Words Matter: Bill Maher’s misidentification with the N- word

“Names have always been a problem for black people in America… our names bespeak the tangles of American culture—miscegenation, issues of property and ownership, the peculiar violence of our past—in the same way our skins do.”

~C.S. Giscombe, Into and Out of Dislocation, 2000

First a noose is found at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and now comedian Bill Maher has decided to use the N- word during an interview on his show “Real Time.”  And yes, I do mean N- word.  I will not give life to a word that has been used to justify the dehumanization and death of countless Africans and African Americans.  Whether capitalized or not, used with an “er” or an “a,” its creator had no intention of making it a collegial or familial descriptor.  The N-  word was and always will be a word connected to the enslavement and ownership (i.e. “my n—“) of African and African American bodies by other human beings, namely European Americans.  It is not a term of endearment but an expression meant to degrade.

Not only does it not culturally locate persons of African descent but it positions persons beneath the dignity and value of other human beings.  It was never meant to be used in relational exchanges between equals.  How it became a part of Maher’s interview and his description of self, I do not understand.

Bill Maher, who has since issued an apology after HBO condemned his use of the word and decided to remove the section containing the slur from re-airings of the show, was interviewing Ben Sasse, a junior U.S. senator from Nebraska.  Here is the troubling exchange:

Sasse: “We’d loved to have you work in the fields with us.”

Maher: “Senator, I’m a house n—.”

Maher quickly adds, “It’s a joke” while waving off the audience and thanking those who applauded.  The problem is, it’s not.  There is nothing funny about the word or correct about his use of it.  Sasse smiles whether comfortably or uncomfortably, I am unsure.

Nevertheless, his expression of free speech costs the hearers who have a long history of being silenced and shamed by the word.  And while Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who can say it, who shouldn’t and why, would suggest that there are those who can use it, I would argue that it be removed from discourse altogether.  It’s no laughing matter and no matter our attempts to reinvent the word, we are not its creators.

The N- word cannot be reborn.  We cannot change its origin and therefore, its intent remains.  Langston Hughes said the word to African Americans was “like a red rag to a bull.”  Consequently, the use of it should not be confused with the waving of a white flag.  We must maintain our disgust for it and with each generation declare it irredeemable—  no matter the embrace from certain genres of music, certain segments of the population or the now comfortable use of it by this progressive comedian.

We have not nor will we ever get that far away from the meaning of the word and for that reason, the use of the word matters.  In 1619, John Rolfe wrote in his diary of the enslaved Africans that were forced to live in North America: “Twenty n—.”  There is no mention of their real names, their place of origin or their gender.  All is sacrificed to the word.

Whether in the house or the field, none of these men and women chose to be there and none of them wanted the name.  Why Bill Maher or anyone else would choose it for themselves is beyond my comprehension.  More than a history lesson is needed here; instead, more conversations on what it means to be human, which should not be confused with being a n—.

 

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