I've been working so hard on Burn, that I missed the premiere of The Boondocks last night. I wish I hadn't so I could have a better handle on today's controversy. Apparently, activist Najee Ali is organizing protests against the show because of its use of the n-word.
I lurked on the message board of the Electronic Urban Report on this controversy. Some folks who ordinarily are not offended by the use of the word stated that they felt that the show's creator Aaron McGruder actually overused it. Others questioned why Mr. Ali does not focus on more significant issues. Reading the ranges of opinion -- especially as a writer who occassionally used the word in my novels - I felt compelled to take a break from Burn and weigh in on it.
First, I am a huge fan of the comic strip The Boondocks as well as that of its creator Aaron McGruder. Whether he considers himself this or not, in my eyes, A-Mac is a socially conscious artist, and to me, he's indeed a hip hop activist. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, often Aaron's comic strip was the only thing in the morning paper that raised the hard questions. While FOX and CNN backpedaled from the things on most of our minds, A-Mac used his comic to put the critical issues front and center. Frequently, he was censored for it, but he never retreated. I have read and heard Aaron speak on issues, and this is an informed brother who is not afraid to speak truth to power and cares about his people.
Yet still I find his defense of the use of the n-word problematic. Well, maybe not the defense itself as much as his adamancy. As a writer who aims to create realistic characters with dialogue that rings true, I completely empathize with A-Mac when he says, "I just think that at a certain point, we all have to realize that sometimes we use bad language. And the ‘N word’ is used so commonly, by not only myself, but by a lot of people I know, that it feels fake to write around it and to avoid using it.” This is precisely why I have used it in my novels.
But what I would say to Aaron in a sisterly fashion is this: not all people use the word and not all people who do use the word do so profusely. Yes, I have taken the subway and heard some young folks -- not all African American -- who can't utter a sentence without dropping the n-bomb. And truth be told, it irks the hell out of me. I'm an Afro-Latina, and it makes me cringe when I hear Latino kids using it. Although I'm a grown woman, sometimes I download radio edits of certain rap songs because I just not trying to hear that shit let alone have it resounding in my head long after I shut off my MP3 player.
However, there are many folks who don't use the word at all, and some who do keep it to a minimum. Although some of the characters in my novels say the n-word, I personally do not. Not that I'm perfect. In the occassional moment of passion, it flies out of my mouth. When that happens I never feel good let alone justified about it. And unlike a few other four-letter words I'm reluctant to forgo because they have their uses, I've never regretted NOT using the n-word because no other word would do the trick.
You'll notice in my novels that very few characters use the word. The ones that do -- with the exception of someone like Xavier "X" Bennett in Picture Me Rollin' -- do so sparingly. It's not the every third word past their lips. You may not have noticed the characters who "fit the profile" but never say it all like Esperanza's friend Tenille. But you should take note of the characters who actually protest the use of the word or make a conscientious effort to not use it anymore. So, no, I don't always write around the word either. But I sure as hell don't need to use excessivley to feel that I'm keepin' it real even if a few real people do use it excessively.
So I agree with Aaron only to a certain extent. Yes, it is false to write around the word as if no one says it because plenty --make that too many -- people do. But it's also false to front like every person says it. If you gotta represent the people who for whatever reasons use the n-word with aplomb because that's real, well, represent those who don't because that's real, too.
As for whether Najee Ali would do better to focus his organizing efforts on other issues, well, that's a tough one for me, too. As an activist who feels that my peoples have become complacent at the worst time, I'm heartened to see people organize and protest about anything meaningful. And don't sleep; language is meaningful. The persistance of the n-word IS an issue. You can believe it' s a major one, or you can believe it's a small one. But you can never dismiss it as NOT one.
By the same token, we're at war. Not only are our loved ones dying across the globe for a questionable cause, we are dying within our own borders because of structural neglect fueled by immoral indifference. My 24-year old nephew is a Marine on his second tour in Iraq. In my personal agenda for frying fish, protesting the n-word ranks at throwing a guppy in the microwave. And yet I can envision a time in the near future when -- keepin' it real be damned -- I ban the word from my art.
I think Sam Anderson said it best. Among many other things, Brother Sam sits on the board of the Brecht Forum with me and is actively involved in the NYC chapter of the Black Radical Congress. He inspired the words Isoke says when she reprimands Esperanza for using the n-word at the beginnning of Picture Me Rollin'. In 2001, Brother Sam sent me an email when I asked for feedback about a piece I wrote when Jennifer Lopez was attacked for using the word in her song I'm Real (I'm shaking my head at the irony.) In that email, he wrote me the words Ioske paraphrases in that prison library scene: "Nigger, Nigga, Nigrah,...Negro are words that carry power baggage. They're laden with white supremacist dehumanizing history."
Sam then revealed that he believed that Black youth use the n-word as a term of endearment because veteran activists like himself failed to pass on the complexities of white supremacy and its language of control. How often do you hear an elder take responsiblity for the next generation's behavior? Because I am so so used to hearing our elders criticizes us for not doing exactly what they did in the 60s and 70s, to read that touched, humble and inspired me.
Then Brother Sam wrote me this: "I think the best solution around the "Nigger" word (and its variations) is to let it go. Let youngfolk continue to use it and get all mixed up in it. Our task, at this stage, is to build a movement so fierce and irresistible that it positively influences the language of the next generation."
This is something that Sam does every day. I make a sincere effort to do this, too. And despite their contrasting views on the n-word, I genuinely believe that each Aaron McGruder and Najee Ali is attempting to do this in his own way.
Despite how you may feel about the continued use of the n-word, how are you contributing to a movement so fierce and irresistable that it positively influences the language of the next generation?