emmaus demoAtlanta 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.

6a00d8341c61e653ef0120a5c1aad8970c-800wiThe 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.

N-wordI 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.

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Boyd Lewis

Boyd Lewis

New Orleans family. War baby. Family moved a lot. Secondary and college education in Memphis, TN. Just before 1967 graduation, commissioning and tour of leafy, lovely Vietnam, banged up in auto accident. Decided to go into journalism. Tennessee mountain weekly, small Mississippi daily and nearly three decades in Atlanta. Black and alternative newspapers, freelance photojournalist, public radio news and documentary producer, news writer for CNN. Married Deborah James, followed her to Los Angeles for job. Quit the dismal trade and became middle school English teacher in LA barrio school. Quite happy.

15 Comments
  1. Boyd, you’re still an idiot. You have nothing to say about politics other than to drive racial political wedges to silence legitimate political dissent. You’re an ignorant mental defective and I’ll never understand why anyone would allow something like this to be published on a Website that aspires to enlightened political debate. You make Rush Limbaugh look like Ghandi.

  2. Lee Leslie

    Brenden – personal characterizations do not belong in this forum. Terms such as “idiot” and “mental defective” are nothing more than lazy rhetorical thuggery.

  3. So wait: he’s allowed to call me a racist and I cannot call him an idiot? That’s not fair. I thought you libs were all about fairness.

  4. Since Boyd no doubt lacks the intellectual sophistication to separate the policy from the man because it’s obvious that it’s he who only sees skin color when his bleary-eyed stares countenance a politician, I believe for the purposes of this cromagnon discourse I was caucusing among the “anti-Obama mobs of this incendiary summer” right here before your browsers. So I guess I take it personally. It’s amazing that folks would take umbrage that I call one man a blithering moron whose political instincts emanate from his reptile brain rather than take offense that he levels the show-stopping charge of “racist!” unfounded against millions engaged in legitimate political dissent.

  5. Brenden
    I’ll just reiterate, then go back home to the Shelter for Mental Defectives and whimper some more. The low rent white trash who call President Obama a witch doctor, a “Lyin African” and in minstrel whiteface represent the same wicked racist strain we saw in Little Rock, Montgomery, Nashville, Greensboro, Selma and Jackson with the N Word dripping from their distorted lips when black folk stood up and demanded their rights as American citizens. I pray to God Above they never get “their” America back. Please don’t feel offended bro. I know you don’t use this language or these images to accompany your dissent. You don’t, do you? Selah.

  6. Cliff Green

    Brenden, I was honestly surprised at your reaction to Boyd’s post. If you’re not a racist, his comments do not apply to you. Period. Hang up. Go back to bed.
    But please don’t try to defend those “millions engaged in legitimate political dissent”–your words–when some of them show up in DC carrying signs reading , “We’ve come unarmed. This time.” What does that mean? The next time we’re coming with guns a-blazing? And we’re aiming them at….? And how about those wrapped in Confederate flags? We know what that means, right?
    You’re not a racist. OK. But most of those tea baggers in DC were either racist pigs or too stupid to know that the racist pigs on Fox News and at Premiere Radio Networks were using them to achieve their own fascist ends.

  7. I beg to differ. This post and the dozens like it posted on this site over the past few months are designed explicitly to link Obama’s opposition to extremist racists, with an unsubtle attempt to obscure the lines between them. As a member of this opposition, I feel obliged to spit, piss and crap all over this invidious lie that’s perpetrated not only here but in the AJC, NYT, CNN, ABC, etc. Do you deny this? Does Boyd refer to one particular person or discrete group? No, he traffics in hyperbolic mass stereotyping: “The anti-Obama mobs… the toxin of race hate gurgled just below the surface…” The surface of what? Where does this end? To whom does this apply precisely? What is the provenance of that image of the woman with the sign? C’mon: looks faker than a $22 Confederate bill. These are all deliberate obfuscations to convince readers that bigoted vigilantes are taking over the country one Republican district at a time and stoke paranoia among non-whites.

    You libs think you’re entitled to label anyone you please as a racist, sexist, homophobe or whatever to achieve a political end. This is the most cynical divide-and-conquer political strategy that commits genuine, deliberate political harm. You want people so focused on ethic identities and victimhood that it blinds them to the reality that this is the greatest country for anyone to live, no matter the color or turbulent history (and history’s turbulent everywhere). It’s so damned ignorant that you feel you can publish such an incendiary accusation like this, applied to whomever, and not expect an outraged refutation. But I suppose you have to do it because you have no defensible ideas, other than to manufacture yet more classes of victims and grievances. I’m fine with it though because it gives me the opportunity to point this out.

    It’s you who wax romantic about Mississippi in 1955 to define your political strategy. There could be no worse outcome for you politically than that people advance from humble circumstances by individual achievement and hard work. Then they would know exactly how destructive deficit spending, fiscal mismanagement and confiscatory taxes are. You’d rather convince them they’re entitled to a handout, so long as you’re the one handing it out.

    If you want to talk about the real problems in the U.S. in 2009, then please dispense with the “We value your opinion, racist, but…”

  8. Thanks, Boyd — a good piece of writing, as I would have expected. The conflation of “Niger” with the N-word has always been a common form of word play among Southern whites. I remember in elementary school how one of my classmates (his father was a big fan of Barry Goldwater) pointed to a map in the geography textbook and started giggling over the discovery that there was, in his words, a country in Africa named “n****r.” He thought he was quite the clever one — as, no doubt, did the woman with the “lyin’ African” sign.

  9. Cliff Green

    Brenden, FYI: That lady’s sign is legit. It has been shown several hundred thousand times on left-wing websites. Fox News didn’t show it, but the “state-controlled media” did the very day it was displayed.

  10. Um, yeah, OK Cliff. “Repeat a lie often enough….” Wasn’t that what someone said about the nature of propaganda? Much like those military records Dan Rather uncovered on George Bush the Younger. They may have been faked, but the information in them was true and therefore publishable. Why is the image of the lion in sign a higher resolution than the rest of the image? It looks like one of those animal posters in Mr. Garrison’s classroom on South Park.

    But of course the image is only a part of the argument, which is that you whining, plundering lefties don’t mind Balkanizing the country into bloody racial strife to obtain narrow political success. The really funny part is that what you accuse of conservatives. You really don’t care who is or is not a racist — you merely want people at each others’ throats and paranoid because you have no defensible ideas. That is your only path to political success, to cow and scare your victims whom you so lovingly seek to protect. As if, $3 or $4 trillion later you’re complaining even louder about the exact same problems FDR did in 1932 — only saying now they’re worse… because of Republicans. Whatever.

    Where did that money go, by the way? It’s probably in Chicago somewhere.

  11. Back to the topic. Having grown up in the North and raised in a family that knew another kind of prejudice first hand, I was taught as a child never to say that word. But there wasn’t much cause, since I don’t remember meeting a black person until I was in college, where took a special course that explored the Urban Crisis. We looked into the underlying causes that sparked the urban riots and torched neighborhoods across the country.

    After moving to the South I learned that indeed the “N-word” was something that blacks could, and often did, use among themselves, but outsiders could not. I understood that concept, since we’d had our own versions, and I’m guessing that many other groups do as well. Families used it among themselves. Many black women that I knew used it in reference to their husbands or boyfriends, often, but not always, as a term of endearment. Sometimes it was used in anger, but in a private, intimate context. Context and tone shaped its meaning. Although I understood how to use it in a positive way, I knew that I could not.

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