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Re e-Mail Discussion: Kathleen Ford's use of the term HNIC
First, thank you, Bill, for sharing this lively colloquy with us all (previous thread follows below). I am glad that someone (you, as it turns out) finally knew (or bothered to Google) how to spell Dr. West's Christian moniker. True respect, for me, is defined by small courtesies (as opposed to grand empty gestures), like getting a person's name right.
As to the issue at hand, I note that in all the back and forth so far, no one – black or white – cares to actually name the beast, the dreaded N-word. All of your contributors would rather refer to its devastating effects only in the oblique, or via third-person. Is there a single word in the language more "off-limits" than any of Carlin's storied 7 Words?
While the reasons for its absence from the page, despite its being the center of any conversation of which it is a part, are understandable, I remain amazed at America's inability to deal forthrightly with any of its demons, on a level that brings ever new meaning to the word denial – and maybe chicken.
Nigger is not alone in this regard. It has been barely two decades since it was deemed safe for Americans to view real live women modeling brassieres on television (thank the Puritans for that one), only one since condoms have been freely advertised on TV. But, while the F-Bomb on the air might get you a stern talking–to by management, the N-Word is the kiss of death and the end of your (especially) white career in broadcasting.
Nigger is the title of an entire book by Harvard Law Professor, Randall Kennedy ( :The Strange Career of A Troublesome Word, 2002), as well as the title of comedian and black activist Dick Gregory's 1964 autobiography. Both authors were, mercifully, demonstrably black in terms of epidermal persuasion, otherwise we might be dealing with the title fallout even now. If these two titans of their respective crafts appear to enjoy free use of the word, why do you suppose that us mere mortals – let alone politicians – have so much trouble daring to even speak its name? Why is the term, as used in America (mostly by innuendo and suggestion - the same word, translated, is used around the world as a denigratory descriptive, mostly of the poor and unwanted elements of society; immigrants, half-castes, etc. – thank the Iberians), so freighted with feeling and passion that, even in a neutral or academic setting, we seem unable to get past a minute or two of debate without coming to verbal (and occasionally, actual) blows?
More important, will we ever get to a place where we – black and white - can mention the word, directly or obliquely, in civil conversation, without instinctively shrinking back to avoid the inevitable wellspring of anger and despair that it currently brings forth? The question is rhetorical. We know the answer. But, it's as though fixing the cavernous tears in the fabric of our multicultural society is beyond us to even imagine, so a white person – the ancestor of the oppressor tribes – uttering this black word serves as a handy stand-in and whipping boy, or girl, as the case may be. Fairly pathetic all around, wouldn't you say?
While it's off-topic, I'll share with you my own "mini-fix" for racism, in general, in the P.S. at the end of this essay.
I bring something to this party that may shed some badly needed light on my rhetorical questions above: distance. That, and candor.
Though I have lived here most of my life, I am not an "American;" never have been, though it took me about 40 years to figure that out. At some point, I realized I had been raised as a world citizen. I was also raised to think for myself; "Look it up." was my Mum's constant refrain. Very little was set in concrete in my childhood and adolescence. I was free to be.
Born in England at the height of WWII, then immigrating to the New World at 5, then growing up in the lively and accepting Greenwich Village of the '50s further sealed my fate. The odds of my blossoming into some iconic Bible-thumping, fire-breathing, demon-exorcising Falwell or Swaggart clone grew dimmer with each passing, and liberating, year.
For me, the term nigger is, in one respect, just one of thousands of words in my quite adequate quotidian lexicon; words that are, more or less, under my control (English, as any lover of it knows, is one slippery mother). While I know this freighted term's dark historic and denigratory baggage, for me, its mere mention does not spark the instinctual, blood-pulsing qualities it engenders in your average American - white or black - steeped as most of them are in the muck and mire of fairytales depicting this nation's alleged history (all those lies you were told in History and Social Studies). This is quite aside from my normal, abiding, somewhat controlled outrage at the excesses of the European tribes – my people - throughout the past millennium, or so; especially since they saved my little butt in WWII. Nigger, like Selma, The Holocaust, Wounded Knee, or Nanking summons up the oppression that's been riding shotgun throughout the human tribe's few million years' ride on Earth.
Given my history and point-of-view, you will now, I hope, understand why I won't acknowledge anyone's "ownership" of any given word or term. I don't know about the rest of you, but, for me, whether or not something qualifies as invective, insult, calumny, or fightin' words depends pretty much on context. "Fuck you", said with vehemence and menace, is poles apart from General Custer's apocryphal use to describe utter surprise when he said "Where did all them fuckin' Indians come from"? It's really hard to see the latter as a personal attack (unless it's a laugh attack), nor the former as a lesson in Zen Sutras, eh?
So, Honky though I be, I reserve the right to use the term nigger, or any other epithet or racial slur in an appropriate (and respectful) manner and setting. I'm not much into name-calling, or pushing others down to make me rise higher, so I'm not concerned that I will misuse the term; or any other. But, it must also be said that were some lout to utter the N-word, F-word, K-word, A-word or S-word, then that's also a right the First bestows so that we can all see how incredibly ignorant some folks are.
Used to enlighten or to expose to critical analysis and thus weaken it, the N-word is fair game for reasonable discussion (just not in a Midtown bar, though I'd probably be up for that if all participants were frisked on entering). Any attempt to restrict its use, respectful or dis, is plain-vanilla censorship. When it is used to insult or wound, or is even employed thoughtlessly or insensitively, then is the time to call out the offender (depending, somewhat, on how big and how near he is); a job better suited to one with a white pelt, by the way. If enough of us Whiteys make an issue of it each time it raises it head, after awhile, the message may get through that the color of your audience for your racist joke or epithet is no guarantee of a friendly (wink, wink) reception. Likewise, I promise never to prevent any non-Caucasian from freely using of the term "Honky." And who ever decided that wimpy term was an insult, anyway?
Moving along, allow me now to connect my POV above with Ms. Ford's use of the term, NHIC, below?
I'll bet she wishes she had said things another way; she doesn't need the grief. And I know the feeling; especially in the heat of battle. I'm not even sure I take issue with Bill Foster's crack (but, I admit I am less clear on the context of his alleged offense). But, as Kathleen was quoting a black man, it strikes me as racist – yes, the door swings both ways - to go after her for her use of the same initials to illustrate precisely the same point as the fellow who introduced the term into the public arena in the first place (you should know that we used very similar terms 50 years ago when I was in the service – my favorite of this genre was HMFWAIC – the last 4 initials stand for What Am In Charge – so, Cornel's coining has been around the block a few times anyway).
Are we to "rope off" certain terms and phrases for this group or that one? Bill Maxwell appears to think we should. And I'm glad he wasn't calling the candidate a racist, just, clueless about the finer points of the "…complexities of language and race." I'm sure Bill's not trying to censor Ms. Ford's right to freely express herself. St. Pete For Peace maybe, but, not Kathleen Ford. If she could only get that "complexities " thingie right. I see…. But, beware, such an approach could get pretty messy.
This is how it starts, but, as we know humans are wont to do, it never ends here. At some point we end up being put to the sword for "desecrating" Allah. Is there anyone reading these words who fails to see the censorious beeline (given 500 years to simmer gently) from HNIC to Allah?
While I agree Kathleen might have chosen other terminology, I'd be blind as a bat not to place this tempest-in-a-teacup in its proper political perspective. Would the hue and cry of Mr. Maxwell and others be as strident if we were gathering nuts in May, as opposed to being a week away from our mayoral election? I doubt it. For those of us who care that the country appears to be going to hell, emotions run higher as we try to install the best candidates to look out for us in a trying time. This is not to say that Bill is for or against Ms. Ford, only that strife makes better copy than "The sun came out today," though I'm sure his feelings are sincere.
But, Americans have a self-destructive habit of not actually dealing with the really important stuff until, as Winston once said, we've exhausted every other possibility. We'd much rather make a din over a word never actually used, but imputed, and as a paraphrase of someone else to boot. How far removed from the scene of the crime must we be before we say, maybe it's not that big a deal after all? In the world of writing, it's doubtful this would even pass the plagiarism giggle test.
For what it's worth, folks, this white boy (can't be helped, it's how I came out of the chute) wishes we could find a way to put paid to our seemingly endless need to defend our "honor" at every slight, imagined, or real (it's a male thing, sigh). IMHO, the way to defang the N-Word is to talk about it. And when we talk about it, use Nigger, not N-Word. If you think about it, saying "The N-Word" all the time is really infantile. It's a little like putting pasties on, so we can only Imagine the nipple underneath (the way Americans view sex needs work too – later for that).
When we all dance around the word, always alluding, but, never actually, you know, saying it, it takes on the power of the forbidden. In fact, Nigger may be the one word n the language that is a curse word in all ways but speech pathology. Using (not misusing) the word when it is the topic is a healthy way to rob it of the demonic power we have vested it with. The only group that appears uninhibited in using nigger is the gangsta rappers, but, in that case, it's tragic. They're almost doing "The Man's" work for him. It's not helping young blacks build self-esteem and a pride in who they are, rather, it's almost saying, "Okay, we give up. We'll play the role you've chosen for us." My take on this may be off, but, that's sure how it sounds to me.
Finally, and I hope my words above provide more light than heat on this issue, as we go back and forth over this and countless other issues of umbrage and honor, know that it is in the interests of the very few individuals who control this world's wealth to have us (the Great Unwashed) at one another's throats over our faux differences as often and as long as possible. If they can arrange it – via public (mal)education, media manipulation, religious indoctrination, patriotism, or whatever – so we argue about inconsequentials like the .001% sections of our DNA that determine the pigment level of our outer covering (among other things), then we will have far less time to contemplate, get angry about, and maybe even do something about the kleptocracy's agenda to steal us blind every chance it gets, plunder the natural bounty of all our planet for their own narrow ends, and poison the earth's resources that are vital for all of us to survive, well then, it's been a good day at the office for them, hasn't it?
Try to bear that last in mind as you get all het up about a word – any word - no matter how bound up you are in the intense feelings associated with it. And in this case, a word merely intimated, not uttered. Among the many questions all of the "offended" parties might care to think about are:
· Do you believe that candidate Ford intended to wound and besmirch all blacks? Or, did you all just assume that because you had a problem with a white person using a term describing black culture, that she must have been up to sumpin'?
· Have any of you (the offended parties) dropped a dime and asked her why she said what she said? And if she might do-over a different way, given the chance? Or, rather, did you rely on our no-longer-reliable local newspaper (to get the facts straight), or a local leading light with an ulterior motive?
· In other words, did you all do your own thinking, or were you just caught up in the rush to judgment?
If the last is true, then welcome to Salem, 1692. Guess we're still in a rush to get those bonfires going, eh?
P.S. In the end, the word doesn't matter nearly as much as fixing the underlying unfairness and inequalities this word, in particular, represents. Until America has a real equality-centric Prexy in the White House – in deed as well as word - here are a few things you can try, to mend the ways of your all-hate-all-the-time fellow travelers (though the real targets should be all those who hasten to tell you, "Some of my best friends are black.").
I encourage you to challenge every assertion that hints at, intimates, or insinuates that, if blacks (or browns, or reds, or yellows) would only accept "personal responsibility" for their chaotic neighborhoods (and clean them up by their bootstraps, a la Bill Cosby), or if they didn't misbehave (have stronger "family values") so much they would not account for some 42% of the prison population and 60%+ of Death Row residents, or that they need to get off their dead asses and go work for a living (like the rest of us) and stop sucking off the teat of welfare, then they would become full partners in the American Dream.
This type of veiled racism merely excuses the powers that be – mostly of the white persuasion and mostly Anglo Saxon, uh, my folks again – from redressing the centuries-old mistreatment and ingenious means of managing to, mostly by crook, carry slavery into the 21st century; always by other names. "Blame the victim" is a technique that goes back to grunting.
Make sure that every one of the above charges – and countless others - that essentially hold blacks themselves mostly responsible for their present sorry state in society (in spite of the gains in creating a black middle class, mostly during the 60s, 70s and 80s) necessarily includes mention of a few minor points like:
· The structural sub-rosa racism pandemic at all levels of American government;
· The not-so sub-rosa racism of the authoritarian personality – the folks most likely to cleave to careers in law enforcement: cops; DAs; prison guards, even many sub-appellate judges, etc. Like profiling swarthy men as drug runners, the abysmal stats for black on white Death Row inmates vs. white on black homicides. This entire trope is summed up neatly in a New Yorker cartoon. The cop is standing by the car on the highway, a black guy's behind the wheel. The caption reads, "Do you know how black you were going"? Whites laugh; blacks don't;
· The time-honored practice of red-lining neighborhoods resulting in creating Bantustans in every city in the nation (until the laws were relaxed enough to make it worthwhile to red-line anew, only this time, far from fencing out blacks, it fenced them in to target the high % of black homes that were fully paid for and therefore a way – via fast-talking, home equity loan officers - to continue the Ponzi scam of inflated homes prices to ensure continued obscene profits with scant fear of comeuppance);
· Etc., etc. Whatever the issue, in America, blacks suffer more, suffer longer and are last in line for Uncle Sam's help in getting back on their feet – think, New Orleans, 4 years on;
Rather than wasting precious energy on intramural squabbles over whether my word is better/worse than your word, our focus should instead be on the real-world issues that the word nigger represents. It is only by blacks and whites who believe in an equal commonweal for all, that the idea of America can move forward.
That process will be slowed if whites with good intentions are forced to walk on eggshells at every turn, afraid of offending the very blacks they are trying to help. Blacks need to gently guide their white friends as to the best way to help. Beating them up verbally ain't the way to do it. NjW 10-26-09 (3,042)
Begin conversation thread below
What you've just read is my contribution to the colloquy. NjW
Bill Bucolo Friends, I've been involved in a discussion about the use of the term HNIC with some folks from the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
There was a reprint on the museum's facebook page of the gratuitous St. Pete Times article referring to Ford and her reference to scholar Cornel West's term HNIC (meaning Head (Negro) In Charge) in relation to the Go Davis issue, and I commented that the whole thing was a phony issue. My comment drew a few more from others and this is how it went, in order:
The conversation to this point is HERE and also pasted below:
Bill Bucolo On this phony issue I stand by the letter my friend Frank Lupo wrote to the St Pete Times:
Frank Lupo re: Ford's Words Stir Pot
Let me get this straight: Kathleen Ford comments on a radio show that a eminent professor from Princeten University, Kornell West, discussed the "Head Negro In Charge (HNIC)" concept at Eckard College where Ms Ford was in attendance, and it makes page one news in the Tampa Bay section of your newspaper today.
But, at the recent Mayoral forum co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9, Bill Foster states, "Blacks are lousy business owners" , and your newspaper doesn't report on this insulting, bigoted and untrue statement by Mr. Foster.
I can't help but wonder if your endorsement of Foster on your editorial page is influencing what you do and don't report on your "news" pages.
Clifford Holensworth The media stirs the pot. Has our world become too polically correct?
Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum@Bill. It saddens me that you seem to think the issue is "phony." And just to set the record straight: Cornell West or not ... the "N" is HNIC is never understood to stand for Negro.
Bill BucoloThat saddens you? Get real. The HNIC issue here is phony because it was a benign reference in any case regardless of what Cornel West, or Kathleen Ford or anyone else thinks "N" stands for. Who cares? The concept is the issue, not magical words with hidden powers that only some people can say.
On the other hand Bill Foster clearly said "Blacks are lousy business owners."
Now why Foster's presumptuous, gratuitous, ignorant and demeaning statement isn't considered the TRUE issue here, and in the (also phony) St. Petersburg Times is much more interesting. You want to talk about THAT?
Aleshea Harris Bill, I can tell you that a lot of people care. "Get real"? Let me give you a dose of reality: People who are running for mayor don't get to make these kinds of references and what "N" stands for is of great import to a lot of people (yourself obviously excluded). Your reference to whatever "N" stands for as a "magical world with hidden powers that only some people can say" clearly illustrates that you are insensitive at best and supremely ignorant at worst. The idea that Ford gets to use an acronym which contains the use of a term people find offensive because she heard Cornel West use it is ludicrous and shows how out of touch she really is.
What we should be talking about is why I have to choose between Foster and Ford, who both seem to have little respect for a segment of this community. Yeah, let's talk about THAT. And the next time you have to choose between two candidates who've made disparaging remarks about your ethnic group, I'd love to hear what you have to say.
Darden J. Rice Surely it goes without saying that using such an acronym on shock jock radio shows bad judgement and insensitivity. Is this not also an example of tone deaf white privilege: to start such a discussion between white speakers and assume in advance it should not offend black listeners?
Bill Bucolo Aleshea, I just don't agree that your argument about the "N" word has real merit in the setting you place it. I don't know anyone who uses that word except black folks. And I don't want to know anyone who uses that word except black people. But at a time when black folks do throw the magic word around like most everyone else says "dude," you really have to admit that a graphic, intelligent, cogent coinage by a respected black scholar (West's and his "HNIC") refers to much more than the "N" word, no matter how much a relatively small segment of the population (who probably support the Creationist Foster) would like to make it part of the argument. Remember, West (and Ford) were talking about the evils of buying off a whole segment of the population with the appointment of a figurehead. That was the topic of the radio conversation, and I say the issue was subtle race abuse by government or business, not the term a black scholar coined to refer to the activity.
But in any case it seems people might at least be grateful to have a mayoral candidate who even knows who Cornel West is, instead of whining about her use of his own terminology. And that just takes us back to honesty, and my reference to the "phony" issue of what "N" stands for. This wasn't about that.
As for your second point regarding our choices of candidates... if you don't know why you have to choose between Ford & Foster, I can help you: You have to choose between those two because they won the most votes between 10 candidates. They out fought and out worked all the rest and won because, between the two of them, they had the best skills and the support to pull it off, and neither had the most money. That's why you get to choose between Ford & Foster and that's why one of them will be our Mayor.
That said, I think Darden has a point when she wonders why Ford put herself on the radio with a shock jock who got famous for castrating & killing pigs on the air. I think the fact that Ford did go on his show brings us back to your initial point here overall... insensitivity.
Ford, Foster, Bubba and all of us are all simply reflections of the increasing coarseness in our culture. We all see things that would have shocked our parents 40 years ago, no matter how hip they may have thought they were.
And so when we dignify people like "Bubba the Love Sponge" and he thrives on the public air waves, we are simply reflecting the state of our culture. That's how Ford could appear on his show. It was acceptable, she may have snagged a few more votes, and it might have helped dispel some of her stiff image.
But even with all the coarseness and insensitivity, we are still increasingly more comfortable around each other. Blacks and whites mix far more now than ever before as do Straits and Gays. It is a fact. And even though it can all still get a little edgy, the times are much better now than they were when the magic word and all it's hateful baggage was a part of the common vernacular because these days the word is used by blacks, not whites.
I know that is true, as do most others who read this, and that is also why I say that to whine and demonstrate about Ford's quote of West is phony.
She wasn't even thinking it.
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CLUELESS, CORRUPT, CONCEALING, CONSPIRATORIAL - WHO CARES?
For me, the reasons our government continually betrays us - across the board and
in every way (or allows corporations to have their way with us) - boils
down to another "C" word, CAVALIER.
The trouble with the ACLU is that it's always hanging out in bad company.
Every time it pops up in the news lately it seems to be yoked with undesirables in a battle against the will of the majority.
Its "have-lawyer-will travel" approach to guarding our liberties has taken it into court on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan, communists, atheists and convicted felons. It has found itself arguing against state sponsorship of Christian symbols, against prayer in schools and for the right of robed Klansmen to march down the main street of College Park.
That's not the kind of client list, nor the issues, that any reputable law firm would be pleased to claim.
As a matter of fact, the American Civil Liberties Union - given a choice - would happily share the burden with others. Unfortunately, no one else is clamoring to take on the unpopular causes and unsavory clients.
So why not just let them go unrepresented? Because, in every case, however unpopular or trivial, there is a potential threat to all our freedoms.
The ACLU stands with Klansmen and atheists and communists because their rights must be protected if our rights are to be secure.
The ACLU knows that the battle to reserve the freedoms we all cherish is seldom fought on the high, level parade grounds we would choose.
Liberty is lost in the swamps and thickets, in the dirty little skirmishes where the flag waving, slogan-shouting right-thinking majority overwhelms the rights of the unlovely misfits who are society's outcasts.
Fred W. Friendly, in his book "Minnesota Rag," offers an instructive example of just how important those dirty little skirmishes can be.
He tells the story of the "Saturday Press," an offensive, anti-Semitic, irresponsible scandal sheet in Minneapolis which was restrained from publishing in 1927 by a judge acting under a Minnesota "public nuisance" law.
The ACLU took the case on behalf of publisher Jay M. Near, arguing that restraint before publication was a violation of constitutional guarantees of a free press. The major newspapers in Minnesota scoffed at the fears of the ACLU. One noted, "The Civil Liberties Union will no doubt make a great pother about the freedom of the press, but the legitimate newspapers will be rather bored than excited about it.'
The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled in Near's favor. The decision was the key precedent cited by the Court 40 years later when it rejected President Richard Nixon's attempt to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers.
There was a world of difference between the powerful New York Times and Washington Post and the offensive scandalmonger Jay Near; but the same principle of law applied equally to both.
That is the lesson the friendless warriors of the ACLU never forget. It is one we all need to remember.