For Ice Cube … one respectful rejoinder: The n-word belongs to America

Language is interactive. Black Americans can no more take sole possession of the word than America can collectively evade its role in what that word is, what it says and the damage it’s done.

We got one of those proverbial Teachable Moments over the weekend, one that followed a moment, the week before, that was lamentable more than anything else. As it so often happens, television was the medium, race was the subject and the n-word — star of stage, screen and TV — was again in the center square, the catalyst for an American event.

Only this one hinged on questions we rarely ask ourselves: Who gets custody of the n-word? From whose mouth should that word never emerge?

Teachable moments are useless if you don’t learn something from them once they happen. And we’ve been here before and before and before. Even when we think we haven’t.

One of those moments, of course, happened on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher on June 2, during an exchange between host Bill Maher and Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. Talking on some finer point on the end of adulthood in America — prompted by their discussion of Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult — Sasse and Maher conversationally jousted.

“Halloween used to be a kid thing,” Maher said.

“It’s not anymore?” Sasse asked.

Maher: “Not out here. No. Adults dress up for Halloween. They don’t do that in Nebraska?”

Sasse: “It’s frowned upon. Yeah. We don’t do that quite as much.”

“I gotta get to Nebraska more,” Maher said.

“You’re welcome,” Sasse said. “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”

And Maher took the bait. “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

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The blowback was more or less immediate. Twitter exploded with outrage, calling Maher everything and a child of God. HBO, Maher’s own network, castigated him for the slur. Variety critic Maureen Ryan called for his firing, as did Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson and activist Chance the Rapper. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken canceled a planned appearance on the program. On MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton embarked on a role as cultural archeologist, unearthing a video clip that, in showing Maher using the same word previously, tried to put the current matter into historical context.

It got so bad that wags in the entertainment trades speculated how or whether the outburst would scuttle Maher’s chances to win an Emmy.

Leave it to Ice Cube, the actor, writer, director and an icon in the rap game, to try to put things in some kinda perspective that didn’t involve prolonged bad blood on social media or Glocks at 30 paces.

Cube appeared on the June 9th Real Time program sitting next to Maher, whose visible contrition mixed with defensiveness and a sputtering defiance. Cube, who revealed a firm grasp of the situation, would calm the waters, but first he laid out what was what.

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“I knew you was gonna fuck up sooner or later,” Cube said to Maher. “I did. I love your show, you’ve got a great show, but you’ve been buckin’ up against that line a little bit. You know, you’ve got a lot of black jokes. You know what I’m sayin’, you do.”

“I accept your apology,” Ice Cube said, to sturdy applause. “But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche. Because I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar — or they think they too familiar — or its guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two who made them some Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t.

“It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. …”

“And I’m not talkin’ about you, Bill. But I’m talkin’ about guys who cross the line every day because they got some black homies, they got some friends, they think it’s cool,” Cube said. “And it’s not cool because when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feels like that knife’s stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it.”

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There it was, deeply embedded within Cube’s breakdown of the situation: four words — “That’s our word now” — that embody the dilemma of the N-word, its inescapable revulsion, its perverse attraction, like the train wreck you can’t look away from, no matter how hard you try. And black Americans have tried not to regard the train wreck of the n-word, and its baggage upon baggage down through the years. Until they realized, or decided, that there’s no way … they can’t not look.

But there’s the rub with Ice Cube’s viewpoint: How do you claim ownership to a word you want nothing to do with? How do you hold something at arm’s length and embrace it at the same time?

How can you assume sovereign possession of the most collectively malignant word in the American lexicon when so much of the struggle, the battle, the war black Americans have fought through history, and fight every day right now, has been about kicking that word to the curb of our consciousness — and leaving it there, consigned to the trash heap it deserves to be in?

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Cube’s assessment is similarly double-sided (if not double-edged), selectively enforced and enforceable: When his black friends use the n-word (or the stylishly relaxed variant ending in “a”) everything’s fine (“it don’t feel like venom”). When white people use the word, the weight of its history comes to bear (“it feels like that knife’s stabbin’ me”).

Tragically curious, culturally elastic, the n-word thus conveys fraternity with one use and blood enmity with the other. Beginning with slave owners, and then in succeeding generations, that word was forced on black people by those who didn’t know us or care for us, those who were unalterably opposed to anything that enlightened and uplifted us, those who did all they could to hold us down — invoking that word for precisely that reason.

Cube grasped this himself when he talked to Maher. “It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man.” So, what’s the advantage in turning that knife of a word on yourself? Is poison really any less poisonous when you drink it voluntarily, instead of when it’s forced down your throat?

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The n-word’s use as a weapon is well-known; it runs through this nation’s history, and through too many of its current events. The ways in which the n-word is a tool are less clear-cut. It’s been appropriated by artists and writers, not all of them black, as a shorthand for authenticity and urban grit. Rappers have made it a staple of recording and performance for years — the hope perhaps being that, (consistent with Lenny Bruce’s celebrated “Are there any niggers here tonight?” standup routine), the more frequently the word’s used in public, the more its poison power could effectively be diluted.

There’s some altruistic merit to this argument. The injection of the n-word into the wider, faster digital culture, via the movies and the vernacular of rap music, has had a denaturing effect, as that culture reaches, often clumsily, for a democratization of the word’s application (remember the “wigger” phenomenon?). This view’s heart is in the right place: Hey everybody! If we can water the word down enough, it won’t hurt anyone anymore!

Likewise, black Americans’ adoption of the word — like some backwards uncle with body odor and no table manners but all the perks of being family, in spite of everything — has been seen as an anodyne extension of the evidence of black Americans as triumphalist survivors, the people who brilliantly navigated privation over the centuries, the ones who took white society’s table scraps and created cuisine. Now, the new thinking goes, the word meant to distill the worst of our travails could be reconfigured as a tough, au courant expression of the best that is within us.

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But that didn’t make it a tool as much as a habit, and maybe even a reflex. You can’t realistically imbue a word with a new meaning, or even a new interpretation, without first reckoning with the original meaning — if only to make sense of why meaning or interpretation should be different in the first place.

Regrettably, and ironically, we’re a long ways from that reckoning. We’re two generations from Lenny Bruce’s era and the n-word still hasn’t lost its ability to shock, to numb, to provoke, to savage, to outrage. Whether it’s pronounced with an “a” or an “er” doesn’t really matter. It cuts no less deeply because casual users end it with one or the other. The word casts a long shadow, well beyond the near-sightedness of its users.

And as certain figures in the national political life have ratified that word, approving with a blind eye either the word itself or the cases of racial retribution and physical rage that have followed in its wake, it effectively refutes the “our word” argument. Since the 2016 presidential election, those bad actors have done all they could do to reify the word’s original meaning, and to act, violently and terminally, against African Americans, with the latitude they believe the n-word conveys to them by birthright.

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Ice Cube is due every respect as a touchstone, a voice of the culture, and one who’s spoken truth to power on so many occasions we lost count … but I have to break with him on this one. The n-word’s not just “our” word. It never was and never could be. It didn’t originate with us. It was imposed on us. To embrace it so totally, so absolutely is to internalize something we know to be alien to us. Something that represents who and what We Are Not.

Language is an interactive experience. The roles of sender and receiver are always changing; the users of language are always changing; their relationship with the origins of a word are always changing. It’s that evolving interplay that is the interaction that’s basic to the use of any and every word in the language.

Using the word is a problem for white Americans, and with good reason; there’s almost no social context for its use that’s benign enough to them to get away with. But in a deeper, broader context — one that involves taking responsibility for something, as opposed to possession of something— the word’s there for the taking for any with the courage, or the nerve, to do it. To do that would be to understand:

The n-word is America’s word, not exclusively but significantly enough — and much of the racial dilemma that confronts this nation today stems from the refusal of restive, angry, xenophobic Americans to own the fact of their role in that dilemma, to own their place in that word and its role in the national life.

With its spontaneously combustible life cycle, and despite contemporary attempts to blunt its impact by either adopting it or democratizing it, the n-word belongs to the country what birthed it, a cancer on the language, a malign device that persists in our psyche, the way the nation itself remains in our lives.

Black Americans can no more take sole possession of the n-word than America, in the fullest national sense, can evade its role in that word: its genesis, its toxic throw weight, its champions throughout our history, and its corrosive applications today.