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The 'Nigger' Top 10

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Now that the New York City Council has "symbolically" banned the "N-word," I'd like to defend the word's right to exist.

The word "nigger," like all words, is simply an instrument with which to convey ideas. No word is inherently evil. In fact, black artists have been putting the word to righteous use for years.

So I gathered my friends Larry Alexander, Lorenzo Heard and Thomas Stanley, and we compiled a list - the "Nigger" Top 10. Hereupon, the most socially redeeming usages of "nigger" in modern history, ranked according to their cultural importance:

10. Richard Pryor's epiphany in Africa, from the movie "Live on the Sunset Strip." (1982)

No contemporary artist has done more with the word "nigger" than Richard Pryor. (His 1974 LP "That Nigger's Crazy" even won a Grammy.) But after traveling to Africa in 1979, Pryor quit using the word in his comedy act. Here's how he explained it in "Live on the Sunset Strip":

"When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, 'Richard, what do you see?' I said, 'I see all types of people.' The voice said, 'But do you see any niggers?' I said, 'No.' It said, 'Do you know why? 'Cause there aren't any.' "

9. Sly and the Family Stone, "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey." (1969)

In its context - a mixed-race band addressing a mixed-race audience, at a time when trans-racial brotherhood was the dream of a generation - this song is a perfect example of how to use the word's power against itself. Sly wanted to shame both sides of the racial divide. Hence the rejoinder, "Don't call me whitey, nigger."

8. Lenny Bruce, "Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?" (early 1960s)

For token white representation on this list, Lenny Bruce beats out John Lennon's "Woman Is the Nigger of the World," because Bruce confronted directly the weaponization of language.

After carpet-bombing the nightclub with "nigger," "kike," "spic" and "mick," Lenny Bruce said this:

"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 'niggerniggerniggerniggernigger' at every nigger he saw... till nigger didn't mean anything any more... you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school."

7. Dick Gregory's autobiography, "Nigger." (1964)

On one level, a slick marketing move. On another level, a bold provocation. On yet another level, a twisted joke. On all levels, probably the earliest attempt by a black artist to tame the word. This was Dick Gregory putting his head into the lion's mouth.

Here's the preamble to his memoir: "Dear Momma - Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book."

6. The "Word Association" sketch, "Saturday Night Live." (1975)

One of the funniest "SNL" sketches of all time, and the funniest use of "nigger" ever on American network television.

Richard Pryor plays a job applicant, and Chevy Chase is a potential employer. The final step in the hiring process is a psychological test, a bit of "word association." Chase says a word, Pryor says the first word to pop into his head. It builds to an absurd crescendo of slurs:

"Spearchucker." "White trash!"

"Jungle bunny!" "Honky!"

"Spade!" "Honky honky!"

"Nigger!" "Dead honky!"

5. The Pino/Mookie scene, "Do the Right Thing," written and directed by Spike Lee. (1989)

In a tenderly staged scene, Spike Lee as "Mookie" questions John Turturro's character "Pino," who is filled with rage towards black people. Mookie points out that Pino's favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson, his favorite movie star is Eddie Murphy, and his favorite rock star is Prince.

"Pino, all you ever say is 'nigger this' and 'nigger that,' and all your favorite people are so-called niggers."

"Magic, Eddie, Prince, they're not niggers," Pino says. "I mean, they're not black. I mean... let me explain myself..."

Here we have a black artist addressing the schizophrenia of whites who idolize "crossover" black stars while holding fast to their racist attitudes.

4. Chris Rock, "Black People vs. Niggers." (1996)

From Rock's HBO special "Bring the Pain," a brutally frank, devastatingly funny examination of the class division in black America. "There's like a civil war going on with black people. And there's two sides: there's black people and there's niggers. The niggers have got to go." The audience went bananas, and he was just getting started.

The next five minutes shook the comedy world, and elevated Chris Rock to the top of his profession.

3. The Last Poets, "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution." (1970)

The Last Poets were a huge influence on hip-hop and today's spoken-word scene. This particular piece, by Umar Bin Hassan, is a classic deconstruction of African-American complacency. Bin Hassan says "nigger" 89 times in about five minutes, as if this were a magical ritual to transmute self-hatred into self-love.

2. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," anonymous. (1960s)

Contrary to popular belief, Muhammad Ali never said this. It was an often-seen protest slogan during the late '60s. (The New York Times, United Press International and Time magazine reported the appearance of "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger" on placards at a variety of demonstrations and protest marches, with no reference at all to Ali.)

The slogan's association with Muhammad Ali in our collective memory just proves what a potent and effective usage of the word it was.

1. Richard Pryor, "Bicentennial Nigger." (1976)

Just juxtaposing the words "bicentennial" and "nigger" was audaciously brilliant. America was throwing itself the grandest birthday party imaginable, and along came Pryor to piss in the punch bowl.

"They're having a Bicentennial. Two hundred years. Gonna have a Bicentennial Nigger. They will, they'll have some nigger 200 years old in blackface... stars and stripes on his forehead..."

In his two-and-a-half-minute monologue called "Bicentennial Nigger" (from the LP of the same name), Pryor portrays the stereotype of an old chuckling, subservient but nonetheless happy darky. As he catalogs the degradations of slavery, he keeps on chucklin', talkin' ' bout how glad he be to have spent 200 years in Amer'ca. It's a bleak piece that ends with an angry twist.

Keep in mind, Pryor unleashed this lacerating satire at a time when he was a popular guest on TV talk shows. He was on the verge of major Hollywood stardom. He had something to lose. But he did it anyway. And in the process made himself a culture hero to white folks as well as black.

Only a bad-ass nigger could've pulled off that trick.