carefully worded

10 07 2007

There was a funeral in Detroit, Michigan yesterday: a big one. As hundreds of non-mourners looked on, the NAACP buried the n-word — once and for all.

Obviously, the burial was controversial among everyone — especially in the Black community. The symbolic motion had undertones of the Civil Rights-era passion that had been so widespread and successful in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, Black Rights have been a less talked-about and more swept-under-the-rug topic of conversation for the country. Some see yesterday’s ceremony as a bold step to rekindle a movement many took for dead.

Except that the abolition of the n-word is tricky. The idea has a blatant air of censorship.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said at the ceremony:

“To bury the N-word, we’ve got to bury the pimps and the hos and the hustlers. Let’s bury all the nonsense that comes with this.”

Whoa. We’ve got to “bury the pimps and the hos and the hustlers?” One problem: The pimps and the hos and the hustlers are not yet dead. Too often, those “pimps and hos and hustlers” are the ones who fall most victim to racist American society. These are the people who need our help. Wasn’t the idea of the NAACP to get America to learn to accept everyone, anyway? (Okay, that’s disputable, I’ll admit, but it’s a topic for another day).

Unfortunately, we can’t just bury these things. To me, this gesture more symbolizes the exact action that is behind institutionalized racism in this country than it does anything else: Our government’s desire to cover up its racist tendencies at every turn.

There are problems we have to acknowledge, here: For one, the overwhelming corporatization of hip-hop has masked what that music was really all about when it began. The glorification of drug-hustling and women-as-sex-objects (among other hip-hop cliches) not only gives white Americans the wrong idea about Black culture, it gives inner-city minority kids the wrong idea, too. But it sells, and people buy it. This music is just as much a part of our culture as anything else. An examination as to why this racial stereotype has become so acceptable is long overdue.

Furthermore, what right do we as white America have to define a culture as we deem acceptable? There is a growing movement in the Black community (especially gaining speed after the Michael Richards fiasco of last fall)  to reclaim the n-word, in an effort to invest in it respect and dignity. I need not add that many rappers subscribe to this idea.

In the end, words are not the problem. A symbolic burial is good to bring a community of like-minded people together, but that’s about where the positive nature of the action ends. More important is to address the problem at hand: there are millions of kids who are hearing that word on their friend’s MP3-players — but haven’t learned the history of it. That’s a problem. There are millions of Black teenagers who don’t know where to turn or what to do with their lives because this country has not given them the same resources as their white counterparts to make a living. Sometimes those people turn to selling drugs for money just to live their lives.  That’s a problem. White kids who do the same thing — less likely for lack of options and more likely for lack of initiative — are far less likely to be arrested for it. That’s a problem.

So it’s time for the NAACP to do something bigger, for once. I buried the n-word in my vocabulary a long time ago. When I was six, my mother explained to me what that word meant and that it would never be allowed under her roof. And I intend to do the same thing with my children, as I hope they will with theirs, so that the n-word might never disappear completely — a constant reminder of what we as a people did wrong, and the debt we will forever owe to those whose lives we destroyed.

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28 03 2008
missing in action « upside down again.

[…] the best articles Salim writes are about hip-hop. Here, he writes about Nas’s crusade to reclaim the n-word, which Salim backs up: Those who use the word with malicious intent may still be able to inflict […]

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