Never been a n-gger*

Okay, folks. The title gives you an idea of what’s coming. This one’s an exploration of the uses and abuses of a certain word, which, after this headnote, I’ll cease to refer to as the “N-word” or “n-gger,” because you’re big boys and big girls, and at least as smart as I am. You’ve been warned.

*With apologies and thanks to Dave Eggers.

A couple of nights ago, I was watching Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps the most beloved of the Ealing Studios comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. Ealing comedies, from KHC to The Lavender Hill Mob to The Ladykillers, are known for their dry wit, crisp and understated dialogue and gestures, dark—all right, downright mordant—humor, and elegantly designed sets and décor. The movies of these surfaces are epitomes of British high class, even as they slice and gut our pretensions and class anxieties with the sharpest satirical edge available. The Coen brothers and the Ealing folks are soulmates; it’s little wonder that the former decided to remake a work by the latter.

KHC, for most of its 108-minute running time, looks and feels impeccable. It’s deliciously, meanly funny, but it’s cool to the touch. Its antihero, a social climber who kills his way to the top, says this at one point: “As the Italians say, ‘revenge is the dish that people of taste prefer to be served cold.” He exacts his revenge throughout the movie, but it’s that phrase—“people of taste”—that sticks with you. His murderous rage is concealed beneath a thick layer of good taste. Though he tries to convince us that he’s avenging his mother’s honor and restoring his justified birthright, we can’t shake the impression that, basically, he’s offing his relatives more because they’ve offended his sense of taste.

So, an exchange during the final five minutes of KHC comes as a rude shock. Our hero, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, Tenth Duke of Chalfont, has been arrested and condemned to death—ironically, for the rare murder that he didn’t commit. He sits in a visiting room, divided from the (sort-of) love of his life, Sibella, by bars. It’s her husband Louis is accused of dispatching, and she knows the hubby committed suicide. She offers Louis a choice: if he agrees to kill off Edith, the wealthy woman he’s married for status, and marry Sibella, Sibella will produce her husband’s suicide note, thereby exonerating Louis.

Louis knows it’s not much of a choice, but he’s on death row. Still, good breeding won’t permit him to accept this compromise without one more dry joke. And so he says, comparing Edith and Sibella: “Eeny meeny miney moe/ Catch a nigger by the toe/ If he hollers, let him go/ Eeny meeny miney moe.”

Sibella counters, emphasizing that she’s got the upper hand, “It seems that an unaccountable number of these niggers are named D’Ascoyne.”

I’m paraphrasing Sibella’s line, as I don’t recall it exactly, as I was thrown out of the movie right there. The use, twice, of that word, particularly in the context of such a genteel film, leapt out. It distracted. It didn’t seem to fit. It was so unfitting—Louis doesn’t say so much as a minor expletive, even when he blows a man’s head off with a shotgun—that I wondered if it was intentional. I wondered if this was director Robert Hamer’s way of grabbing us by the jugular and reminding us that, for all the clipped speech and Oxford accents, these were all vicious, nasty people.

Then I wondered if it was just me, if anyone else noticed or cared, and if I was being oversensitive.

“Oversensitive” is a tricky word—oversensitive by whose standards? And I couldn’t be that oversensitive, seeing as I loved the movie and would recommend it highly to anyone. (Really, go rent it. Now.) I’ve probably got friends who would tell me that I was being “oversensitive,” and that it shouldn’t mar my experience with the movie. I wonder how those people would feel if the exchange had centered instead around “cunt.”

As a black man interested in film history, I get used to watching racial impropriety. A Day at the Races (1937) would be my favorite Marx Brothers movie—and there are several contenders—if I didn’t have to cringe through the extended blackface musical sequence, complete with bug-eyed colored folks whooping it up, sho-nuff style. Somehow, I’d cringe less if the sequence wasn’t so well-executed. So, instead it’s Monkey Business. I love, love, love His Girl Friday (1940), but pause, a little dazed and not laughing, at a long sequence when a group of white reporters tell a story about a “pickaninny” caught at a crime scene. I’ve gotten used to film critics not commenting on these offhand uses of racial epithets in their essays, or of taking such things for granted—“Well, you have to consider the context…. And now let’s move on to the mise en scène…”

In Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), though, it’s even worse. At least in American screwball comedies, the tone is downhome and uncouth enough that niggers, pickaninnies, jigaboos, and the resultant stereotypes thereof somehow seem to fit. There’s a context, even if the use of such terms is casual and off the cuff, even if it’s assumed that the audience is white. But in KHC, a movie so genteel that its DVD should come with a monogrammed handkerchief, “nigger” jars, more so because it’s spoken so offhand, as if these tony Brits don’t really know how damaging the word can be.

I am, however, a hypocrite. Don’t act surprised.

Last night, making notes for an essay on avant-garde movies (and, yes, folks, that is a reminder), I blasted Ghostface Killah’s startlingly great Fishscale through the headphones. Now, Ghostface says the word “nigga” so many times on the album that I swear he uses it as a preposition. And I bobbed my head the whole time, typing notes on the Brothers Quay, thoroughly unconcerned.

Later that night, while flipping channels, I came upon the “lost” episodes of Chappelle’s Show. (If there’s so lost, why does Comedy Central advertise and rerun them every 45 seconds?) The skits aren’t as funny as in the first two seasons but Dave Chappelle still, on occasion, had his mojo working when he shot these episodes. Dave being Dave, he needled us about nigger—the word and the ideology surrounding it—every chance he got. More often than not, I laughed. Even when I didn’t laugh, I wasn’t offended.

I don’t use nigger in everyday conversation—never have. My parents and I never had a conversation about it, exactly, but I got the clear message that it was off limits, no matter who I was talking about or with. The lesson’s stuck with me. In high school I minded it in the hip-hop albums I owned. I gravitated to the Native Tongues school of rap, in part, because they eschewed the word. I approved of groups like Public Enemy and Arrested Development, that used the word sparingly, and only to set “niggers”—you know, the lowlifes who conformed to minstrel stereotypes—apart from the rest of upright black folks.

God, I was a prig, and a class elitist to boot. It was probably for the best that one of my beloved Native Tongues groups finally challenged me on this point. In 1993, A Tribe Called Quest released Midnight Marauders. I bought it immediately with what little allowance money I had. I quickly had to contend with its “Sucka Nigga,” a defense of the use of the word by blacks, coming from a group that made a conscious choice to avoid it beforehand. I was torn. If the beat had sucked, if Q-Tip hadn’t flowed so well on the track, if it hadn’t combined killer drums and a jazzy guitar lick so brilliantly, I could have just skipped it. But, damn it to hell, it’s one of the best songs on the albums.

Q-Tip explains the history of the word and how it demeans when spat from the lips of white people, but also explains how he uses it “as a term of endearment.” He’s clearly conflicted about using it—“I start to flinch as I try not to say it/ But my lips is like an oowop when I start to spray it”—and he acknowledges that “other niggas in the community think it’s crummy.” I guess it’s the idea that ATCQ is arguing with itself about “nigger” that appealed so much—I appreciated the intellectual discussion as much as I loved the beats.

Well, ATCQ made its point clear—we’ll say whatever we want—and left me to deal with it. I couldn’t dismiss the Quest—you can’t imagine the effect of Midnight Marauders’s jazzy assertiveness on a shy, brainy teenager unless you’ve been there—so I decided to embrace “nigger” in hip-hop. Hell, I had no choice—if even the progressive-minded rap used it, I either had to embrace it or get rid of most of my CDs. I chose the former.

But my embrace is like that scene from Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: two men hug, slapping each other on the back. One of them says it’s a perfect example of that peculiar masculine mix of affection and aggression: “I’m huggin’ ya, but I’m hittin’ ya.” I accept it—I’m listening to Ghostface as I write this—but I still can’t bring myself to use it. There’s an insistent buzz in my head that says it’s not quite right, that a postmodern reclaiming of the terms of derogation doesn’t negate the impact.

Again, maybe I’m just oversensitive.

The easiest explanation for my guarded acceptance of nigger/nigga is that black folks have a free pass with the word and its variations, and no one else does. (The Beastie Boys and DJ Shadow can each say it twice in a single conversation; after that, they get beat down.) This doesn’t make sense, but there it is. But I think there’s something more going on.

Rather, it’s the context, the relationship between art and audience. What bothers me so much about the scene in the otherwise brilliant Kind Hearts and Coronets is that the filmmakers never consider that the film’s audience might be people unlike themselves. The tone of the scene assumes that you look like the characters, and share their prejudices. There’s no attempt to appeal to the universal viewer. I’m not sure such a viewer exists, but KCH’s studied casualness assumes that certain viewers either don’t exist or aren’t thoughtful enough to engage its aesthetics or politics.

“Sucka Nigga” shows an alternate path. The song assumes not only that dissenting viewpoints exist, but that they’ll call you on your bullshit if you don’t defend it well. KHC is ultimately a better work of art than the Quest song, but the latter does a better job of addressing the whole of human existence, not just the white part.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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8 Responses to Never been a n-gger*

  1. Very interesting post (I loved Kind Hearts and Coronets when I was a kid, saw it again and again on TV, and have ABSOLUTELY no memory of the exchange you’ve described, which is a strange & horrifying thing). I don’t think the possible motive you ascribe to the director can be valid–I am fairly sure the word “nigger” in that time and place was used incredibly thoughtlessly & casually in all sorts of settings (witness Agatha Christie’s novel “Ten Little Niggers,” subsequently retitled “Ten Little Indians” and then “And Then They Were None” but still with that proverb lurking behind it; or a proverb I have heard my now-deceased English grandmother born c. 1920 use, though with a sheepish awareness of its inappropriateness, “nigger in the woodpile”).
    Coincidentally just last night at the gym I was listening to “Low End Theory” & thinking vis-a-vis “The Infamous Date Rape” that I am not sure I exactly approve of it but that it’s a GREAT song! I don’t know where we go with all this–the most troubling ones, I’d say, are these stains on works of art we love from earlier generations…..
    (Just came here via your comment on my PZB entry, I’ve stopped by occasionally before but clearly must add this to my regulars!)

  2. Chris Reisor says:

    “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
    –Walt Whitman

  3. Michael says:

    Great post, Walter. While I haven’t seen Kind Hearts and Coronets, I still really appreciated your argument about it here, and I think you make a brilliant point about the “relationship between art and audience.” The kind of facile assumption (by the filmmaker) about audiences only makes the use of the term “nigger” more troubling, in addition to raising questions about the ways in which artists direct (consciously and subconsciously) their work towards the public.
    And, Jenny, while I can understand your point, I think it’s the very casualness of the word in that time and place that leads to the dangerous assumption about the audience — one that casually shares the very prejudices that the filmmakers think are so harmless.

  4. I don’t have a copy of Chester Himes’s novel “If He Hollers, Let Him Go” to hand, but I wonder whether he actually gives the whole verse as an epigraph–anyone remember? I find that one of his most painful novels to read, the sense of things closing in on the main character is so intense.

  5. Walter says:

    I sometimes wondered if the post was a collection of sentences in search of a theme, so I thank everyone for the thoughtful comments.
    I agree with you, Jenny: I don’t think Hamer intends to jolt us with the word at the end of KHC–I was just running possible ideas through my head–and, even if he means it, it’s such a jolt that it threw me out of the movie, so it doesn’t work. But, really, I think the filmmakers just didn’t know or care enough to know how “nigger” would be digested in that context. Thanks for the Agatha Christie reminder–I’d forgotten the original title.
    I don’t think the Himes novel actually uses the rhyme as an epigraph; he assumes you know the context implied by the title, but his aims are (ahem) far different from KHC‘s.
    Chris, the Whitman quote reminds me of something Edward Said once said in an interview: “I am invariably criticised by younger post-colonialists …for being inconsistent and untheoretical, and I find that I like that. Who wants to be consistent?” I guess I’m in decent company.

  6. Laura says:

    I just have to say how bizarre it is that I, just five minutes ago, finished reading Jenny’s _Heredity_ and then came to check e-mail and your blog, and here she is, writing comments. You guys are freaking me out. Too much good writing happening in my life lately. BTW, Jenny – it was fabulous. And Walter – you’ll always be my favorite…

  7. Flickhead says:

    Wikipedia offers this under several definitions of nigger:
    “In the past, nigger was sometimes used as a synonym for ‘defect’. For example, the May 1886 issue of Scientific American, page 308 said, “The consequence of neglect might be that what the workmen call ‘a nigger’ would get into the armature, and burn it so as to destroy its service”. Similarly, when performing shoddy but functional work, one is said to ‘nigger rig it’, especially when duct tape is used in place of proper equipment.”
    Remember, the Brits also call cigarettes “fags.” The character in Kind Hearts… may not have been thinking black at all.

  8. Pingback: Between the Bars: De La Soul | Quiet Bubble

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