“A team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide.” Mickey Mantle
The month of February here in the United States has been designated Black History Month. Developed by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week, it was first acknowledged during the second week in February to reflect and celebrate the accomplishments of many African-Americans in the arts, academics, politics, and civil rights. Over many decades and a push during the civil rights era during the 1950’s and 1960’s, its been extended throughout the entire month.
Although blacks have made some important strides here in the United States and abroad, race is still a iffy subject even though the country has afforded the laws and access to many of our white and many diverse counterparts. America as a whole still has a long way to go on addressing race and the beginning of constructive dialogue on integration, relationships, and negative stereotypes.
In 1837 Abolitionist and Minster Hosea Easton states in A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them, the word nigger “is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon blacks as an inferior race.” Easton later adds “the term in itself would be perfectly harmless were it not used only to distinguish one class if society from another; but it is not used with that intent.”
Throughout slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the modern Civil Rights era the word nigger has been used as a derogatory means to call blacks outside of feeling and being human. As Minister Easton states, the term is used to keep African-Americans in lower standing in economics, politics, the work place, religion, and in society. But the word is much deeper than this as Europeans during the historic Middle Passage slave trade for two hundred years took millions of people of their native Africa to what is now known as the New World (America). Ship upon ships traveled from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean seeking free Africans who would be stripped of their names, culture, and all forms of connection to their native land. This stoic triangular trade would take place across the Atlantic and many European countries like England, Spain, France, Portugal, and Sweden took part of this new way of life. Africans didn’t have a say nor the freedoms when they entered the New World. These proud and mighty people where chained and shackled to the bottom of slave ships with no running water, no lights, bathrooms, nor decent food to eat often traveling like this upward of six to seven months. Once these slaves arrived, the term nigger was used to keep mind control on these new people. In fact, the slave owners divided the slaves into the “house” and “field” slaves on their mansions or plantations. The “house” slave were generally the slaves that lived a little better than the “field” slaves. They took care of the slave-master by cooking their food, cleaning their home, and raising their kids. Being a “house” slave allowed them dress better and have more resources than your average “field” slave. Again this, along with the word nigger, continued to further keep slaves as less than human and slave owners controlled their every thought process. Slaves were even forbidden to read. Some “house” slaves who were caught teaching the “field” slaves to read were either punished or killed.
In 2011 the very word Europeans created to keep slaves and blacks as second class citizens is now the very word that they want to take out of daily existence. The late Tony Award and Pulitzer winning playwright August Wilson, whose critically acclaimed works include “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” depict life of working class African-Americans known as the “Century Cycle.” This was Wilson’s famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” which took place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. His play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” has caused quite a controversy because David Snead, Superintendent of the Waterbury School System in Waterbury, Connecticut wanted to shut the production down due to the use of the word nigger. What’s even more interesting is principal Elizabeth McGrath of the Waterbury Arts Magnet School who authorized and got the proper powers that be to ok putting on Wilson’s masterpiece, took extra steps with the play’s director Nina Smith to prepare a study guide to be handed out to explain to the actors and patrons of the play to discuss the origins of the word and the context of it.
Another blow to the use of the word nigger is the newly revised version of literary icon Mark Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Twain uses the reference of word 219 times throughout Huck Finn. Instead, The NewSouth Edition will replace the word with “slave.” According to co-founder of NewSouth publisher Suzanne La Rosa on writer Mark Twain: “that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognize that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there-all of them, in fact-that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.”(“Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Fin’ Eliminates the N-Word” by Marc Schultz. Publishers Weekly)
I could go all day on a tangent on how this violates the author’s or playwright’s work. It does. It’s just plain censorship. But there is a much bigger picture. As an African-American journalist and producer, I’m a avid fan of my culture as well as my great literary giants like Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston. These writers told stories that painted the pallet of the life and struggles of our people and our culture. Whether through music, relationships, or the struggle to achieve the “so-called” American dream, the word nigger whether used in books like Richard Wright’s “Native Son” to Donald Goines “White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief,” was to express the characters role in white America. Not as negative, but as how these characters felt against the establishment or their place in society. The word nigger was and still is a word that some blacks continue to use. Many of these writers expressed the word through men and women that faced many adversities like Huck Finn’s Jim and Native Son’s Bigger Thomas. They incorporated and mastered vivid depiction’s of life in the inner city and prison life while using black dialectical forms to paint a picture of our culture. Censorship on this level brings me to my next point in how some people continue to pacify and hide behind the word.
Some Europeans and white people, as expressed earlier by co-founder of NewSouth publisher Suzanne La Rosa on writer Mark Twain, “that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.” When you read Mark Twain or watch August Wilson, our experience existed before and after Europeans and whites created the word for well over 200 years. Again, because of the times and the ‘political incorrectness’ of the word in 2011, whites still feel uncomfortable about using the word. Instead, they hide behind the word and refuse to begin to have constructive dialogue on the origins of the word. I applaud the efforts of the Waterbury school district to go ahead as planned to produce August Wilson’s play. At least the director and the principal have taken the first steps to begin talking about this highly controversial word. It’s been long overdue that they stop using callous and cowardly methods like removing the word and replacing it with ‘slave’ and begin to accept and talk about the word.
I felt this topic was appropriate for the beginning of Black History Month because the word nigger isn’t going anywhere. The word is still being used in rap music, heard in movies, and writers are still using the word in poetry and literature. In 2011 America still has a blatant race problem that we refuse to address. To censor the word nigger is like censoring Jesus Christ from the Bible or anything sex-related from Kama Sutra! Comedians like the late Richard Pryor and George Carlin set the bar are how we need to be aware and conscious on how we use the word nigger and addressing race and censorship. According to Pryor in his 1982 stand-up comedy film Live on Sunset Strip, “I was sitting by myself (in the Nairobi Hilton in Kenya) and I just looked around and it was like a voice said to me,”What do you see?” And I said,”People of all colors doing things together”.And another voice said “Do you see any niggers?” And I said,”No!”. And the voice said “Do you know why?”. And I said(whispering),”No”. And it said,”There aren’t any…”. If Richard Pryor could publicly admit the error of using the word, then why can’t whites and Europeans do the same thing? The great John Calvin wrote: “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” It’s now time to stop being a coward and start ‘manning up’ to the n-word and begin dealing with race.