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Thu Jun 27, 2013, 03:11 PM

Another View of the N-Word; Believe it or not, there are times when it’s a term of grace

Another View of the N-Word
Believe it or not, there are times when it’s a term of grace.

I’ve told this story may times: It concerns what I still regard, some 30-odd years later, as the greatest compliment I’ve ever received (or am ever likely to receive), and it bears on this “N-word” issue.

It was back when I was teaching English at Memphis State (which is what the U of M was called then). I had just come from one of those perfect class sessions that every teacher is familiar with. We had all been in on the moment, teacher and student alike — which is how it goes when you’re bonded right. In the Zen manner, there was an It at work, and we were all in It together. Thoughts and insights were coming in from everywhere, the energy level was high, and on such days it was no trick at all for me to hold up my end as pedagogue and pacemaker.

After class, I went over to my office across the hall in the Patterson building, and directly was visited by a young female student from the class — an African-American, though “black,” which remains acceptable, was the term of choice back then. She just didn’t want the moment to end; so we sat and relived the high points.

She was — how to say it? — kind in her estimate of my role.

“You were doing this, and you were doing that,” she was saying excitedly, “and I was thinking, ‘Look at that nigger go!’”

And then, realizing what she had said (for the record, I am a plain white Caucasian), she became embarrassed and began trying to stammer out an apology. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that…,” she began.

“No, you don’t,” I said, in the friendliest voice I owned, from someplace high up in the stratosphere. “Don’t even try to take that back. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received.” It was, and it remains so, for all the reasons you would expect and some you wouldn’t. Recalling E.B. White’s injunction against over-dissection, I’ll still give the subject a brief whirl.


But it’s more, too. Ultimately, the use of the N-word among African-Americans is clearly a kind of self-imposed identifier, a badge of intimacy. Even of pride. And no white need apply.


There was a time, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when some white folks with impeccably hip credentials used to wield the N-word with great ease and abandon — with the implied understanding that they were using it in the black way, with no intent or implication that could be called racist.


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