Richard Pryor, one of the great comedians, probably imagined that by the force of his undoubted genius he could take the curse off the word nigger once and for all. He could save his fellow blacks from this historic verbal affliction by using it till he wore away its dark meaning. So he sprayed it freely over his audiences, and in 1974 won the Grammy for best comedy record with an LP called That Nigger's Crazy. But eventually the word's uncanny power defeated him, as it had defeated Dick Gregory in the 1960s and would later defeat Chris Rock.
Dick Gregory was a radical black comedian who in 1967 wrote Nigger: An Autobiography, explaining to those who complained that he was defanging the language's ugliest expletive. In the mid-1990s the monologues of Chris Rock ("I love black people, but I hate niggers") divided blacks into those who deserve respect and those who deserve the hate word.
Richard Pryor stopped saying it after deciding that people never really understood, and recent articles about Chris Rock report that he's given it up, perhaps because he hates to waste so much time defending himself. Those artists would nod their heads sadly over the recent news that the Nova Scotia department of education may ban three books, one of them Harper Lee's much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird, for the sole reason that they contain this intolerable word. They don't use it offensively. They use it (as Mark Twain used it, 215 times, in Huckleberry Finn) because it was the right word for the purpose. That doesn't help. For some people, just using it is indecent.
Brenda Clarke, of the Nova Scotia Black Educators' Association, said her group doesn't advocate censorship, it just wants these particular books banned from classrooms. Why, she asked, is To Kill A Mockingbird used when other books are more appropriate and less offensive? She wants books that build students' self-esteem "instead of damaging and eroding self-esteem and self-worth in the classroom."
Her sentiments sound wholesome, well-intentioned, good-hearted, and dangerous. Beware of those who believe they can manage the self-esteem of others by denying them books. She demonstrates that the impulse to censor never dies, it just changes targets. In one generation it defends the young against blasphemy, in another it saves them from pornography, and in a third it shields them from being upset.
Even in the censorious atmosphere of public education, nigger stands alone. It retains a terrifying grip on the imagination. We fear it as we fear an incantation, one of those magic words whose power we no longer believe in (except in this case). All the struggling against its sorcery, all the jokes and discussions, have done little. In fact, the word continues to expand its power, even affecting other words. In 1999, a white civil servant in a Washington, D.C., municipal office was forced to resign because colleagues thought he was insulting them by using the word "niggardly" in a budget discussion. Mayor Anthony Williams accepted the man's resignation and quickly found himself engulfed in a tidal wave of ridicule, some of it from the chairman of the NAACP. He changed his mind, apologized, and found the alleged offender a new job. Still, as Randall Kennedy of Harvard law school says, the damage had been done: "By fearfully deferring to excessive and uninformed outrage, the mayor had lowered his own standing." That event, aside from throwing a permanent shadow over the word niggardly, set a new benchmark for ignorant hypersensitivity.
The quotation above is from Professor Kennedy's book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published in January, an attempt to accomplish by sweet reason what the Pryors and the Rocks failed to do by laughter. He explains that the Latin niger (black) evolved into a term that was considered a serious insult as early as 1837. He works his way through court cases in which the word has played a part, notes that it appeared in the vocabulary of Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, and discusses the way blacks use it among themselves as a term of affection. Not always, of course: in the 1960s, when the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. felt he was being displaced as chief black spokesman by Martin Luther King Jr. he asked, "Who's this nigger preacher?"
Professor Kennedy opposes rules against hate speech and in general opposes the heavy emphasis on one word. He thinks it should be used with more freedom. Those who fight for hate-speech regulations, he believes, stress the "terror" of the word. This encourages racist abusers and weakens black students by spreading the idea that they should feel grievously wounded by remarks that earlier blacks might have simply shrugged off.
John McWhorter, writing sympathetically about Professor Kennedy's book in the New Republic, argues from a black perspective that the obsession with the word nigger boils down roughly to this: "I am a strong and self-empowered person. Therefore the mere utterance of a racial slur referring to my race will reduce me to tears and helpless rage."
Mr. McWhorter's argument sounds reasonable, and though it has relatively few supporters (and still fewer who will fight for it as vigorously as book-banners fight), it must in the end prevail. Reason must, eventually, overcome obscurantism and rage. We have to believe that. We have to.