Atlanta 1984. The over-produced and artistically underwhelming Alliance Theater was being challenged by pocket playhouses springing up in store fronts and warehouses throughout the city. To review all the new plays, there were enough theater critics (and publications willing to print their opinions) to form ACDC, The Atlanta Circle of Drama Critics.
Stuart Culpepper (of “dia-munds” commercial voice-over fame) founded the deliberately double entendre’d ACDC to encourage professional critical commentary about Atlanta’s growing theater community. You know, like they did in Noo Yawk.
As producer of WABE’s “Friday and the Performing Arts” theater show, I got an invitation to the 1984 ACDC awards banquet. Jomandi Theater would get the annual prize for best locally produced play, Joseph A. Walker’s “The River Niger,” a drama about black men struggling to survive in a racist society.
The presenter, a nice white lady from Buckhead, announced the award to Jomandi for “The River Nigger.” Audible gasps.
Jeezus on a scooter, I thought, looking over the largely black audience. The N Word. From a White Person. Match dropped into a barrel of gasoline. Hammer Time. Instead there was laughter punctuated by a few hearty chortles of “Awww man.” People knew the intent of the poor lady and understood her embarrassment was genuine.
At the after-party, the actress who portrayed Ann in the play confessed that this was actually how the members of the all-black cast pronounced the title when among themselves. (For the record it’s /Nye-jer/ or if you’re French, /Knee-gher/).
Like any insult, this offending word has been quickly adopted by the insulted and turned on its head as a matter of comradely pride and an antidote to verbal poison spit out by ignorant bigots. Long before the blinged-out hip hoppers put the N Word into their lyrics, black nationalists of the late 1960s had used it in revolutionary, anticolonial solidarity. The women’s movement took up the cry “woman is the new N***R of the world.” My Latino middle school students in Los Angeles are often overheard saying
“ Joaquin, he’s my N***R.” and these kids are as white as I am.
The anti-Obama mobs of this incendiary summer and early fall put a thin veil of politesse over their heartfelt bigotry by not openly using the N Word. But the toxin of race hate gurgled just below the surface evidenced by signs showing Obama as witch doctor, in minstrel white face and that Klan Klown with her scrawled poster “The Zoo has an African Lion/TheWhite House has a Lyin’ African.”
Come on you hapless lumps of white trash, man up and say it: “There’s a Nigger President and we’d lynch him if we could figger out how to tie a proper knot in this here rope.” This racist insult remains alive and well in hearts and minds, if not always coming out of their pie holes.
Growing up in New Orleans, I constantly heard the N Word from schoolmates and relatives and strangers on the Freret Street trolley car. But I never heard my father say it. He was a doctor’s son, a Tulane graduate, a salesman and during World War II, rose to rank of lieutenant commander in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific. As a supply officer for a Seabee battalion on Fiji, he was responsible for offloading freighters to get supplies to build landing strips for B-29s on missions to bomb Japan.
The people of Fiji are dark skinned Melanesians, not the copper toned Polynesians of Tahiti and Hawaii. Dad was in charge of recruiting Fijian men to help unload the transports. He told me late in his life that the white sailors called the locals “coconut niggers” while these sad sack swabbies used any excuse to dodge work and sit in the shade drinking palm wine. My dad had tremendous respect for the people of Fiji, and credited them with helping win the war in the Pacific.
I think he returned to New Orleans after the war with a slightly different view of race and reality. Being white didn’t automatically make you right. When his brother, my uncle, would launch into an N Word-laced tirade about integration, my dad would interrupt him: “Wes, not in front of the children.”
Our family moved to Memphis at the height of the Freedom Rides in 1961. I entered junior year in high school. Somehow, I got it into my young head to write letters to the Memphis Commercial Appeal asking what was so wrong about people riding buses together if they could pay the fare. One day, my dad put a paper folded to the editorial page on the dinner table and began “Boyd…” I didn’t know what to expect. “The next time you write one of these things, kindly put Junior after your name. The people at work think this is me and it’s getting uncomfortable.” He smiled, and that was it.
My father was a man with southern roots even deeper than mine. Yet he knew where to put that insult every white southerner knew from birth. In the back of the bus. Then to be kicked off of the bus as the rest of us drove off into the sunrise of a new era.