Tag Archives: n- word

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—.


A Life Lived as the Sabbath

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. … Six days a week, we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath, we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.  The world has our hands but our soul belongs to Some one Else.  Six days a week, we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day, we try to dominate the self.”

~ The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Every day, it seems that there is a new story or an old one revisited about race, racism, prejudice and/ or stereotypes: the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, celebrity chef Paula Deen’s use of the racial slur nigger and monthly, sometimes weekly reports, of racism on college campuses and universities.  It is justified and yet or fault, the truth and yet a lie, the reason and yet the excuse for why we continue to have the same conversations.  Still, we cannot come to an agreement and it is because race is inherently unjust as the law and the lawgiver, the creature and the creator.  We have made it and yet, we are enslaved to it, ensnared by it.

Race is used to explain it all while providing no real answers.  We are and it is this way because of race and based on race.  It is because we are black/ white/ red/ yellow/ brown/ beige and yet the reason why we need to disown the socially constructed identity altogether.  Let’s lose sight of color and become color- blind.  But, we really want to see it because we feel that we need it.  We believe that race is the reason for everything, that it provides answers to the who and what and when and why and how of our lives.  But, it doesn’t and it never will.

While Zimmerman and Deen’s stories have prompted increased dialogue about our belief in stereotypes, the practice of prejudice and employment of racial slurs, it seems that the conversation concerning all of these things has not changed.  We still don’t know what to say or do about race.  We speak as if it is impossible to avoid it, as if we are “yoked” to it.  And we only talk about it in cases like Zimmerman and Deen.  Apart from such incidents and if there is no public outcry, then we remain dangerously and ignorantly and sinfully silent.

Heschel writes of the Sabbath, “it is a day of independence of social conditions.”  God’s creation of the Sabbath reminds us that time does not belong to us as it is not a possession.  It is not something to be owned.  Time cannot be bought or sold; it does not go on sale, cannot be reproduced or purchased in bulk.  Time is not our own; we cannot control it.  But, time belongs to God and there is a time when and a time for the throwing off of the yoke of social conditions.   This is possible because there is Some One who is outside of and not dependent upon the right time or the perfect social conditions in order to find meaning or to exist.  God exists apart from it all and provides a time for us to do the same.  It is called the Sabbath and “Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter not simply a day, but an atmosphere.”

Today, I begin the practice of a life lived as the Sabbath, acknowledging and submitting to an atmosphere wherein I respond independently of social/ economic/ physical/ racial/ prejudicial/ stereotypical conditions.