Defusing the N-Bomb!
I am not a fan of the N-word.
There has been some good argument for the use of the word – the camaraderie between black men and black women, who casually exchange the word in conversation and the reappropriation and reclamation of the word – and some very bad argument – a different spelling (apparently using an ‘a’ at the end instead of an ‘er’ gives the word a different pronunciation and meaning, apparently).
But the word continues to have its detractors, from all generations. In a recent interview with the Guardian, David Oyelowo explained, “I hate the N-Word, particularly when black people use it about themselves…people get so used to eating something substandard that in order to survive they have to take ownership of it. Just because you’ve reappropriated it, that doesn’t detoxify it.” Whether the word’s exchanged playfully between young black men and women, whether the word is simply in the lyrics of a song (and yes, even when you pronounce it with an ‘a’ at the end, although…really?) the word retains the history. The N-word is a substandard word. It was and will always be (as Oprah states) ‘the last word (black men and women) heard as they were being strung up to a tree’ regardless of reappropriation, reclamation or whatever.
Spike Lee, arguably Quentin Tarantino’s most famous detractor said, “I will say it again and again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word. And let the record state that I never said he cannot use the word – I’ve used that word in many of my films – but I think something is wrong with him…It’s just the N-word, the N-Word, the N-Word.”
In the statement, Spike Lee distinguishes between Tarantino’s use of the word (“I never said he cannot use the word”) and his overuse of the word (“I have a definite problem with…Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word…the N-word, the N-Word, the N-Word.”). In certain cinema, such as Django or 12 Years a Slave the N-word, is inevitable. But using the word excessively, to the point where the word becomes more aesthetic than historical or political, is problematic. Even outside of cinema, the overuse of the word could potentially dehistoricize it (arguably a good thing but again, it will always be ‘the last word (black men and women) heard as they were being strung up to a tree’. So yes, I have a problem with the N-word.
Unfortunately, there also seems to be a backlash against critics of racist or derogatory terms. When Benedict Cumberbatch used the archaic and derogatory term ‘coloured’ during an interview where he rightly decried the absence of roles for black actors, his criticisers were criticised. Oona King stated “His accidental use of the derogatory term “coloured” promptly flung him into the linguistic swamp that mires race. This swamp is conscientiously patrolled by the PC diversity brigade”. David Oyelowo argued “When you look at what he was actually saying, it’s clear that he’s a huge supporter of black performers…to attack him for a term as opposed to what he was actually saying, I think is very disingenuous and is indicative of the age we live in where people are looking for soundbites as opposed to substance”. And when Spike Lee criticised Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained for the film’s overuse of the N-word an article in The Independent documenting the feud between the two directors ran the headline, “Quentin Tarantino accused of ‘Blaxploitation’ by Spike Lee… again” as though annoyed at Spike Lee for muddying the waters… again.
And surely every man and woman of colour is familiar with, “how come you can say it and I can’t?”