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The "N" Word on Network Television

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I was on the phone with a friend last night and he said, "Do you know who Dick Cavett is?" I perked up and responded, "I do, and I've been meaning to blog about him." I knew the seemingly random but cosmically governed mention of Dick's name meant I could no longer procrastinate this blog.

My friend, Jesse Joyce had just returned from performing in The Great American Comedy Festival where he met 71-year-old Cavett who had a brief career as a comedian but was better known for his eponymous television talk show, which aired on different networks between 1968 - 1996. Jesse sang the praises of Cavett the one-time comedian and made not-so-modest mention of the fact that Dick complimented his performance once he got off stage. I, on the other hand, gave Dick accolades because of a YouTube clip I came across a few weeks back.

I usually run to YouTube when an old music video comes to mind and I want to see it, and for no good reason one day I was searching for the video to the John Lennon song "Woman." Among the many options that came up for "Woman" was also a lesser-known Lennon song entitled "Woman is the Nigger of the World." When I looked further into that song, overwhelmed by curiosity, I came across a clip of John and Yoko appearing on the Dick Cavett Show to discuss and sing the song.

As a skinny white woman, what I just wrote terrifies me. My fingers trembled as I typed the N word. Outside the context of the song I can't bring myself to write it. But, as Dick Cavett and John Lennon would agree, that shouldn't be the case. In a country where the First Amendment on the books is freedom of speech there is not a single word in the English language that I should be afraid to say. Please don't misinterpret, I have no desire to use the word regularly or in its degrading context, however, I should be able to say it as an example and have people know that I'm not corrupt. I should be able to recite the song title without fingers coming at me from all sides and the collective sound of the child's noise, "Ooooooooooooooo." But I am not, and because I am not, the word retains its power. The more afraid we are to use a word the more control that word has.

One upon a time there was a skinny man whiter than I (by whiter I mean British) who appeared on network television and said the N word uncensored no less than fifteen times, and there was a talk show host who allowed him to do it. The word was plenty offensive at the time, and the singer needed it to be. You see he was trying to make a point. He didn't like the way the women of the world were being treated so he came up with an offensive analogy to get people's attention. While on the show he acknowledged the word's offensiveness and tried to give it a new definition. He opened the dialog.

The saddest part of this story is there is not a chance in Hell that a segment such as this would air on any network station today. None whatsoever. And this message would be lost. In fact, I'm sure messages like this are lost everyday because we are afraid of our own shadows. So Jane Fonda says the word cunt on the Today Show. So what. She didn't call Meredith a cunt. She was referring to Eve Ensler's Obie-Award winning play The Vagina Monologues. And for anyone who hasn't seen or read the play, that's exactly what the "Cunt" monologue is about -- reclaiming the word so it can't hurt anymore. Taking it back. Giving it a new definition.

In 2008 Meredith Vieira apologized after the on-air slip on behalf of Jane Fonda and the Today Show for the use of the inappropriate word. In 1972 Dick Cavett made his apology before the show -- telling the people who would be offended to look away -- and then aired the clip.