Annette John-Hall: The dreaded 'n' word is back

Posted: January 14, 2011

And to think it all started with an effort to rid ourselves of the most hateful epithet in the American lexicon.

The dreaded "n" word.

In 2007, the students of the NAACP Philadelphia Youth Council decided to bury that bad seed once and for all with a symbolic funeral, complete with casket, pallbearers, and eulogy.

Which I thought at the time was an excellent idea. I hoped it would stay dead and buried forever.

But now it's four years later and the "n" word has reared its ugly head again.

It cost Fox29 reporter/anchor Tom Burlington his job. He uttered it once (or several times, depending on whom you believe) as staffers discussed whether to use it in a broadcast of the NAACP's burial story. Burlington, who is white, filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and claiming a workplace double standard - African American employees can say the word but white employees can't, he has charged.

That will be up to a jury to decide.

Now, "n" word insanity has touched The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the beloved classic by Mark Twain.

Seems Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books have plans to eliminate the "n" word from a new volume and replace it with slave.

So now the "n" word connotes "slave"?

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse.

History of hate

Sure, the word is vile, a racially offensive slur that African Americans have suffered under for centuries, a word spewed out of hate that typically led to lynchings and worse.

Still, it does nothing for reasonable discourse to erase it from literature by pretending it was never there. Especially when it appears in Huck Finn more than 200 times.

Not only is replacing the "n" word with slave historically inaccurate, it would tamper with the novel's mission.

"Twain was very intentional in his use of the word to satirize white racist attitudes," says Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why.

Truth is, we need the word in 19th-century works like Huckleberry Finn to remind us why it shouldn't be uttered today.

Confusing usage

Which brings us to the thorny case of the fired TV anchor.

I can understand why the guy's frustrated. He testified that at least two black employees at Fox29 used the word in the workplace and were not disciplined. He uses it once (he says) and now he's selling real estate.

We know intent is everything. But with the contemporary way the word has been reconstituted, by rappers and others who replace the er with an a and use it as a term of endearment, even I'm confused.

But here's the thing: When was the last time you heard one of your coworkers, black or white, use the "n" word at the water cooler?

And the idea that African Americans can somehow reclaim a word with such a pervasive history and turn it into a positive is "wishful thinking," says Asim, "and a very myopic view. . . . It's a racist word reflective of racist attitudes."

Among every ethnic group there's always a word that members can call each other but that would be considered a slur if anyone else said it.

I have younger black friends, former "n"-word users, who are struggling to reform.

But last I checked, nobody's fighting for the right to say it.

Which is why I hope Burlington's case never goes to trial (it's currently on hold). It would be the very definition of absurd for a judge to decide who gets to say the "n" word at work and who doesn't. Like anybody would want to.

It makes no sense that judges should be the ones to arbitrate issues of respect and civility. We ought to be able to do it on our own.

Because, bury it though we try, the "n" word, sadly, isn't going anywhere.


Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read my work: http://go.philly.com/annette. Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh.

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