I should try and get right to the point with this, because Isabel’s nap might be almost over. I spent much of her nap time making preliminary preparations for dinner (veggie enchiladas), so uninterrupted writing time is short.
The now-hackneyed tale of Michael Richards’ use of the “’n’ word” at a comedy club only sparked one train of thought for me until Dick J. sent me an e-mail with this Sun-Times story included. Apparently, Jesse Jackson thinks it is time to remove the word “nigger” from public discourse. I strongly disagree with his method and his reasoning, but I’ll get to that next. First, I think it best to give some idea of how I contextualized the Richards incident.
If you’ve ever tried stand-up comedy—I have, several times—you know how tough it can be. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the experience I did on my first try: you’ll catch a receptive audience off guard and wow them with something so off the wall that they’ll laugh themselves silly and love you for it. Odds are, though, it will be a hell of a lot tougher than that. There is nothing like standing alone in front of a group of (likely inebriated) people who are expecting you to make them laugh. You are there with nothing but your material and your wits, and God help you if they aren’t strong enough to get you over.
I can sympathize with Michael Richards for having a tough night with a tough crowd. Though I’ve never seen his stand-up act (and I wouldn’t, because I don’t like to watch stand-up anymore), I know that his reputation is for being a physical genius. I reckon that trying to match wits with hecklers is not his forte. So I’m not at all shocked or surprised that he was having a bad enough night that he decided to reach into the Stupid Bag for a bailout. What came from his mouth was most likely not a Trent Lott-esque call for a return to the good old days of Jim Crow; it was more likely an ill-conceived attempt to shock a lifeless stage appearance into viability.
All that said, Richards spewed some pretty awful things. Our culture is marinated in vile banality, though, and “Kramer” had a virtually infinite tableau of aggressive vulgarity from which to choose. Why he allowed his reptile brain to choose and deal the worst, most politically incorrect card is his business and his pop culture cross to bear. Personally, I wouldn’t hold it against him even if it mattered. I believe him when he says his intent was quite singular and specific, and I think it a shame that a titanic lapse in judgment on such a tiny stage should be magnified and misemployed as a stand-in for more pervasive and complex issues in the larger culture.
With that in mind, I think the putative heir to Dr. Martin Luther King is barking rabidly up the wrong tree with his call for boycotts and First Amendment exemptions. While I agree with Jackson and Maxine Waters that “nigger” is an historically powerful and deeply vicious term that should eventually pass from our cultural lexicon, I don’t think we should force the issue. In fact, I believe Jackson’s concept of forcible eradication through direct economic action is almost as misguided as Ward Connerly’s endeavor to abolish affirmative action.
The power and beauty of language is its ability to put a fine point on one’s communication. While human beings can convey much with physicality and facial expression, language gives us the capacity to avoid ambiguity. Alas, the Devil’s in the details; language also enhances the power to deceive. When it comes to the pejorative, though, cruder is more effective. The more harsh and base the insult, the more honest feeling and thought it can transmit. That’s why it was such a poor choice for Michael Richards, especially if he doesn’t actually harbor the feelings that his words connoted. That’s also why I think it is a fool’s errand to try and eliminate such a powerful and insidious word from public discourse.
On the contrary, it would be better for Jackson (if he’s not just interested in grandstanding to get some TV face time and corporate hush money), Waters, and others to take the high road. Now that the incident has been thrust into the public eye by the corporate whore media, we have a brilliant opportunity to start asking some questions about the larger issues surrounding the word “nigger.” How is it that the term has lasted so long? What does that say about the cementation of Afrophobic racism to our larger culture? What does the adoption of the term by black folks say about our collective self-image? If we’re really ambitious, we can take this line of questioning even further, and start asking about the origins and the continuing role of racism in a capitalistic representative democracy.
Needless to say, I don’t have high hopes that any of this will occur. I think we’ll do what we always do, which in this case will mean to demonize Michael Richards for a while and stand by while Jesse Jackson postures for the cameras. Meanwhile, the real, pervasive effects of racism will be at work—with our without the word “nigger” being vocalized or even consciously thought of—and black people will keep living (and dying) with those effects. Eventually, this will all be just a vaguely recalled punch line, and things will be back to the status quo.