Dyson, Smiley, and West take on the 'N-Word'
The perennial best-selling book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, by Carter G. Woodson is standard reading for “conscious” brothers and sisters. Disturbingly, we’re in the midst of a trend Woodson might identify as “The Mis-Education by the Negro?” No, don’t think for a moment that I’m calling the inimitable Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the eminent Dr. Cornell West, and the ubiquitous Mr. Tavis Smiley “negroes.” I am not.
However, when it comes to a discussion of the “N-Word,” I think that what these three brothers said (or didn’t say) about its use by rappers in the Hip-Hop Nation betrays a collective “negro” mentality. In an otherwise well conceived CD entitled CornelWest & BMWMB (Black Men Who Mean Business) where Prince, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and other remarkable artists are featured, how Dyson, Smiley, and West react on the track smacks of mis-education.
Is Michael Eric Dyson Right? (Or Has He Lost His Mind?): Michael Eric Dyson wrote the book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Brother Dyson, forget about Bill. Let’s take a look at what Jesus said: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NIV) Dr. Dyson believes that Black people should embrace the “N-Word.” He says “The N-Word grew out of a loving, affirming culture that used it in opposition to how the dominant White culture was using it. So, they were trying to beat us down, and Black folk were trying to circulate that term in a loving, endearing, embracing way.” So, based on this warped logic, should we now thank the racist White man for giving us the seminal idea of “embracing” the word “ni**a”? That Dyson’s reasoning is flawed on this matter can be seen from the following:
(1) First, news flash: neither we nor our rappers came up with the word “ni**a.” The racist White mind did. The most comprehensive English dictionary in the world is the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It says the word “ni**ar” is ‘an obsolete form of ni**er.’ And that “ni**a” is a “Southern U.S. pronunciation of ni**er”; (2) Second, the word that millions of slaves heard while being beaten to unconsciousness, and the last word countless other slaves heard before being brutally murdered, was “ni**a.” What do you think they’d say about their descendents using the same debilitating, crushing, deadly word, but as “a loving, endearing” term?; (3) Third, when slaves working on the plantation clandestinely communicated feelings and vital information to each other in song styles like “calypso” and “holler” (from which we get the expressions, “holla,” and “holla back”), do you think they were cavalier in their use of the word “ni**a”?; (4) Fourth, Should we also ‘lovingly embrace’ terms like “Jigaboo”? “Jungle bunny”? “Spear chucker?” (Or, should we make it hip and say, “Spear chukka”?); and…
(5) Fifth, the White man has a history of giving us derogatory names. During Apartheid, South African Whites referred to Blacks as Kaffirs, the equivalent of “ni**as.” To date, no South African Black man even considers using this unmentionable word in “a loving, affirming” way, let alone in song. They think we, their wayward American brothers, are crazy for “embracing” the “N-Word.” Also, look at the offensive ancient Greek word “Ethiopia,” which means ‘region of sun-burnt faces.’ The Greeks thought Black men in the region were actually White men who accidentally had been burned severely by a fiery celestial chariot. Understandably, the ancient “Ethiopians” vehemently rejected this label. These same Greeks came up with the racist name “Pygmy,” meaning ‘distance from the White man’s elbow to his knuckles.’ The “Pygmies” loathe the term. Instead of ‘lovingly embracing it,’ in “Central African Republic, they are generally called BaBinga.” Elsewhere on the Continent they’re called “BaKola, BaBongo, BaAka, BaMbènzèlè, BaTwa, and BaMbuti.” Never “ni**a.” With these points in mind Brother Dyson, I implore you to seriously rethink your position. Put the shine back on your brilliance.
What Tavis Doesn’t Know For Sure: One of Tavis Smiley’s offerings is a book he calls What I Know For Sure. What I know for sure is that he should’ve been more vigorous in his attempts to check Dyson’s ranting. His style of facilitation gave the impression of a tacit approval of Dyson’s sophistry. Smiley’s dereliction is a disservice to the listening audience. In fact, one might wonder if Tavis knows—for sure—that painful pontifications lack substance.
Candor Matters: Among the books that Prof. Cornell West wrote are Race Matters and Democracy Matters. Perhaps his next one should be Candor Matters. Dr. West sparred with Dyson, but lacked passion in his otherwise commendable candor. Though he and I agree that the “N-Word” should be eliminated as a ‘term of endearment,’ he was so lethargic in his opposing responses that his answers gave the appearance of acquiescence. He didn’t help his case when, after being affectionately referred to as “my ni**a” by Dyson at the end of the track, he said: “Thank you.” I entreat you, Brother West, reassess the fortitude (or lack thereof) of your posture. Enliven it. Invigorate it. Rejuvenate it!
In connection with this God-awful word, even Webster’s Tenth Edition concedes that the “N-Word” “now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.” That’s deep. Granted, it goes on to say that, “Its use by and among Blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive,” but please notice the qualifier; it “is not always intended or taken as offensive.” This correctly implies that, though not always, it is indeed “intended or taken as offensive” in many instances among Black people.
And why shouldn’t it be? After all, the “N-Word” oozed from the machinations of a twisted, infected mind that was locked in a rancid cocoon of ignorance. Should we simply make the best of it? Well, it true that we’ve all heard the take-a-lemon-and-make-lemonade logic, but such reasoning is fallacious in the case of “ni**a” and “ni**er.” If you’re allergic to lemons, you can believe lemonade will still cause a negative reaction.
I’m confident that our collective psyche, wounded though it may be, has the resilience to overcome the damning effects of the “N-Word.” And I hope all of us can work together in eradicating it as an ‘endearing term’ from our vocabularies. I believe God and the ancestors are feeling me on this brothers and sisters. I hope you are too…Amen.
Dr. Firpo Carr n can be reached at (800) 501-2713 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.