spouted off that old line about how it's a term of endearment. So of course, Armstrong started talking about how he doesn't use it as a term of endearment, then the professor dude starts talking about how it's used within the Black family, of which Armstrong is not a part, and it just went downhill from there. Luckliy, for my stomach and Butterscotch's ears (I go off for 20 minutes at a time when I hear nonsensical arguments like that) I had somewhere to go. My whole thing is this: that word is totally contextual. Especially nowadays, with the prevalence of hip-hop as a global marketing force/product. So, for instance, people are quick to trot out that term of endearment story. Well, that's true, but that's not the whole story. The same two people can have a conversation and refer to each other as nigga five times each and some of those times it will be positive and sometimes it will be negative. I would even argue that sometimes it's neither. Sometimes, it's just a word. And that's just with two Black people talking. What about those times when it's a Latino cat and an Asian cat referring to each other as nigga in a friendly way? Or two white cats? (I've observed it with my own eyes and ears.) What then? For instance, Ambra has a post referring to another post about those t-shirts that say, "Jesus Is My Homeboy." Well, knowing the vernacular, that shirt could hypothetically read, "Jesus is my nigga." I don't think anybody would print it, but putting aside questions of blasphemy or whatever, I don't think the word 'nigga' in that context would a) reflect an overriding racial element or b) be construed as a pejorative. I think that some people would find it offensive on its face but in the same way that the word 'homeboy' is not negative, 'nigga' wouldn't be either. Having said that, I partially agree with the Nationalists who believe the word should be dead by now. To the extent that it's a relic of pure racism, I would agree that it probably has no place in the 21st century vocabulary. I generally try not to say it, especially in mixed company. (Sometimes I don't care, though. I think it may have something to do with sunspots.) Even knowing that everybody who uses the word is not necessarily using it in its racial context, I just get uncomfortable hearing white people using it. Especially when I hear some white right-wing types talking about, "They say it, so why do they get upset when we do?" On one level, that might be a legitimate question, but I tend think that question is disingenuous. Knowing that the word is contextual, there are certain contexts in which its use is just not permissible. That's one of them. Unless the Black person who you use it around knows you very well, I just don't think it's a good idea. Of course, that had me feeling awful funny when "Straight Outta Compton" was new and a white friend of mine was reciting the lyrics to "Gangsta Gangsta." (Do you realize that the -sta ending, which has now gained mainstream currency, was invented by an 18 year-old Ice Cube?) But what did I think he was supposed to do? Was he going to say "Here's a little something about a 'n-word' like me?" "...a 'n' like me?' "...a brother like me?" I didn't like it but there was nothing I could really say. He was just quoting Cube. And knowing that he really liked the record, it wasn't like I could tell myself that he was just looking for an opportunity to say 'nigga.' So I just had to deal with it. Even with all that, I still don't have that big a problem with it. It's just a word. Having been an English major, and a postmodern one at that, I know that words are not neutral. I know that words are one of the most fundmental means of exerting power and all that good stuff. I'm hip to all that. And I'll still say nigga if I get ready. In my own idiolect, it's gone through several uses. At one point, when I was in high school trying not to cuss, everything that had previously been "a motherfucka" became "a nigga." So if it was really cold, it was "cold as a nigga." In that case, I wasn't even using it as a euphemism. It was just a placeholder. And actually, I think that swap is a decent parallel. Every time somebody says m-f, it's not invective. Sometimes it is, sometimes it's not. It just depends on who's doing the talking, who's listening, and what they're talking about. But then again, I'm not a prescriptivist when it comes to language. Wait until I talk about cussin'. I think I'll probably formulate some more thoughts on this and write a little more sometime soon. Maybe I'll talk about cuss words, too. In a lot of ways, 'nigga' mirrors cuss words, so they make good running mates.