“Woman is [Still] the Nigger of the World”

On SNL, John Lennon, and a Tale of Savage Inequalities

Marcus K. Dowling

Three months after the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed (and eventually rejected) as an amendment to the United States Constitution in 1972, John Lennon’s album, Some Time In New York City, featured a lead single that was provocatively titled “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” With only four years having passed since the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the idea of a song bearing such a title caused intense public debate that has lasted until this day. In related news, after six years without a new African-American female cast member, comedienne Sasheer Zamata was named to the cast of Saturday Night Live. It’s an easily arguable point that calling a woman (as Lennon once stated, “the slave of the slaves”) a nigger in 1972 made sense. The notion that America has reached a point at which we can’t quite turn past this page of history is absolutely deplorable. Having a need for “niggers” in our country is unfortunate, and a reason to guard our optimism for the future.

In evaluating all things present, it’s important to consider the past. Two tremendous statements came out as a result of Lennon’s controversial single that are far more instructive as to our present and future than anything else. US House of Representatives congressman from California, Ronald Dellums, defended John Lennon’s use of the n-word in the song by stating:

“If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is that you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers.”

Regarding his own use of the word, Lennon said as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show:

“It’s a song about the women’s problem. It was written by Yoko and I. Obviously there’s a few people that have reacted strangely to it, but usually they’re all white and male!”

He continued:

“As [Yoko and I] talked more and more about [the women’s problem] . . . I said ‘I agree with you (Yoko).’ She’s the slave of the slaves.”

It’s been thirty-two years since Lennon’s caustic tune was released, and it’s arguable that neither women nor blacks can be called niggers anymore. From Marissa Mayer, Mary Barra and Beyonce taking over at Yahoo, GM and in popular music respectively, it’s been a banner 2013 for the progression of women (still “niggers” kept in the back of Mitt Romney’s binder, but nevermind that). As well, 2016's Presidential election cycle is rapidly approaching and Hilary Clinton doesn’t just appear to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President, but there’s a growing population that believes that she could easily win the election too. It may be time to realize that every established norm of what America once was is finally dismantling.

So why aren’t the bellwethers of popular culture acknowledging this cultural shift? Old habits die hard. The press’s contemplation of the necessity for Sasheer Zamata’s career promotion reflects an America stuck in the past. In 1972, when calling blacks (and women) nigger was en vogue, the leading women defining popular culture were stay-at-home housewife Edith Bunker and her daughter (and newly married radical) Gloria Stivic, characters played by Jean Stapleton and Sally Struthers in the popular sitcom All in the Family. Their main antagonist on the program? Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, the conservative, bigoted blowhard. It was a sad day when three decades later, American households were treated to Scandal star Kerry Washington’s opening sketch as host of SNL wherein she portrayed Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the aforementioned Beyonce. The punch line: Saturday Night Live did not have one black female actress to help Washington portray this diverse cast of characters.

The too many faces of Kerry Washington.

At what point did the staff and cast of Saturday Night Live not realize that lacking African-American female representation was a problem? Maya Rudolph left the cast in 2007, and six years passed before a replacement was found. African-American male cast member Kenan Thompson said that the black women who auditioned for the role in the past six years were not “ready,” but it would stand to reason that lacking a black female cast member at a time when black females were perpetually discussed in pop culture would be a critical oversight worth fixing (if for no other reason than for SNL to try to be timely and relevant) immediately. The all-points bulletin that led to the hiring of Zamata (as well as two black female writers) feels more like harried tokenism rather than a civil rights victory. Three decades after having to laugh at the audacity of hearing Archie Bunker call blacks “coons” on television, America still finds funny the idea that we are unable to treat black women with respect and equality? That was a skit that never should have happened.

Viewing the birth of the modern American women’s movement, John Lennon sang “Women Are the Niggers of the World,” and it was absolutely true. Thirty-plus years later, impressive achievements have been made, but when Saturday Night Live has Kerry Washington playing three different black female characters at the same time as a joke and lead-up to hiring its first black actress in six years, women might still be niggers. Yes, it’s true that the darkest hour is just before dawn, but the fact that such savage inequalities endure is absolutely pathetic. It’s just not right.

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    Marcus K. Dowling

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    THOSE PEOPLE

    A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us: stopthosepeople@gmail.com