Wednesday, July 16, 2008

This Is the Big One, Elizabeth

We're a lot more sensitive than we were in the 1970s. Is that progress?

One of the most popular television shows in the early to mid-70s was Sanford and Son, an Americanized version of the British sitcom "Steptoe and Son" transplanted to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show featured comedian Redd Foxx, who was best known for working blue in his nightclub act. Foxx played a scheming, irascible junkman named Fred Sanford, who was sort of a cross between Archie Bunker and Ralph Kramden. The show trafficked in a certain number of stereotypes and cliches, but it was often quite funny, especially because some of the supporting characters were excellent foils for Foxx's particular brand of put-downs. The battles between Sanford and the psalm-singing Aunt Esther (played by LaWanda Page) were often especially amusing.

Esther -- Fred Sanford, the wrath of God will strike you down!

Fred (brandishing baseball bat) -- And this Louisville Slugger will knock you out!

I was thinking about Sanford and Son today because of a particular episode of the show that probably couldn't be shown today. In this episode, Sanford is attempting to open some sort of social club, but his goal is to get a wealthier clientele. In Sanford's mind, that means white customers. So he becomes angry and disgusted when the place starts filling with African-Americans. It's been more than 30 years since I've seen it, so I'm going to have to paraphrase it, but the Sanford character says something like this:

"There's more n******s in here than in a Tarzan movie!"

I remember staring at the screen, dumbfounded, when he said that. But there it was. This was nationally televised on NBC in the 1970s. Thirty years on, I won't even use the actual word on my blog. So things have changed.

Which brings us to the latest news concerning the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Apparently during the same interview session where Jackson suggested a little freelance surgery ought to be applied to Sen. Barack Obama, Rev. Jackson suggested that Obama was "talking down to black people ... telling 'N-words' how to behave." Except that he didn't say 'N-words,' of course. Now it turns out that Jackson has used the word and is being hoist on his own petard.

Is this progress? The word in question is one of the ugliest slurs in the English language and you simply don't hear people use the word in the larger society much any more. In my experience, if a white person utters the word, he does it quietly, almost in a conspiratorial whisper. And I think less of people who use the word.

Yet there is a tendency for some in the African-American community to use the word, often quite indiscriminately, sometimes in the same manner that the Fred Sanford character used the word in that television episode of yore. I have no desire to use the word as it serves no good purpose. But I also suspect that by establishing such a taboo around the use of the word, we give the word more power than it might have otherwise. The N-word has become the Voldemort of the English language - that which cannot be named. And because the taboo surrounding the word has such power, when someone like Jackson uses the word, even in a private conversation, it becomes national news. Is this progress?


Gino said...

what it shows is the racial double standard.
blacks use the word in casual conversation referencing in the third party for blacks-at-large.

if whites did that, we would be branded,tarred and feathered, even if the intent and meaning and usage of the word was the same.

i dont play that way.
on my blog: i would have spelled out the word, and defended my context if called upon.
i refuse to let the likes of jackson dictate a double standard for me to follow.

Mark Heuring said...

I know you don't play that way, Gino. And I admire you for it.

Right Hook said...

We all need to take a "homey don't play that" attitude.

Being offended is a lucrative business for the left. Remember the flack when a white aid to the mayor of Washington DC used the word "niggardly"? It didn't matter that the word has nothing to do with race, but since a bunch of libs were looking to be offended the utterance was deemed inexcusable and the poor guy lost his job over it.

Mark, as a wordsmith extraordinaire you need to be particularly careful. See for some helpful guidelines.

Night Writer said...

Come on, Mr. D, don't be afraid to use the "N" word; let if flow from your fingers on the keyboard:


Now that wasn't so bad, was it?

Mark Heuring said...

You're right, NW. It flows beautifully. And it adds a special meaning when plugged into the Fred Sanford quote:

"There's more Nightwriters in here than in a Tarzan movie!"

Now that's comedy gold.

Gino said...

"I know you don't play that way, Gino. And I admire you for it."


Mark Heuring said...

No, Gino. Not sarcastic at all.

Daria said...

Gino is absolutely right about the double standard. Fox has stated that they will not be releasing the audio of Jesse uttering the unuterrable. If the utterer had been a prominent white conservative, especially a Southerner or Christian, and a liberal media outlet had captured it there would be A-level coverage for a few days. And I doubt that the target of the slur would be as quick to forgive as with Jackson.


Penigma said...


It isn't Jackson who dictates, it's the american corporate environment which caved to this sort of silliness. If people didn't fear for their jobs, or think it would affect their future career potential, I can assure you, most folks wouldn't be so mortally afraid of speaking their minds in a completely truthful context.

Penigma said...

Right Hook - as I recall that was a case of someone in Oregon, and no one on 'the left' took offense, the company just fired the guy. I don't know if a worker took offense, it's possible I suppose, however, that case was one most of my 'liberal' friends don't support, I sure as hell don't.

Gino said...

have we all forgotten: that kramer comic used the word 'nigger' in a comedy act, and jesse insisted he be punished and boycotted?

maybe i'll think of a post where i can used that word in an intelligent context, and wait for the boycott uproar.

imagine what that will do to my traffic!
i may even sell ad space.

and thank you,mark.

Right Hook said...

Actually there have been a several similar incidents, but the one I linked to involved the Mayor of DC's staff (not a lot of Conservatives in that bunch)...

Uncle Rush also had sound bites of some of the staffers who supported the firing even after an attempt to educate them with a dictionary. One woman militantly insisted that the firing was justified because it sounded similar enough to the "N-word" that she was offended and offensiveness is whatever the offended deem it to be!