Uncategorized‘Still Processing’ Talks The N-Word: The Most Offensive Word in the English Language

‘Still Processing’ Talks The N-Word: The Most Offensive Word in the English Language


wesley morris

Jenna Wortham.

jenna wortham

Wesley Morris.

wesley morris

Hi.

jenna wortham

Hello. Hi.

wesley morris

How are you?

jenna wortham

You know, we’re back, and we’re still in a personal pan pizza, which is what I’m going to call the pandemic, because I gotta take my joy where I can.

wesley morris

Oh my god.

jenna wortham

But it’s been a year, and we’re still on the pancetta. We’re in the pon de replay. And I’m holding on. I’m doing my very best. How about you?

wesley morris

Oh, man. I am doing my best myself.

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

And one thing that keeps me out of trouble is not going to the gym.

jenna wortham

That’s right.

wesley morris

So haven’t been to the gym in a year.

jenna wortham

Good.

wesley morris

And just working out in my living room.

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

And I recently had a friend give me his login for Peloton.

jenna wortham

That’s a nice friend.

wesley morris

I don’t have a bike or anything, so I’ve just been using the app for strength training. And I decided almost immediately who I knew I wanted to have my instructor be. There’s a guy named Adrian Williams. He is a handsome Black man with a little salt-and-pepper goatee. And I take his 45-minute full body strength class on Martin Luther King Day. All I can see on the screen is Adrian. All of the other people in the class, I don’t know. I mean, they’re avatars. I don’t know who else is in this class.

jenna wortham

And chances are the vast majority of the people in your Zoom workout class are not going to be people of color.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

It just doesn’t break down that way.

wesley morris

It just doesn’t break down like that in real life, and I’m assuming it just does not break down that way at Peloton. And Adrian, he picks the soundtrack.

[music – en vogue, “hold on”]

And the first song that comes on in this class is En Vogue’s “Hold On, which, you know, like nice to hear the girls again. And then I think maybe the fourth song is J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz.”

jenna wortham

OK.

archived recording (adrian williams)

We got one more.

wesley morris

And I’m like —

archived recording (adrian williams)

Yeah, it’s burning.

wesley morris

— there was an n-word.

archived recording (adrian williams)

Come on.

wesley morris

There was another n-word.

archived recording (adrian williams)

This is only our first circuit.

wesley morris

I mean, it’s a J. Cole song. It’s n-words everywhere. So —

archived recording (adrian williams)

Get your feelings in order.

wesley morris

— what happens when I, as a Black person, am in an environment where I don’t want to hear that word? It’s not a Black person using it on me, it’s a Black person saying it in a space where I’m pretty sure I’m one of the very few Black people in the room.

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

What do I do with that? Who do I tell? I just have so many questions about the other people who are taking this class — are they hearing the word? I just feel like, suddenly, J. Cole and Adrian and I are performing for whoever else is in this class, and I can’t see them.

jenna wortham

Mhm. I mean, not to be all armchair psycho about it, but you know, it sounds like, in a way, Adrian feels like he can assert his Blackness in this predominantly white space. We can’t ignore the fact that this is happening in the wake of everything that happened last year, and especially last summer.

wesley morris

Mhm.

jenna wortham

I think Black people in this country have been waiting for the opportunity to take up a lot more psychic space, and I think Black people in this country were like, I am tired of feeling like I can’t talk about the treatment that I endure. We’ve seen people dropping the veneer of whatever post-racial fantasy. No, I want to talk about my day-to-day lived experience, which excites me, actually.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

But you know, it sounds like Adrian is using whatever tools he has at hand to take up space.

wesley morris

Yeah. Adrian didn’t say why he played this J. Cole song, why that song was on his playlist. But every time I hear the word, though, I’m just thinking, like, god, this word, this word. Why this word? I don’t want to be dealing with this right now. Why, why, why?

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

You know, again, I cannot see who else is in the class, but what I’m thinking as I’m hearing this J. Cole song is like, is anybody else bothered by this? And if they are bothered by it, is it a Black person who is bothered by it in the same way that I am?

jenna wortham

You know, I am always in awe of its deployment by Black people, but then I get really annoyed, as well, because I never, ever, ever want to hear that word coming out of a white person’s mouth, no matter what. And I also think that, among most Black people, that is settled. Like, we don’t want to hear y’all say it because it just feels so devastating. And I’m of two minds about it. And I guess that sounds like a double standard, but it really isn’t if you sit with it and think about it.

wesley morris

Well, I think this is the exact right moment to talk about this word. And we should talk about the spectrum of usages, not just in my exercise class or in music, but every place this word has resurfaced.

jenna wortham

And you know, look, this word is heavy. It brings up a lot, clearly, for both of us, and we assume for our listeners, as well. And so we don’t want you to be like Wesley caught out in Adrian’s class, so this is just a little bit of a heads-up that we will be employing the word in all its uses in this episode. And prepare the body, do some little squats, get some water, because we’re going to do this. Let’s see what happens. Wesley, I know you’re down. I’m down. So get the “Green Book,” get your mask, get in the car, let’s go.

[theme music]

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris. We’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

This is Still Processing.

wesley morris

Jenna.

jenna wortham

Oh, Wesley.

wesley morris

You and I have for years been talking about the n-word. We’ve been talking about our relationship to it. We’ve been talking about whether we need it, how I feel about it, whether you use it. Part of the reason that I’ve been thinking about this word so much is that it’s been in our workplace recently.

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

And the reason it’s been in our work life is because a colleague used it.

jenna wortham

A ton has been written about this incident, and if you really want to know more, Google is your friend. You can just deep dive right on in. But just to give you a quick overview of what happened, a white colleague of ours was on a school trip with a bunch of high school kids and used the word in a sentence. You know —

wesley morris

Right. He used it quoting the word. He was not using it in the sort of conventional racist way. But he used it. And it essentially became this flashpoint in a conversation about whether or not it was OK to use the word. And you know, is there ever a good time to use it?

jenna wortham

Well, and to get a little more specific, the debate spins out from there, ultimately results in our colleague leaving his job and leaving the New York Times.

wesley morris

And you know, I think that the thing that really upset me was that this word was going to threaten to tear our newsroom apart. You could feel it.

jenna wortham

For sure.

wesley morris

And it’s really heartbreaking to see that this old-ass word is still boiling people’s blood, it is still costing people things, it’s still hurting people. I mean, I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.

jenna wortham

That word, it’s not something that you expect to deal with in your workplace. You just feel so exposed and so vulnerable. And like, it just turns you inside out, because you’re kind of doing this mental inventory of dredging up all the times someone has said the word around you or to you, and then tried to tell you it wasn’t a big deal or to get over yourself. Because that’s what this word does, it lives beyond time. And it’s not something that anyone should have to deal with when they just want to show up and do their job. And it ate up so much of my energy. I mean, I kept being like, I’m fine, but then while this was happening, at the end of every workday, I was just completely depleted. I didn’t even have enough energy to take a bath. And I finally had to just admit and to reconcile, like, this is taking a huge toll.

There’s this Toni Morrison quote that is just very grammable, and so I’ve seen it a bunch, but I’ll just paraphrase it. But it’s essentially that the function of racism is to be a distraction. And you get so caught up in explaining yourself and explaining your reason for being — and essentially defending your existence — that everything else falls away. And Ms. Morrison is cautioning us, do not fall into the trap.

She’s right. I mean, it’s the only thing that you and I were able to talk about. Like, we were spending more time on the phone digging into this incident than we were talking about our book projects, talking about this show, talking about our love lives, talking about what we were cooking for dinner. Like, all we were obsessed with and consumed with was this word. And it was so unfair.

wesley morris

Yeah. I think it’s America’s word. I think that white people have a stake in it as much as Black people do. And it’s been very interesting to watch white people defend their ability to use it. And it just really strikes me as being about a kind of sense of ownership in a way that they might not even intend.

jenna wortham

Deeply embedded in that ownership is the most incredible time capsule, or maybe it’s a ticking time bomb. And I think it’s scary because I’m like, do you know what lineage you’re invoking? Do you understand how that word has been wielded throughout time? And maybe you should revisit “Roots” and just reorient yourself in the power of this word and the way it really comes from a desire to limit and reduce and diminish and humiliate and really render a person into nothingness. And ask yourself, is that worth all this?

wesley morris

But I mean, the fact of the matter is that you and I are talking about a thing that is, like, among Black people, settled, right? Like, I mean, it seems —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

— settled, like, because it’s so baked into Black culture that it’s not going anywhere. When I lived in San Francisco, when I was 23 and 24 and 25 years old, I get on Muni, and you know, there’d be some Filipino kids or some Chicano kids just hanging out on the subway n-wording each other.

jenna wortham

Mhm.

wesley morris

And I’m like — I would go up to them as a recent college graduate and be like, yo —

jenna wortham

Oh my god.

wesley morris

— y’all need to stop. This is not your word. You can’t say that.

jenna wortham

Professor Morris —

wesley morris

I mean —

jenna wortham

— reporting for duty. I love it so much.

wesley morris

Yeah. But I will report back to you that it didn’t go anywhere.

jenna wortham

They were like, get out of my face.

wesley morris

Yeah. And I think part of what I was thinking, or what I was trying to do, was preserve it. If I could just get it out of Chicano usage, then I could sort of get Black people to stop using it, too. But it was a folly. Again, I was 23, and I realized it just wasn’t useful. Like, there’s no point in doing this. In terms of where it’s going in the culture and who is using it, it’s settled. It’s settled. And to the degree to which, like, I was trying to win something, I was going to lose. I was just going to lose. I just had to come up with my own relationship to that word.

jenna wortham

Yes. It almost sounds like you’re trying to contain something that is uncontainable. You’re trying to put this tool back in its box, right?

wesley morris

I was trying to put a lid on a boiling pot that had boiled all — been boiling over for centuries. Yes. Yes.

jenna wortham

Why did that feel important to you?

wesley morris

Wow, Jenna. Because it’s such an ugly word. It’s such a, like, horrible word to me, and I wasn’t — like, hearing it come out of mouths that weren’t even Black people, but they weren’t white people, either. And they weren’t using it maliciously, right? But it didn’t matter because to my ear, hearing it come out of any non-Black mouth, it upset me. It hurt me that they didn’t understand the degree to which that word is a toxic or radioactive element in any Black person’s social life. It was as common for them to call each other the n-word as it was for Black people to use it on each other.

jenna wortham

You know, when people are using that word in that really familial, familiar sense who are not Black, right, it’s of course the co-option of Black culture and the proximity to Blackness. You get so many points by inhabiting Blackness, but not actually being Black yourself, right? Just look at the entire Kardashian empire.

And I’m really thinking about this pink Uno deck that came out this summer from one of the Jenners. Like, Uno, why? Why? It makes me angry to think about it. Like, you know why, right? Because they wanted to name that they know about Black things, including Uno. Let it go, OK? There are hundreds of card games that you could have chosen, and you chose that one for a very particular reason.

As a related note, the artist Nina Chanel Abney put a a Uno deck — a very Black Uno deck — which is amazing. I bought 10 of them, just in defiance to the Jenner deck. But the point I’m trying to make is, the closer you can get to Blackness and Black people without actually being Black, it places you in this really interesting cultural hierarchy because people love that. They love it. They love to see Blackness on non-Black people. It feels really edgy. It feels really cool. It feels like you’re getting close to something without actually having to engage with the thing itself, also called anti-Blackness.

But so I think there’s that. I guess, you know, I’m always in awe of the n-word. And as much as I don’t want to hear it, when it is employed in this cultural sense — whether it’s used as a greeting, whether it’s used in a song, pretty much any time it’s not being used by a white person, right — I really have to take a step back and, like, admire the power and the energy that it took to transform that word into something that can be used in that way.

That word, which was erected to create a category of otherness, to create a category of non-humanness, to create a category of people who weren’t even seen as people, but to create us and then y’all. And we can do whatever we want to y’all because you’re not really people, you’re this other word. And to really, over time, that that word could mutate into this other usage, I mean, that is like — think about the power that that takes. Think about how much energy you have to invest. It took years of polishing that word, right, to get it to where it needed to be. To change it enough that it could be used in a way, in a multitude of ways, that are vastly different from the original creation of that word.

wesley morris

Yeah. Yeah, I think that a little bit of what I’m trying to get at about the Muni situation was I think, in some ways, the fight for what it took to get to the place where Black people could even use it and have it be loving and affectionate and normalized, but at the same time, you know —

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

— I grew up in a family that didn’t use it. And I think my grandmother, who was born in 1928, was one of those — we’re basically Yankees. Nobody goes any further south than Maryland on my mother’s side of the family. And —

jenna wortham

I love that.

wesley morris

— most of us are in Philadelphia. My family was really concerned with, as were many people in my grandmother’s generation, with being upstanding and good even if you were poor and had nothing — which we were, and had lots of nothing. But there was this dichotomy that springs up, which is the difference between a Negro and an n-word.

jenna wortham

Oh, lord. Yes, many conversations were had about that when I was a child.

wesley morris

You know, my grandmother had a whole speech about n-words versus Black people. So much of their self-worth was in being defined against the n-word, and a lifetime — a childhood, childhoods, of being called that word by white people. And I mean, I don’t know if you remember this, but Chris Rock has a very, very, very famous routine about this. In his classic “Bring the Pain” routine, that I VHSed, by the way — I used to watch that over and over and over and over — he starts and says, I love Black people, but I hate n-words.

archived recording (chris rock)

Now, we’ve got a lot of things, a lot of racism going on in the world right now. Who is more racist, Black people or white people? Black people. You know why? Because we hate Black people, too. Everything white people don’t like about Black people, Black people really don’t like about Black people.

wesley morris

And the audience goes crazy because they know that he’s about to go there.

archived recording (chris rock)

There’s like a civil war going on with Black people. And there’s two sides. There’s Black people and there’s [n-words]. And [n-words] have got to go. Every time Black people want to have a good time, ignorant-ass [n-words] [EXPLCIT] it up.

jenna wortham

He’s using the word, and he is letting it sit in his mouth like a really delicious sip of red wine that is still oxidizing. Like, he’s holding it in his mouth, just getting all the flavor out of it. Like, he’s chewing it like a piece of meat.

wesley morris

I mean, he’s also making it sound like the word that it is, right? He’s making it sound like it is a vile, ugly, disgusting word. The disgust with which he says that word, every time he says it, it is palpable, and it is vicious and vivid.

archived recording (chris rock)

Can’t go to a movie the first week it come out. Why? Because [n-words] are shooting at the screen. Hey, I love Black people, but I hate [n-words].

jenna wortham

Yeah, that bit is really working on so many levels. And there’s of course just like the entry level, right, which is it’s been a lecture that’s been passed down to you from your parents, your grandparents.

But it’s also acknowledging the vestigial hatred and trauma that comes with the need — I’m using air quotes — to make that distinction, right? And this kind of historical, repetitive task that Black people find themselves engaged in — that I still find myself engaged in — when you start doing kind of these mental gymnastics to physically, emotionally, psychically assert that you’re not a bad Black person. You’re not one of them, right? And it’s something that comes up for me when I go into like a high-end store. I try to look like I have money. You know, it’s something that comes up for me when I’m — I’ve actually stopped doing this, to be honest with you, but like making sure my hands are out of my pockets or making sure that my purse isn’t open. I mean, I don’t carry purses —

wesley morris

Oh, I still — involuntary things I do when I go into public space so that nobody gets the wrong idea about me, same thing.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

There’s a degree to which being Black is a lot about optics, and a lot about having white people, having white society — the American caste system, basically — take you seriously to seem or look or sound worthy of being in that upper tier of the caste system, right? Part of my visceral reaction as being a 23-year-old who had finally felt like he had made it in San Francisco was the hope and prayer that I wouldn’t have to deal with that word.

And the idea that I’m just on a subway on the West Coast — a place I had never been before but had these utopian feelings about — and here I am on the subway, as though I had never even left Philadelphia, having to contend with this word being used by not even Black people or white people? It just was too much for me. And I think that, to the degree to which my personality has been formed without even realizing it, Jenna, in opposition to being an n-word.

jenna wortham

And it’s tied to that bit because it comes from a place of having to fight for your worthiness, and it also comes from a direct historical experience of people who were called that word and their life hung in the balance, right? Like, someone is saying that word to you, you know that they’re also willing to probably kill you, right? And so that’s something your grandmother’s tapping into, that’s something my father is tapping into when they’re telling us don’t be an n-word. And it’s really scary and it’s really sad. And I think, you know, you and I are both reading the same book right now, which is by Randall Kennedy. It’s called — the first word —

wesley morris

The actual word.

jenna wortham

— it’s called the actual word, colon, “The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” And career is so interesting as a term because it is doing work. It is performing labor. And that labor is divisive. The labor is, as long as there’s someone below me, I’m OK. And again, that’s like a very insidious example of, like, white supremacist thinking that continues to need a lowest common denominator to rise above.

And so for me, that’s the most interesting case to retire the word, even among Black people, because it does work. Like, it does a type of work that even when we can’t directly see it sweating, it is working, honey. Like, it is working in the same way that it worked since it came into existence.

wesley morris

It’s also much different to say it than it is to write it, I have to say. To put it in a set of quotation marks in a piece that you are writing no matter who you are is just different to me than saying it out loud. I have to make a reservation with my soul a week in advance before I say the word. It’s like, Wesley, don’t forget, on March 15, 2021, you are going to say the whole word. This is the gymnastics that I put myself through, where like even the idea of saying it just results in me, like, almost having a stroke. You know, I’ve been on this journey with this word, just really thinking about it in ways that I had never really seriously thought about it before, because I was so busy reacting against it.

But I actually think that there is something — for as ugly as it is, I also think there’s something so beautiful about it. And I think that, when you feel its power and you feel — when you see a Black person wield it, there’s also just nothing, nothing like that. So let’s just take a break. And when we come back, we’re just going to talk about the beauty of the word. The impossible beauty of that word.

[music]
jenna wortham

I have to admit that I always feel a little silly saying, like, the n-word, as though that doesn’t mean something else.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

The n-word, you know? Like, what does that even mean, you know?

wesley morris

Jenna, you’re reading my mind. Yeah.

jenna wortham

It’s so like, OK, we’re children. But listen, I grew up in a household where that word was not permitted to be used in any capacity. It was pretty well-ingrained in me, that’s not a word we use. And because I’m me, and pretty much everything someone tells me I can’t do, I find a way to do —

wesley morris

Oh my god, this is where we’re the opposite.

jenna wortham

I’m a boundary pusher. I love finding the limits of something and then trying to get past that. So when I got to college, I went to U.V.A., as you know, which is a predominantly white school, but jokingly inside we called it a knockoff H.B.C.U. because there were just so many Black people there.

And I met this crew of girls. We became super tight. We’re still close. And we loved to call each other the n-word. It felt really good to live in this space. It felt really good to be defiant. It felt really good to feel out something, at least for me, that had been taboo, and to play around with it and just employ it very liberally. And it felt like ours. It felt like something that belonged to us and only we could use, and we really leaned into it. And I felt really free. You know? It felt really fun. And it also felt like kinship. You know?

It felt really special to have this term of endearment that always cracked us up. And I feel like we played around a lot with figuring out how to say it, because that one word with the A-A-H at the end of it has eons of inflections to it. It just contains entire galaxies of humor if you say it at the right time, in the right tone of voice, cutting it off at the exact right minute. I mean, in itself is such a tool of comedy. And it was fun to figure out how to perfect and play around with it.

wesley morris

Mhm.

jenna wortham

But I’ve gone through over the last couple of years and really worked through really working on removing gender-specific references, gendered pronouns, skimming my vocabulary and my assumptions about ableism. You know, making space for different experiences and really trying to be mindful. So I’ve just arrived in a place, where I’m at today, it just doesn’t feel as good.

And I think I’m just really tuning in to a sensitivity and a frequency of, you know, we’re tired. And a lot of us — and I’m speaking right now about Black people — a lot of us are just really fragile.

At some point in the last nine years, after Trayvon Martin, I mean, I was experiencing this myself, but I just became really attuned to a fragility among some Black people. And understanding how the word, even when used by Black people in — I’ll just say a safe space, in community spaces — that it still dredged up that historical trauma, and that it still had this impact really shaped me. And it just naturally faded away. Like, it faded from my popular use. And it felt right. You know? That felt right. I don’t want to — I don’t know, I don’t want to hurt anybody. I don’t want to inflict more harm upon a Black person if I can help it.

wesley morris

Well, I mean, you know, this is a word that has been — any living Black person, it’s been in your life probably the entire time you’ve been living.

jenna wortham

It’s probably been in your life even before you knew what the word meant.

wesley morris

Oh, yeah.

jenna wortham

Like, I remember my niece coming home from school and being like, what’s jigger? Like, in preschool. It starts even before you have a sense of yourself as a racialized being. The world racializes you first. This is why we get so worked up about it, because it is just so much bigger than one instance, one mistake, one rap lyric. You know? It really enters your life even before you get a chance to figure out how you want to live your life.

But the point I’m trying to make is, when I was younger, I felt like that word was the only thing that, without a doubt, belonged to me as a Black person that did not belong to a white person. And if you really think about it, that’s sad. But that’s not my inheritance. That’s not the thing that goes into the dowry, right? That’s not in my trunk of keepsakes that I’ll take with me when I move into my married house like in the old days. You know? It’s just not an antique for me. You know? It wasn’t mine to begin with. I’m in awe of it, but it’s not in my shoebox.

wesley morris

Mm. You know, I was thinking about how aware of it I was as a kid. You know, my dad was a big comedy records person. He listened to all his favorite comedians. And one of his favorite people to listen to, Richard Pryor.

jenna wortham

Hm. Mhm.

wesley morris

And Richard Pryor is the greatest practitioner of the n-word in the history of its usage.

jenna wortham

Hm.

wesley morris

Nobody has done more to simultaneously problematize that word, but also to normalize it as a way of being in the world.

jenna wortham

You know, it’s so funny because you sent me the album, and I didn’t listen to it.

wesley morris

I sent you a copy of “That N-word Is Crazy.”

jenna wortham

Mhm. So when I think of Richard Pryor, I think about my dad. I think about Joe Wortham because he loved that type of comedy. Even though we were not allowed to use the n-word, even though we were not — oh my god, we had so many rules, and I think this is very much from my dad’s trauma of growing up in the South, and then even being in Philadelphia, you know, I think he had a lot of trauma around us getting fingered as n-words with the hard ”-er.”

So there were a lot of rules about what we could and couldn’t say, how we were supposed to speak, how we were supposed to wear our hair. When I was younger, it felt so controlling and restrictive — and it was.

And I also, now that I’ve aged, I understand that he was trying to protect us from something that he had not been able to protect himself from. And he wasn’t able to protect us from it, either, to be honest, but that really weighs on my mind. So it was this confusing thing for me. So I would be a little kid. You know, picture me eight, nine, 10 years old on my belly, coloring in a book. And Richard Pryor is on the TV, you know, saying this word. And I’m just like (GASPING) in that little kid way, where you’re like, that’s a bad word.

So for me, Richard Pryor just always had this association of taboo. And even as an adult, I still haven’t fully listened to that record. And you sent it to me. You sent me a copy, and I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it. I felt scared to open that chest.

wesley morris

Mhm. That’s fascinating. Yeah, I mean, he is doing the work of reclaiming the word, in a way. I mean, you know, at that point, it is long part of African-American vernacular, but there’s something about the way that he’s doing it where, like, none of the other Black comedians were using that word. Dick Gregory didn’t use it. Moms Mabley didn’t use it. Flip Wilson didn’t use it. Bill Cosby didn’t use it. It was Richard Pryor.

archived recording (richard pryor)

White folks do things a lot different than [n-words] do. They eat quiet and shit you build out of it.

archived recording 1

Pass the potatoes. [LAUGHTER]

archived recording 2

Thank you, darling. Could I have a bit of that sauce?

wesley morris

And the thing that really moved me was the way that it just wants that word to be another word for person — for Black person — and to unload it of all its negative connotations. It’s so far away from Chris Rock’s usage. There aren’t Black people and n-words. There are just n-words. Every Black person is an n-word.

archived recording (richard pryor)

A lot of [n-words] ain’t scared, you know what I mean? Like when the Martians landed and shit, white folks got scared. Oh, my. Golly! I’ll tell ya! Just a big ol’ helicopter thing came down and landed. People got on [INAUDIBLE] all over their body! Big ol’ claw hands and shit! Jesus Christ! Nothing can scare a [n-word] after 400 years of this shit.

wesley morris

It’s still the most shocking word in the English language. It now just exists in two polar states. On the one hand, with Richard Pryor, there are white people. And on the other hand, there are n-words.

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] Well, there are polls, and then there are hand grenades, like the one Rihanna threw on February 1 in response to a tweet hosted by Daniel Cameron.

wesley morris

Daniel Cameron, of course, being the attorney general of Kentucky, the man who presented the case to the grand jury as to whether or not to indict the police officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death.

jenna wortham

And in case you didn’t feel the giant wave of grief and sadness in September that rocked many people’s worlds, none of them were indicted for her death. That decision unleashed such a wave of depression and disgust and anger and angst that, once again, another unarmed Black person dies at the hand of the police and no one is willing to do anything. So there’s just a lot around this man who was Black.

So five months later, this man dust off his microphone and tweets, “Today marks the first day of #BlackHistoryMonth.” And then Twitter auto-populates with the little trifecta of the three Black raised fist. Then it continues. “This month, let’s take time to remember and celebrate the contributions Black men and women have made to our Commonwealth and our nation.” So he tweets that. And here comes Rihanna. She retreats him and adds the line, “Sup, n-word. #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor.” Microphone drop.

wesley morris

Yeah, well, we should talk about what she’s making that word do.

jenna wortham

Well, it’s very interesting to notice that she employed the heated spayd games version with the “a” and not the historic plantation version with the “er.” That’s the first thing to notice.

wesley morris

The other thing is that — this is a Black on Black operation here. It’s happening on Twitter in a very public place. But it also is like an interesting call in, because it’s simultaneously about this Black person not doing right by Black people — according to, in this instance, Rihanna and the many people who agree with her that justice was not served for Breonna Taylor. But it also — she’s using the word in the ugliest possible way that you can use it on a Black person, which is to say that you are an instrument of white power.

jenna wortham

Yeah, yeah.

wesley morris

You’re perpetuating harm against Black people. And you aren’t doing all that you can to live up to the best of what Black History Month purports to be about. And she is saying that whatever you just tweeted is hypocrisy. And all of those things are there in that one word.

jenna wortham

And she’s also letting him know, like — I mean, this is the part that’s hard to really grapple with, but he can always just be an n-word.

wesley morris

That’s the other usage, right? That’s the other thing that this tweet is connected to for me. And so you have these two contexts for this word converging in these two words. And it’s just — I hope nobody ever sends me a tweet like that.

jenna wortham

I was just thinking that. But I also think that her ability to use it — it is such a linguistic power move. Especially an artist, right? Someone who’s thinking with so much deliberation about lyrics and words and presentation. Like, of course Rihanna understands, with just so much clarity and awareness, the chimeric quality of language and especially that word.

wesley morris

Well, I mean, you saying that makes me want to ask you if we can go back to Adrian Williams for a second.

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] OK.

wesley morris

Why is what she did to Daniel Cameron OK to my visceral self? And I have a real problem being in that space with Adrian Williams and these white people that I can’t see with the J. Cole song. And the place that it takes me is this song by Solange, and I know very well, called “FUBU.” Writ large, the song is basically about Black culture belonging to Black people. And the opening lyrics of the song are all my n-words in the whole wide world.

[music – solange, “fubu”]
archived recording (solange)

(SINGING) All my [n-words] in the whole wide world.

wesley morris

And it’s just so clear that she’s drawing a line around a kind of space, around a kind of cultural space.

archived recording (solange)

(SINGING) Make this song to make it all y’all’s turn for us. This shit is for us.

jenna wortham

Well, as improbable as it sounds, I’m not sure that the deployment is all that different between Adrian and Solange, truth be told. You know, Solange makes this album in 2017. And the name of the album is “A Seat at the Table.” And she does an interview and she’s describing her word choice in that song. And she acknowledges, I don’t normally use the n-word in my songs. But at the time, I was on a road trip through Marfa, of all places. Marfa, Texas — really gorgeous artsy town in West Texas. Sky for days. A lot of creatives go there to make work. A lot of Black artists go there to make work. Solange is like, we’re visiting friends. We’ve been here a million times. And we have this really scary encounter with the police, right? They get hassled. And she’s also reading “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine who’s a poet and devotes an entire text to her relationship to racism and racial aggressions and microaggressions and the depressed state it leaves her in.

And Solange is just like, you know what? I’m not going to tiptoe around it. I’m going to say what I want. I’m going to lean into my artistic intuition, which is telling me to make a song, and to make this song. And there are just some things that are for us. And you know, in that song, she’s not just talking about the n-word. She’s talking about cornrows, she’s talking about affectations of speech. She’s just talking about so many things. You can put these things on all you want. You can layer on all these accouterments of blackness. But you will never be Black. Some things are for us.

archived recording (solange)

(SINGING) All my [n-words] in the whole wide world.

jenna wortham

Hearing her do that song live really does something in the body. It does something to you. It does create a space. And even if you’re in mixed company, even if there are non-Black people there, it still gives you that endorphin high that you always get in a musical setting when you’re in a live music setting. But you really feel loved and cared for and a sense of ownership.

And it’s also like a caution, it’s like a yellow yield sign too where she’s also saying, back up, because if you are a white person in that space, and you’re watching people really just have a full body transformative experience, I think you understand something too, right? And it became this anthem of pride and ownership. And then when her next album comes out, “When I Get Home,” she releases a song called “Almeda” which has the same message, the same energy, and does not use the n-word.

[music – solange, “almeda”]
archived recording (solange)

(SINGING) We just sittin’ here fooling around. We just sittin’ here coolin’ around. We just sittin’ here high, comin’ down.

jenna wortham

And she’s just going through all these things she loves about being Black. And it has the exact same effect in some ways. It’s just a different approach into it. I mean, just like, what kind of white person is going to sing along to all the n-words in “FUBU“? I mean, it’s also really hard, I think, to be a white person or a non-Black person and sing along to the lyrics in “Almeda” which — brown skin, brown face, brown leather, brown sugar, brown — I mean, you know — black waves, black days, black baes, black things.

archived recording (solange)

(SINGING) — brown zippers, brown face, black skin, black braids, black waves, black days, black baes, black days.

jenna wortham

These are Black-owned things. That’s also precious. And that’s also something that is creating this protective sphere around everyone that’s listening to it and singing along to it. You know, I think it was really important for her as an artist to say, I’m fed up. And this is what that looks like. And then to kind of keep that thread going and do it in a totally different way because — I don’t know. It’s like, I think, Adrian, his own way — he was fed up. And he was tired of feeling like he had to tiptoe around something.

wesley morris

Yeah, yeah. I mean he — it’s interesting though, because it’s so subtle, right? You know, that reclamation of space, because it doesn’t make it any easier to hear that word in that space, because I guess I don’t know who I’m sharing that space with. And I think that does matter still to me. And he and I might even disagree about whether it’s even worth playing that song. But I definitely respect his right to do it.

I feel like that for me is a journey that I’ve been on since I’ve been talking to you. [LAUGHTER]

jenna wortham

We’re definitely on it together. We’re on it together.

wesley morris

There’s a story that you and I have with this word. And the reason — I want to tell you something about how it made me feel when you used it on me.

jenna wortham

Are you really going to talk about that?

wesley morris

I do. I want to talk about it. Jenna, come on.

jenna wortham

All right, fine.

wesley morris

Come with me on this. Do you remember how you used it on me?

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] Yes, because it was purely without thinking. We were working together. You had done something ridiculous. And it just slipped. I was like, listen, like what are — no, what are you doing? And you were like — your face dropped. And I immediately apologized. I was like, I’m so sorry. I realized we are different, of different ilks. I am so sorry. I did. I felt really bad. I still feel really bad.

wesley morris

I remember absorbing it.

jenna wortham

You did your Wesley thing when you’re uncomfortable, which is you just busted out into a very inexplicable long laugh that had no end for many seconds. You just kept laughing.

wesley morris

Well, for the next three or four days after that, I was like, Jenna called me the n-word. Jenna called me the n-word. But it made me feel loved, I have to say.

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] This is crazy! This is bananas.

wesley morris

— It’s really crazy. [LAUGHS] It’s true, though.

jenna wortham

This word is bananas.

wesley morris

The word is bananas. But I only received it as — I mean, I was shocked that you said it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I was like, I don’t know. When Black people, in the rare occasions when it happens to me, when a person feels like they can do it, [SIGHS] I do feel like it’s the Richard Pryor usage. It’s love. And I carry that around with me, too.

jenna wortham

But that’s — I am wondering why, that if you’ve experienced that were as a vector of love and affection, what stops you from using it in the same way?

wesley morris

[SIGHS]

[LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

There is that uncomfortable laughter again. I love it.

wesley morris

The truth, the honest to God truth — the first thing that comes to my mind as an answer is I’m just not that kind of Black person. I didn’t grow up using it. And I get a lot of pleasure from other people’s use of it so that I don’t have to use it. You know, I mean —

I mean, for me, it would require becoming a kind of different person in my imagining of what it would be like to use that word. I mean, maybe there’ll be some point at which I’m comfortable partaking in that. But I don’t feel I have that in me. Does that make sense?

jenna wortham

Definitely.

[theme music]
wesley morris

That’s our show. And the good news is that we’re sticking around for a whole season. So next week, we’ll be back and the week after that and the week after that. And we’re so excited to be doing that with you guys.

jenna wortham

Still Processing is produced at the New York Times by Hans Buetow and Elyssa Dudley.

wesley morris

Our editors are Sarah Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

jenna wortham

Marian Lozano mixes the show.

wesley morris

And special thanks to Lisa Tobin, Sydney Harper, Monica Drake, Nikita Stewart, Jazmine Hughes, Rogene Jacquette, Cliff Levy, Sam Dolnick and Dean Baquet.

jenna wortham

Our theme music is by Kindness. It is called “World Restart” from the album “Otherness.”

wesley morris

And you can find out more about everything we mentioned in the show, from Chris Rock to Uno, at nytimes.com/stillprocessing. And thank you for listening. We will be back next week.

jenna wortham

Yes.



Source link

Scroll up Drag View