Back in the day, people believed that you could summon demons by simply speaking their names. They also believed that speaking certain words in certain orders would cause magic. But that was a long time ago, right? Surely no modern person believes that the mere uttering of some collection of syllables has magical powers, right? I’m not so sure.
See, tonight I went to see Randy Newman in concert. My date (a friend, not a “date date”) was a 29 year old graduate student originally from Boston. She’s fairly liberal, but not generally obnoxiously so; we tend to avoid talking politics to minimize unnecessary confrontations. She’s quite bright, but comes from a low-income, not well-educated family. Both in her youth and as a college student and an adult, she has spent a lot of time with African-Americans (she’s white), and so is fairly sensitive to racial issues.
Anyway, if you know of Randy Newman’s work, you probably know of his song “Rednecks.” In the course of making fun of both southerners and northerners for their attitudes towards black people, he uses what we now call the “N-word.” The southerners, who “don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground” are “keeping the N—-s down,” while the northerners call them “negroes” and let them be free… to stay in the cages of the ghettoes of Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere.
Before this song, my friend was enjoying the concert (though she had no idea who Randy Newman was before this evening). She was tapping her toes, swaying her hands, and smiling. As he played Rednecks, though, her attitude completely changed. She sank back in her seat, crossed her arms, and stopped moving entirely. And she stayed that way for the remainder of the concert. Stayed seated during his standing ovation. And BOY was she ticked at me because I hadn’t warned her (I thought about it, but honestly I thought she would either not come to the concert, or she would spend the entire concert waiting for THE song to be played, plus I wasn’t sure that he any longer played that song publicly).
Understand, now, that she accepted the basic explanation of the meaning of the song. She doesn’t think that Newman is racist, or was trying to demean black people with the song. It was just the use of the N-word that set her off, and that she finds extremely offensive in and of itself. She is also uncomfortable, she says, listening to hip-hop music which uses that word.
This naturally got me to thinking of the recent controversy over the bowdlerization of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, by replacing the N-word with the word “slave,” which has very different meanings and emotional connotations.
Why does this word have such power? We used to have a lot of taboo words, words that weren’t said in “polite society.” By about 38 years ago, we only had seven. Today, most of the seven aren’t very taboo. I wouldn’t be socially ostracized for saying any of them at a dinner party, but for one, the “c-word.” Women really hate that word, viscerally. But that’s it. That and the N-word. You say either of those two words in most social circles today, the social circles of all the right-thinking people, the highly educated people, the proper people, and you WILL be ostracized. The context matters not. Quoting Mark Twain using the word to show how ignorant are the people using it is little different from telling some disgusting old racist joke.
Why? I really don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t use the word. I certainly agree that actually CALLING somebody that word is a horrible thing to do, and understand why using it in that sense is strongly socially condemned. I understand why it’s considered bad even for black people (mostly hip hop artists) to use the word in referring to themselves and their own social group. I certainly agree that using it in racist jokes is a very bad thing to do. Out of prudence, if no other reason, I make sure that the word never crosses my lips (I sang along with most of the song at the concert, but not those parts), because I have no desire to be ostracized and I recognize the hair-trigger sensitivity that most people have about it. But I don’t understand how the uttering of the word, in and of itself regardless of context, is and must be so universally condemned.
I can only see it as a modern manifestation of the very old phenomenon. You don’t say the true name of demons, because you don’t want them to appear in the room. Racism is our most powerful modern demon, and the N-word is its true name. All we’re missing is some mysterious hand movements to ward off the evil on the rare occasions when the word is said by some evil or thoughtless person.