Nigger

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits” – “seven words you can never say on television” – George Carlin 1972

I’m thinking about Bill Maher this morning and the brouhaha kerfuffle over his quick joke gone bad last night on live TV; wherein he used the word nigger. Even as I write this I wonder if I should capitalize the offensive word. You get the beef right. It’s, far as I can figure; the only word in the English language we aren’t suppose to say no matter what. If a black guy is on the roof of a burning building and the firemen show up you can’t point and say “Save the nigger”. In that context it would be a slur. But what about in some other benign context. Should the same rules apply?

I spent thirty of my last thirty-five years in Oakland, CA and for a hand full of those years worked in inner-city programs. In one C.E.T.A. project of forty-four folks I was one of only two whites and the other white guy was the director; a man who prior to this assignment may well have never met a black person. The guy rarely left the office and spoke to us from a privileged perch. I however, was in the streets with the guys and surely; I never said the word in any context. It’s never been a part of my vocabulary. I was a bit of a leader I suppose and as a running joke the guys took to calling me “say so” (my last name is Masesso). So as the nickname suggests; I wasn’t shy. When I was fifteen years old I was sentenced to the state reformatory for juvenile delinquents at Saint Charles, Illinois. I spent a year there. Out of two thousand inmates the white kids made up only 15% of the population. I said all that to say this; I’ve spent the better part of my adult life in the company of black folks. So given that fact alone I think I have some right to a “say so”. And I say take a chill pill on this one.

Some of the black guys in the juvenile facility, that’s a kind acronym for a gladiator academy where the age group was 15, 16 and 17 years old; prime fisticuffs period in any mans life and since these were, according to the state of Illinois, adjudged by a judge, delinquents, the toughest and most dangerous of the bad boys of that era, some would react violently to anyone black or white who used the term and some on the other hand would say it all the time. By the way; the term “Black” in those days, 1962, was also a slur and never said. The proper term then and you had to use it; was Negro. Say Black and you’d for sure be in a fight. Things change.

What seems completely lost in the current mess is Maher used the term in a benign context. He didn’t use the word in the context of a slur or in a derogatory manner. He used it in reference to site an historical fact; used it within a common colloquialism of that period of time and one that survived historically and is well known and still used today. Malcolm X most famously popularized it in the 1960’s; often using it in his explanation of how history had hung over in this particular regard to the current period. The phrase in question was in fact, in the way Bill Maher used it, self deprecating.

Surely just saying any word in a benign context can’t make you anything; certainly not something as specific as a racist or a bigot. Its all about the context. I’m writing this to defend the guy even though he’s apologized as he should but moreover to defend our right to speak freely without having the inquisition foisted upon us. Hearing the chorus of rabid calls for him to be made to disappear offends the memory of Mario Savio, Lenny Bruce, Salman Rushdie and all lovers of free speech. Anyway, this is what prompts my Sunday Morning concern and results in this; my little missive.

I know, I know – this column may well lead to all manner of repercussions for me from those easily offended – but frankly; I don’t give a fuck. Wait; can I say fuck?

#nigger # free speech #Bill Maher

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