Okay, everybody get super frosty. I’m going to talk about the N word. You know the one I’m thinking of . . . the word is . . . nickel. Okay, I lie. It’s another word. One that has a long and hateful history. But I know better than to be a white man using the word indiscriminately in this space. Exhibit A is the trouble Bill Maher got into for referring to himself as a house nickel instead of a field nickel. I do not like to use a euphemism or only spell part of the word for reasons I have addressed in other essays. But in this particular case, Maher and other whites who use the word have gotten pilloried. And it doesn’t matter whether they use the word in a context that is not demeaning to our fellow humans who have an ample sufficiency of melanin. It also doesn’t matter that such backlash gives aid and support to the alt-right turd weasels who pollute the internet and our civil discourse. If a millionaire celebrity like Maher can get in trouble for using the word, then what chance do I have? So nickel it is.
For those who would argue that, as a white man, I have no business weighing in on the word, I say you are wrong. Asserting that I cannot understand what another human being is going through is racist in itself. It’s like saying that because I haven’t experienced child birth firsthand, I have no ability to empathize with mothers and no right to talk about motherhood. It’s a bogus argument. Besides, I am a long-time student of Civil Rights, word usage, and comedy. I have even contributed to all three when I can. Those long-time interactions give me all of the moral authority I need to write about the word. Racism is tricky business, so if you, as a reader, can’t get past the subject matter, then please stop reading.
The word that got Maher et al. in trouble has gained wider usage within the black community over the years. Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard wrote a brilliant book about the word, its history, and its changing usage. And while I’m sure there were black comedians on The Chitlin Circuit who did bits about the word, I am unaware of any specific examples. In the early Sixties, however, Lenny Bruce did a bit called, “Are there any Nickels here tonight?” He was the first national figure to address the power of the word and argue about how to destroy that power. His premise was that if the president of the United States used the word to describe his cabinet members on television in front of the whole nation, then the word would lose its ability to hurt black children. Changing the meaning of the word defangs it. That he used satire to make this point should be a reminder of how important humor is to a healthy free society.
Other comedians have attacked the power of the word through their standup: Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Rene Hicks are just a few examples. Katt Williams can’t get through a sentence without using the word at least three times. His response to those who criticize him is, “. . . go fuck yourself.” Hip-hop music has totally owned the word from NWA to Jay Z. Yes, there is an argument in the black community about its use. But to the NAACP and others who call for a ban on the word, I would like to point out that moral outrage will never overcome human nature in general and language usage in particular. Trying to ban the word is like trying to outlaw drugs. Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is ignorant of drugs, economics, and human nature and is pursuing a policy that has failed for more than eight decades. Those who would try to ban a word are no different. It’s an impossible task. Just listen to all of the boom cars driven by young white men blasting hip hop music with the word. The more we shrink away from the word, the greater ability we give it to hurt.
It is partly the secrecy of this word that sustains its destructive energy. Denying whites the right to use the word in proper context not only gives the word more power, but it emboldens the alt-right in their attack on “snowflakes.” I would like to argue that, just as context is crucial to the use of any word, so it is with the word “nickel.” If I say, “I had to kill the bitch,” the meaning of the phrase becomes altogether different if I am a kennel owner talking about a sick dog than if I am a hip-hop artist. I realize it’s a crude example, but it makes the point that context is everything. I recently did an essay on the multiple meanings of the word “key.” The word “run” arguably has more meanings than any other word in the English language. Any careful examination of language shows that it is context that drives the meaning of every word.
Bill Maher called himself a “house nickel.” In this context, he was demeaning himself. Even more so when you consider that being a “house nickel” is an insult inside the black community. Not only was it self-denigrating and not aimed at hurting other people, it was nuanced. Yet so many writers and Twitter users, in all stages of melanin manifestation, jumped on Maher, that he apologized. When you consider that he has never apologized to anyone else for insulting them, his mea culpa says a lot. I’m not sure that it lowers my view of him, but I do understand. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. Isn’t it interesting though, that Maher uses the word “fuck” repeatedly on his show and those same critics say nothing. The “F-word’ or “F-Bomb” used to be one of the ultimate no-no words. Now it is the “N-word.” The idiocy of euphemisms aside (see Carlin, Orwell, et al.), I think people diminish the history of the Civil Rights movement by referring to the word as the “N bomb.”
I seem to remember three little girls in a Birmingham church who found out what damage real bombs do. Which choice would they, or their surviving families, make between “N bombs” hurled at them by racists, or the TNT bombs that took their lives? How sad that they never got to see Barack Obama as president. Would they have been insulted by Larry Wilmore calling President Obama, “my nigga?” That event sparked some outrage, but I think that precise moment of the 2016 White House Correspondent’s Dinner is a turning point for how we should react to the word. It was close enough to Lenny Bruce’s suggestion that he gave to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on how to be change agents. I think that those whites who still use the word as an insult, as well as blacks who think that no usage of the word is acceptable, are on the wrong side of history. As for me, I don’t want the right to use the word, but I do want to take away its ability to be part of hate speech. Still, in the big picture, I’ll take words over bombs any day.