In the early 1960s, Dick Gregory called his autobiography Nigger, because, he explained, “I told my mama if she hears anybody shout ‘nigger,’ they’re just advertising my book.” Richard Pryor called one of his albums That Crazy Nigger, and wrote an article for The Realist about the disproportionate number of blacks fighting and dying in Vietnam, titled “Uncle Sam Wants You, Nigger!” After a visit to Africa, he reclaimed his heritage, promising not to use that word again.
And then there was Lenny Bruce, on stage one night, riding an invisible unicycle as he balanced his way along a tightrope into uncharted comedic territory:
“The reason I don’t get hung up with, well, say, integration, is that by the time Bob Newhart is integrated, I’m bigoted. And anyway, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin are geniuses, the battle’s won. By the way, are there any niggers here tonight? [Outraged whisper, as if an audience member] ‘What did he say? Are there any niggers here tonight? Jesus Christ! Is that cruel. Does he have to get that low for laughs? Wow! Have I ever talked about the schwarzes when the schwarzes had gone home? Or spoken about the Moulonjohns when they’d left? Or placated some Southerner by absence of voice when he ranted and raved about nigger nigger nigger?’
“[In his own voice]: Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers, customers, and, ah, aha! Between those two niggers sits one kike–man, thank God for the kike! Uh, two kikes. That’s two kikes, and three niggers, and one spic. One spic–two, three spics. One mick. One mick, one spic, one hick, thick, funky, spunky boogey. And there’s another kike. Three kikes. Three kikes, one guinea, one greaseball. Three greaseballs, two guineas. Two guineas, one hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick. That mick spic hunky funky boogey. Two guineas plus three greaseballs and four boogies makes usually three spics. Minus two Yid spic Polack funky spunky Polacks. [Auctioneer’s voice] ‘Five more niggers! Five more niggers!’ [Gambler’s voice] ‘I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spics.’
“[In his own voice] The point? That the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, ‘Tonight I’d like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,’ and he yelled ‘nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger’ at every nigger he saw, ‘boogey-boogey-boogey-boogey-boogey-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger’ till nigger didn’t mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning, you’d never make any 4-year-old nigger when he came home from school. Screw ‘Negro!’ Oh, it’s so good to say, ‘Nigger!’ Boy! ‘Hello, Mr. Nigger, how’re you?'”
Four decades later, Dave Chappelle on his TV show played a man delivering milk to the all-white family, the Niggars, and he did indeed say, “Hello, Mr. Niggar, how’re you?” But consider the contrast between Lenny’s good-natured, poetic routine and Michael Richards’ mean-spirited, uncontrollable outburst. In November 2006, at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, in response to heckling from a table of four African Americans (three men and a woman), he suddenly became enraged with repressed hatred:
“Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d hang you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass! [Laughter in the audience, apparently unaware of the heckler’s race and that the reference is to lynching] You can talk, you can talk, you can talk, now you’re brave, motherfucker! Throw his ass out! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!”
“[A woman in the audience] “Oh my god!”
“A nigger! Look, there’s a nigger! [Imitating reactions in the audience] ‘Oooh! Oooh!’ All right, you see, this shocks you, it shocks you to see what lies beneath your stupid motherfuckers!”
[A man at the heckler table] “That wasn’t called for.”
“What was uncalled for? It’s uncalled for you to interrupt my ass, you cheap motherfucker! You guys have been talking and talking and talking.”
[Voice from the audience] “Calm down.”
“What’s the matter with you? Is this too much for you to handle?”
“I said calm down.”
“They’re gonna arrest me for calling a black man a nigger? Wait a minute, where’s he going?”
“That was uncalled for, you fucking cracker-ass motherfucker!”
“You calling me cracker-ass, nigger?
“Fucking white boy!”
“Are you threatening me?”
“We’ll see what’s up.”
“Oh, it’s a big threat. That’s how you get back at the man.”
“You’re just not funny. That’s why you’re a reject. Never had no shows, never had no movies. Seinfeld, that’s it.”
“Oh, I guess you got me there. You’re absolutely right. I’m just a wash-up. Gotta stand on this stage.”
“That’s it, we’ve had it. Niggers–that’s un-fucking-called-for. That ain’t necessary.”
“Well, you interrupted me, pal. That’s what you get when you interrupt the white man, don’t you know.”
“Uncalled for, that was uncalled for.”
“You see, there’s still those words, those words, those words.”
Richards then walked off stage.
Later, seemingly stunned at his own racist rage, he apologized on the media again and again as best he could.
African-American comedians reacted to Richards’ use of the n-word.
Chris Rock on Bill Maher’s HBO show, Real Time: “He said nigger? Nicotine?”
Dayan Waymans at a comedy club:
“Welcome to Nigger Night.” Jamie Foxx defended the use of “nigger,” but only by black people. On the night before Martin Luther King Day, he began his monologue at the Borgata in Atlantic City: “I’m an Oscar winner, but I’m a nigger too.” Referring to the Richards incident, Foxx said, “He was just calling us niggers like it was the ’50s. Nigger, nigger, with a ‘e-r.’ Then they said we can’t use the word ‘nigger’ any more. That’s my shit. I need it. I need the word to describe certain things, because at a certain level of excitement, I need to tell you how the shit was, and there ain’t no other word that helps me say that better than that word. White people, you can’t use it. I would’ve booked his ass!”
White comic Andy Dick was in the audience at the Improv, heckling fellow performer Ian Bagg, when he got out of his seat, jumped onstage and began joking with Bagg. The subject of Michael Richards came up, but they quickly moved past it. As Dick exited the stage, he suddenly grabbed the microphone and shouted at the audience, “You’re all a bunch of niggers!”
The NAACP Philadelphia Youth Council held a mock funeral for the
n-word. And, at the NAACP annual convention in Detroit, a horse-drawn carriage pulled a pine casket with a black wreath on top, signifying the death of the n-word. In February 2007, a historically black school in Alabama held a four-day event titled the “‘N’ Surrection Conference at Stillman College.” Its goal was to challenge the use of the n-word “through the use of intelligent dialogue and a thorough examination of black history.” Kovan Flowers, co-founder of AbolishTheNWord.com, said that striking the word “nigger” from use would help set an example for other races. “We can’t say anything to Hispanics, or whites or whoever unless we stop using it ourselves,” he said. “It’s the root of the mindset that’s affecting why people are low, from housing to jobs to education.”
Community activist Tim Robinson pointed out that blacks dont have a problem using the word “nigga” because it’s distinctly different and is considered a term of endearment when they say it to each other. He said, “It was ‘nigger’ which was the bad word, but you’ve got our people that just went and changed it up a bit.” The late rapper Tupac Shakur was credited with legitimizing “nigga” with his song “N.I.G.G.A.” which stood for “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished.”
The first season of Aaron McGruder’s TV adaptation of his controversial comic strip The Boondocks on the Cartoon Network angered Al Sharpton and other black activists by the show’s frequent use of “nigger.” The second season was scheduled to devote an entire episode to “The N-word.” Co-executive producer Rodney Barnes explained, “You can’t bury ‘nigger.’ It’s like a vampire. It’s going to live forever. And we can’t let the fans down. Why be responsible now?”
On the other hand, on the series Cavemen, the cavemen referred to themselves as “maggers,” but this was considered racist, and the word “magger” quickly disappeared from the sitcom’s scripts.
Attorney Gloria Allred tried to arrange an informal three-member “jury” of a retired judge and two lawyers to decide “whether they think, under the facts and the law, Michael Richards should be accountable and, if so, in what way. We want accountability, and we want the public to understand the significance of the n-word and how it has hurt” her clients. Richards’ lawyer, Douglas Mirell, said that while Richards’ comments were “inappropriate, they are not legally actionable” and that, if Richards faced mediation or a lawsuit, he intended to oppose a cash settlement under his constitutional right to free speech–an incorrect claim, since the 1st Amendment applies only to censorship by the government.
Elayne Boosler came to Richards’ defense in a blog on Huffington Post:
“Words won’t kill you unless they are ‘Ready, aim, fire!’ Now that some time has gone by since the Michael Richards rant, let’s talk about the true victim of the ‘n-word’–stand-up comedy. The L.A. Times continues to feature articles on the Laugh Factory, focusing on further ‘n-word’ developments, and on black comedians lamenting the loss of their use of the ‘n-word’ at the club. They’re determined to say it, even though the club owner is fining them for it.
“When I watch the majority of black comedians on cable and in clubs, I am amazed the TV version of Amos and Andy was called racist, and canceled due to the main characters speaking less than perfect English in their rhythms. (We’re not discussing the radio show, which was done in blackface before television and which, by the way, was voted into the Radio Hall of Fame last week.) Those men had jobs, wore suits, had beautiful wives in earrings and pearls, and ate at tables with tablecloths. They were a classy version of The Honeymooners, the ostensible white welfare show.
“By comparison, the ‘comedians’ on cable seem to be making Klan recruitment films. There is such a dearth of dignity, but most of all, such a lack of comedy, that every time I try to watch I say out loud to the performer on TV, ‘Hey, I’ve got the Kingfish on the phone here, he’d like an apology.’ These shows have reinvented comedy as style over substance, rhythm over writing. I can’t discern a joke, let alone root for the person up there. Between the ‘n-word,’ the ‘mf-word,’ and ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ (talk about insulting half the population every waking hour of the day), they have annihilated stand-up comedy. Those words have made it possible for people to fill an hour set without five actual minutes of comedy. Maybe stand-up comedy could hire Gloria Allred to sue on its behalf, for a proper sum for not only hurting its feelings, but destroying its legacy. (Allred, what a great feminist. ‘We’re going to find a retired judge and let him decide.’)
“The rule about heckling is this: You fire at a cop, get ready to die. Yelling ‘You’re not funny’ at a comic is firing with an AK. Hurt your feelings? Tough. Anything goes for hecklers, including excessive force. I lay myself bare up here, at my most vulnerable you shoot me in the chest, I will kill you if I can. You know why Richards looked so shell-shocked at his own outburst? Because he’s not a racist, he was simply in the zone. Comedy clubs are like Indian reservations. They are their own country. I don’t think he should have apologized. You pay your money and you take your chances, step right up.
“Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, far from demanding apologies, should have apologized to Bill Cosby, who tried to point out the heartbreak and social defeat of how some blacks are undercutting their own dignity and chances (did you see Queens of Comedy?). It’s one thing to use the ‘n-word’ when you are an original, like Chris Rock or Bernie Mac, or if you’re a genius, like Richard Pryor. It’s another matter when you don’t have the talent to co-opt the enemy. These currently enraged black leaders are about ten years too late in their outrage, and they are mad at the wrong person. By the way, the best black comedian I ever saw was Marsha Warfield. She cut to the bone of race relations, was brilliantly funny, as well as intense, challenging, and seething with rage, and she never used the ‘n-word’ once ….
“When I started doing stand-up in 1973, the women working in comedy were the caricatures of their time; housewives who hated sex, loved jewelry, hated their husbands, hated themselves, etc. My oath to myself was that I would do nothing, no humor, no matter how easy it would have been, that propagated any of those images of women. I had to work harder, write better, face resistance, lose opportunity, to present a funny woman who was a worthwhile human being deserving of respect and dignity, and who could entertain not just a niche audience, but people. I don’t see too many comics striving for that on cable. You can’t legislate the end of the ‘n-word.’ Nobody can ever tell a comic not to say something, it runs against a comic’s soul. Don’t take the ‘n-word’ out of your act because someone wants to ban it. Take it out because you are replacing it with actual comedy.”
Editorial cartoonist Mr. Fish depicted Jesse Jackson saying, “In light of the Michael Richards tirade, I’m calling for the immediate removal of the letter ‘N’ from the alphabet so that racism will no longer exist in this country.” I decided to send a contribution to the NAACP in support of their anti-discrimination efforts, and I made the check out to the AACP.
* * *
On 60 Minutes in 1998, Don Imus told Mike Wallace that his show had someone specifically assigned to do “nigger jokes.” In 2000, Newsday’s Philip Noble monitored the Imus show for months, then cited numerous examples of his racist, homophobic and misogynist references. In 2001, Imus promised syndicated columnist Clarence Page that he wouldn’t make racist comments about black athletes any more.
But in April 2007, on the morning after the mostly black Rutgers University women’s basketball team had reached the finals of the NCAA women’s basketball championship, Imus offhandedly remarked, “That’s some nappy-headed hos.” Calls for his removal from the airwaves were invoked by public figures ranging from Barack (not black enough) Obama to Al (too black) Sharpton, from feminist Eleanor (not woman enough) Smeal to Jesse (“Let’s go to Hymie-town”) Jackson. Although Imus proceeded to apologize all over the media, ranging from Sharpton’s radio program to the Today show, he felt that he was only following the lyrics of black rappers, from the Wu Tang Clan (“nappy-headed niggaz”) to Ludacris (boasting of random “hos in different area codes”).
Platinum-seller Chamillionaire, admitted, “I’ve always used the n-word,” but after he went on tour and saw mostly whites in the audience lip-synching it along with him, he announced that his new album, Ultimate Victory, would not include the n-word, explaining, “I’m not going to say the n-word on this one because when I go back on the road and I start performing, I don’t want them to be saying it, like me teaching them.” He said this conversion was a moral issue and not a result of the backlash against Imus.
Snoop Dogg said that rappers “are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit that’s trying to get a nigger for his money.”
In 1992, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons had stated that “oppression of artistic expression, like any sort of oppression, should not be tolerated.” In 2007, he told reporters that offensive references in hip-hop “may be uncomfortable for some to hear,” but that his job wasn’t to censor expression. Yet, only one week later, in the wake of Imusgate, he joined Al Sharpton’s insistence that broadcasters should ban “bitch,” “ho” and “nigger.” Sharpton, who had announced to the press in 1995 that record-label executives shouldn’t “cave in” to right-wingers wanting to censor lyrics because it would “infringe on our 1st Amendment rights,” now justified his turnaround because James Brown on his deathbed had urged him to “be more aggressive in cleaning up the music.”
Two months before the Imus incident, on the first day of Black History Month, New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie successfully sponsored a “symbolic moratorium on the use of the N-word.” (Other cities passed similar measures.) Ironically, at a hearing on Comrie’s resolution, the word “nigger” was said nearly fifty times in less than two hours. The founder of the Ban the N-Word Movement, Marcia Harris alone said “nigger” nineteen times. One man who didn’t say it was Atlanta-based attorney Roy Miller, who mangaged to get the word stricken from the Funk & Wagnall dictionary. A few days later, inside Harlem’s Uptown Jeans clothing store, the voice of rapper 50 Cent, one of whose songs is titled “To All My Niggers,” blared over the loudspeaker, “Nigger you front you gone get it, OK now maybe I said it.”
“What difference does it make if they ban the n-word?” a bookseller asked. “Ban police brutality. Ban racial profiling. Ban that. Forget the n-word.” Four months after the plethora of rap-lyrics criticism that followed the Imus incident, New York City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy tried unsuccessfully to ban the words “ho” and “bitch” (which was referred to in the attempted legislation as the “b-word.)”
Basketball star Isiah Thomas said that although it’s wrong for a black man to call a black woman a bitch, it’s much worse for a white man to do it.
On April 9, CBS Radio announced it was suspending the Imus in the Morning show for two weeks. Two days later, a Pennsylvania radio station fired a disc jockey for urging listeners to mimic the Imus epithet. That same day, MSNBC decided to cancel its simulcast of Imus’ radio show. Although sponsors–General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Procter & Gamble, American Express, Sprint Nextel, Bigelow Tea, Staples–had pulled their commercials from the Imus show, NBC denied that the loss of advertising motivated his cancellation.
The next day, CBS fired Imus. Sponsors had already dropped out, and others were threatening to do so.
Imus hired attorney Martin Garbus–who had once represented Lenny Bruce–annnouncing that Imus would sue CBS for $120-million, since they had contractually encouraged Imus. A clause acknowledged that his program was “unique, extraordinary, irreverent, intellectual, topical, controversial.” Garbus said the firing was “unconstitutional,” which could be considered an accurate claim, since the FCC is a government agency. Imus and CBS settled out of court.
Meanwhile, a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle was “Fired celeb,” and the correct answer was “Imus.”
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, civil rights attorney Constance Rice sounding somewhat like Lenny Bruce, wrote, “But rest assured, the Imus crew has plenty of kike, wetback, mick, spick, dago, Jap, Chink, redneck and unprintable Catholic priest jokes too. Not to mention the rabid homophobia and occasional Islamophobia….Imus’ remarks were racist, offensive and, given that these athletes are not fair targets, out of bounds. There is no excuse for what he said. But there’s also no basis for firing him or ending his show. Firing Imus for racist riffs would be like firing Liberace for flamboyance. It’s what he does. More to the point, Imus should only be fired when the black artists who make millions of dollars rapping about black bitches and hos lose their recording contracts. Black leaders should denounce Imus and boycott him and call for his head only after they do the same for the misogynist artists with whom they have shared stages, magazine covers and the awards shows.”
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz–Imus had once referred to as “a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy”–stated, “I do not believe Imus is a bigot–not a man who raised millions for cancer-stricken kids of all races to stay at his New Mexico ranch.”
New York Times columnist Frank Rich argued in favor of free speech, and that Bill O’Reilly should be allowed to say “wetbacks,” a term used as dismissive shorthand for undocumented Mexicans. O’Reilly claimed that he was actually searching for the word “coyote.”
Gloria Allred represented a member of the Rutgers team who planned to sue Imus and CBS for slander and defamation of character, charging that his comment had damaged her reputation. This was reminiscent of the joke about a public speaker who stated, “The trouble with women is that they take things too personally”–then a woman in the audience stood up and said, “I do not.”
In September 2007, the basketball player’s frivolous lawsuit was withdrawn, ostensibly so she could focus on her education.
In April 2007, CBS fired the hosts of The Dog House with JV and Elvis, after they placed an on-air order to a Chinese restaurant for “slimp flied lice” and compared food items to body parts. “In the wake of the Imus case,” said New York City Councilman John Liu, “it would have been maddening to the communty if these idiots did not get fired.”
The next month, XM Satellite Radio suspended shock jocks Opie and Anthony for 30 days after they aired a segment with “Homeless Charlie.” When they mentioned Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Queen Elizabeth, he said about each, “I’d love to fuck that bitch.”
Although the station is not subject to FCC regulation or punishment, it does need FCC approval to merge with satellite-radio competitor Sirius. In 2002, the pair had been fired by CBS Radio for broadcasting a call from two listeners who said they were havng sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Now they expressed sympathy for Don Imus, saying that his career was “gone, just because he was trying to entertain people.” In fact, though, Imus would be returning to radio, on ABC.
Meanwhile, Glenn Beck called antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan “a pretty big prostitute,” then softened that epithet to “tragedy pimp.”
Michael Savage called Barbara Walters “a mental prostitute” and “a double-talking slut.” GQ editor Jim Nelson, parodying The Secret, advised readers to “visualize what you want (an Alfa Romeo? Leather pants? An Asian whore?), think positively and the universe will make it happen to you,” arousing the ire of the Asian American Journalists Association the Asian American Justice Association.
Nobel Prize winner James Watson told the London Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” Bill O’Reilly was more succinct when he expressed his surprise about eating at a restaurant in Harlem because black patrons weren’t yelling at the waitress, “Hey, where’s my motherfucking iced tea?”
Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain both used the racially offensive term “tar baby” and later apologized. On her Comedy Central series, Sarah Silverman insisted to an African American waiter that the Holocaust was worse than slavery, then as a social experiment she did the rest of the show in minstrel-blackface. Black comic Sheryl Underwood called Monica Lewinsky “an amateur ho.” And Don Imus referred to his wife Deidre, an environmental activist, as “the green ho.”
PAUL KRASSNER is the editor of The Realist. His books include: Pot Stories for the Soul, One Hand Jerking and Murder at the Conspiracy Convention. He can be reached through his website: http://paulkrassner.com/