I recently spent an afternoon sitting in the “undergraduate resource room” at Indiana University reading Randall Kennedy‘s The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (which is not the book’s entire title… but that’s kinda the whole point of this essay). The book is good — a thorough history of our most damaging racial epithet, with special emphasis on its appearance in court cases in the United States — and ends on an oddly hopeful & inclusive note as regards the future of the word.
I should preface my remarks by pointing out that, quite clearly, Kennedy knows more about this word than I do. And my reflexive assumption from a glance at his author photograph is that his opinions are coming from a place that’s more likely informed by visceral experience than any of my thoughts. So it’s cool to hear that Kennedy believes that measured, reflective, purposeful use of the word by people of any genetic background can be acceptable. Even though I disagree.
I obviously wouldn’t excise the word from anyone else’s work. I’m anti-censorship — there are vile passages in my own work, so I’m well aware that sometimes art demands it — and beyond that, phrases that would be vile coming from my own lips are not necessarily so coming from someone else’s. My buddy who overcame can talk smack on alcoholics. Through stupidity & suffering, he earned that privilege. I’m permitted only to listen.
I think, with that word especially, who you are and what you’ve suffered through in large part determines what is okay to say.
But even then, I wish the word were wielded less frequently. Because music, done right, invites repetition. Listener participation. Good songs compel listeners to want to sing along. So I wish there were subbed versions of certain songs — especially really empowering work like Odd Future’s “Forest Green” or the glorious a cappella riff tucked away at the end of Frank Ocean’s “American Wedding” — with lines like “I ain’t one for people’s wishes” or “these people can’t do nothing that I can’t do.”
Which obviously isn’t their responsibility. Like all real artists, they probably made their music first and foremost for themselves. Presumably they made the art they felt was missing from the world, recorded the songs they themselves wanted to hear. And their original lyrics, from them, for them, are fine.
But, let’s be honest here — audiences are selfish. I am selfish. Their songs are so good that I wish they’d made versions that could be sung along to by me. Which obviously I haven’t earned. But I still want it.
So, again, I’m anti-censorship. I think “Forget You” sounds weak — and, there, that’s a word I don’t even mind… it’s just Saxon. I think “She ain’t messing with no broke broke” sounds ridiculous. Their real art is obviously the music they first wrote and recorded, and good art released into the world is a gift. It’s petulant & petty to want more but I still do.
And obviously I don’t need a different edition of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, for instance. Or (despite the butchery I employed on his title) Kennedy’s book. But music seems different because of the way listeners spontaneously respond & mimic. Even singing along, in my own car with the windows up, the real lyrics aren’t things I should say. I don’t want to train my lips to move that way.
Especially in a world where that language is still pervasive, and not in jest. Like the Oklahoma fraternity chant. Like the Duke lacrosse team, who, yes, seem to have been unfairly treated as regards a likely-specious rape allegation… but who were then roundly defended & even celebrated as “innocent” despite the fact that they’d been given large sums of money by the university, used it to get drunk and hire strippers, then shouted vile epithets and vicious racist “jokes” at the women as they drove away.
It’s in light of these ongoing horrors that I have to respectfully disagree with Kennedy’s opinion that — in the right contexts, with careful consideration — the word can be renovated by people who look like me, or like those Oklahoma fraternity members, or like those Duke Lacross players, or like Quentin Tarantino. Sure, no genetic background creates a monolith. Melanin-deficient skin enswathes a variety of souls. But because that word harms listeners most, and a listener won’t always know whether a nearby speaker is evil, I’d excise it from the diction of the pale.