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?