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More Michael Richards Madness: A Defense of the N-word

11/28/2006 10:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just when you thought the story of the Seinfeld actor-turned-explosive racist couldn't get any odder, Michael Richards pulls us back in. And this time, he's the pasty white face fronting one of the most quixotic efforts in modern pop culture: an effort to get black entertainers to stop using the n-word.

This is the seeming result of Richards' mea culpa Sunday before Jesse Jackson, when he stopped by the civil rights leader's radio show to apologize again for calling a black nightclub patron a nigger when he felt the guy was heckling him.

Of course, in the same way Jerry Seinfeld used a Richards apology to distance the show's upcoming DVD release from Richards' rant (which didn't work; Jesse still told people not to buy it on Monday), Jackson used this most recent apology to push his own oddball agenda -- a campaign against use of the n-word in popular black entertainment.

"We want to give our ancestors a present," Jackson said at a news conference Monday. "Dignity over degradation."

Most surprisingly, Jackson was joined by Paul Mooney, a legendary comic who was Richard Pryor's running buddy and writing partner back in the day. He also wrote for everyone from Sanford and Son to In Living Color, with a stage show so blue he once used the n-word about as many times as Robin Williams changes personalities.

Now, Mooney has joined his famous pal Pryor in renouncing professional use of the n-word, saying Richards was "my Dr. Phil. He's cured me."

All of which puts me in a weird position. Because I, a proud professional black man who rarely if ever uses the n-word in my own life, simply do not agree with Jackson, Mooney, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters or any other number of black folks who want this word excised from our pop culture lexicon.

I am, inexplicably, arguing for "nigger."

Partially, its because of all the great art I've enjoyed which featured the n-word prominently: standup routines by Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock; movies by Spike Lee, Murphy, the Hudlin Brothers and Keenen Ivory Wayans; music by Public Enemy, The Roots, N.W. A., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kanye West and more.

Was all that work somehow self-defeating or wrong because it spoke the way many black people speak? Shouldn't we be judging the ideas expressed and the creativity on display rather than just the words themselves? And does insisting on such a standard for artists just force them to choose between middle class intellectuals who hate the n-word and working class fans who use it everyday?

Leave aside the impossibility of the task itself; you might as well ask K-Fed to get a real job or Wesley Snipes to start paying his taxes. In that way art has of serving as both mirror and catalyst, use of the word nigga and nigger has so pervaded rap and street culture that it's hard to imagine a thumping rap jam without at least one shout out to the n-words in da house.

Don't bother using these questions to challenge my belief that black folks can use the n-word in a way non-black people cannot. See here for my past thoughts on that.

But as a host of activists stand up to challenge black pop culture to improve itself, I find myself concluding that this is a linguistic shackle which shouldn't be accepted.

It's like watching the disintegration of Chappelle all over again. A Muslim who I suspect is more militant than his easygoing public image indicates, Chappelle left his blockbuster comedy show because he felt fans were regurgitating his trenchant satires on race as empty stereotypes -- using his Rick James and crackhead characters to wallow in the degradation of black people instead of absorbing the larger message.

So he walked away from a $50-million deal and a nationwide platform. And now nobody's talking about race, culture and media the way he did. Is that really a better outcome?

Should we raise the bar for our artists? No doubt. Should we challenge the rampant misogyny, homophobia, violence and self destructiveness which fills some black-focused movies, music and television? For sure.

But no word is so awful it can't be used creatively and incisively by someone. And banning a word without addressing the ideas behind it feels more like a panacea than anything -- a feel good moment which hobbles geniuses while letting the knuckleheads continue their awful work without reproach.

I remember talking with USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham last week about a fraternity in Baltimore which faced sanctions for sponsoring a Halloween in the Hood party that university officials deemed racist. DeWayne postulated that black folks may have helped create such situations by glorifying rap's gansta image and use of the n-word (at least I convinced him it was bad rap music which may be the culprit here). But, leaving aside the fact that attendees of the party in Baltimore also dressed like slaves and had a mannequin hanging from a noose, I remember similar parties at my college in the mid-'80s when knuckleheads dressed like pimps.

Do we conclude that Superfly was also a dangerous work of art? Do we let the least informed, least appreciative, least respectful people determine what black artists can and cannot do with language and image? I don't think so.

So forgive me for standing behind the artist's right to use the n-word, even as I emphasize others: Creativity. Quality. Cultural awareness. Substance.

If we as black people demand those words from our entertainers, it won't matter if they use the other one.