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The one and only time my mother ever kicked my ass was when I called Sammy Russo a nigger. The whole scenario was bizarre, for at least four reasons: 1) though I was eight years old, and verbally acute, I did not know the actual meaning of “nigger;” 2) my friend Sammy Russo—though fairly swarthy, from Neapolitan stock, was clearly a purebred Italian-American; 3) growing up in a white-ethnic, working-class enclave in Utica, New York, I had never even seen a black person in the flesh, and never would until I was eleven; and 4) thanks to my mother, I was already a nascent civil-rights agitator.
But Sammy and I had quarrelled over an out/safe call during a heavy-duty game of street whiffleball, and all I knew of “nigger” was that it packed high-caliber insult-power. Though my neighborhood was certainly as racist as the deep South—and, in many ways, even more so—what people now so creepily refer to as “the n-word” was not used that often, possibly due to the absolute lack of black people to insult. (The more common word, to indicate disgust with “them” as a group, was “the coloreds,” and to this day that term continues to nauseate me even more than “nigger”…as in my friend Louie Girardi’s mother saying: “Johnny, you know, the coloreds think they’re just as good as we are.” I still flinch when people separate their laundry for washing.)
My reason for using that word was simple: I’d heard one bigger kid call another one a nigger in school the day before, and it provoked the very kind of two-shoves-and-a-punch fight that I wanted to start now, in my righteous rage over the blown whiffleball call. (Trust me. I was safe.)
But within five seconds the whiffleball call was moot, as my mother sprinted out from our tiny house, with its sad blue-stucco façade, and in the chill sunlight of an upstate June, started dragging me off the street with one tenacious hand while smacking me with the other. Even at that age I could’ve easily spun out of her grip, but I was too stunned. I’d never seen her face turn scarlet before. I’d never heard her splutter with rage—and something else, something I couldn’t quite define then, but later—as a father—came to understand better: a parental elixir compounded of shame, grief, and foreboding.
I couldn’t believe it. Even when she calmed down enough to tell me what the word meant, and why it was so heinous—and she did so with a vicious eloquence that left me burning for days—I had trouble understanding the exact nature of my crime. Sure, calling a black person a nigger would be obscene, and deserving of a severe beating. That was obvious, and just. But calling an Italian-American kid a nigger wasn’t quite the same kind of offense, was it? I was trying hard to make sense of it all. What if you got mad at your truck, and called it a nigger? Or you called one of our Utica blizzards a stupid nigger blizzard? At what point—if any—did the actual insult-power of the word drain out completely, simply by virtue of being too ridiculous?
Well, I’ve waited for an answer for more than fifty years, and it’s not getting any clearer. It’s actually more confusing now, and the creation of this sickening “n-word”—itself the ultimate non-word—is a huge reason why we’re still hung up on it.
The power of “nigger” itself lies not only in the bloodsoaked history it summons up, but also in the savage jolt of its consonants. I don’t know of any truly ugly insult that doesn’t hiss and crackle with embedded consonants, sometimes doubled: “nigger,” “faggot,” “kike,” “bitch-ass,” ”cracker,” “wop”, “sissy,” “Polack”—the vowels almost implode with the power of all those jagged “g”s and “k”s and “s”s. But the invention of this “n-word”—basically, “nigger” with a condom on it—allows people to use the word and pontificate about its history without ever feeling the way the sound of it must’ve sunk into black consciousness like rattlesnake fangs.
In a similar way, a guy like Bill O-Reilly is allowed to expose his mind-blowing racism by describing a visit to Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant this way: “”I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship…There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-F’er, I want more iced tea.”
“M-F’-er?” Wow! That Bill O’Reilly is one bad n-word! He ain’t afraid to throw down and call an m-f’er an m-f’er! But if he’d been forced to complete his nitwit rant with the genuine, two-noun, four-syllable obscenity, he would’ve been kicked off Fox for his language—when he should be kicked off for his rank idiocy.
As a writer, I’ve been drawn to the subject of violent white racists, and I’ve spent more time than I want to recall in their company—in the deep south as well the Rust Belt north of my upbringing. How do I render them in all their horror and sorrow without the freedom to use their words? Case in point: a Klansman/cabdriver in Reading, Pennsylvania tells me, over Dixie cups of $2.99 champagne: “Y’know, I actually think Martin Luther King Day is a good idea…kill a nigger and get a day off work!” How else do I draw that moment—complete with its rhetorical hip-fake, that gets me thinking, ‘hey, this guy is more complex than I thought,’ followed by the flick of the scorpion-tail in the finish?
So—as a writer, but also as my mother’s son—I’m compelled to come down hard on Quentin Tarantino’s side regarding the word “nigger,” while still recoiling at the pain it inflicts–on Spike Lee and millions of others who are outraged by it. What should he have done instead—used “n-word?”
And the rise of “n-word” is part of a larger semantic trend. Newscasters on TV are now commonly saying “effed-up”. In what universe does “effed-up” not serve exactly the same purpose as “fucked-up,” except to empower the Bill O’Reilly’s of this world?
And why do American newspapers still refuse to print words like “shit” when every newspaper in England has been printing shit, and worse, for decades?
Who are we fooling with all this effed-up s—t? Are we just a bunch of stupid m-f’ers deluding our own darn selves with our cutesy evasions and post-modernist spins, like Rachel Maddow’s saccharine “bull-puckey?”
Why do we continue to honor our verbal taboos as if they were sacred covenants?
When I was demonstrating in the streets, in the late 60s, the newspapers would always say things like: “the mob of unkempt protestors surged forward, hurling epithets at the police.” (Sometimes it was “barnyard epithets”.) But, for some reason, you never read the word “epithet” without “hurl” proceeding it.
I always loved that. “Hey—officer down! We got a cop here got hit by a flyin’ epithet, fer Crissake! I don’t know if it was a “fuckin’ pig” or “racist prick” or what, but he’s bleedin’ pretty bad, looks like it musta been a direct hit!”
But later I realized the great respect those anonymous newspaper hacks were paying to curse-words: when they hit, they do feel like stones. And that is how it should be.
So let’s deal with the pain and grandeur of words for real, and hurl all these stupid eupehmistic m’f’ers into the s—t-pile once and for effin’ all.
John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org