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N-to the fray: Maya Angelou, Dave Chappelle and the case for killing the n-word
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N-to the fray: Maya Angelou, Dave Chappelle and the case for killing the n-word

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They say opposites attract. So maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising that comedian Dave Chappelle and poet Maya Angelou sat down together recently in Angelou’s Winston-Salem home to express their mutual admiration.

Chappelle, who walked away from a highly successful Comedy Central series — and a paycheck so fat it wasn’t funny — chose Angelou as the person he’d most like to break bread with in an installment of a clever cable TV show that pairs odd couples.

Chappelle could headline a miniseries all by himself. A tortured talent, he bailed out at the height of his popularity because he feared people were laughing at his jokes about race but not getting the point.

“I was doing sketches that were funny but socially irresponsible,” he said.

As for Angelou, she’s as deft with the spoken word as in writing. Her deep, soothing voice oozes so much charisma she could touch my heart while ordering takeout.

What a pair. Over a home-cooked meal of biscuits, fried chicken and fried apples, they spoke like old friends as the cameras rolled for the Sundance Channel series, “Iconoclasts.”

The coupling couldn’t have been any more perfect: Soul mates and soul food. Then they broached the n-word.

Chappelle saw it as a matter of context and intent. It’s not the word itself, he said. It’s the intent. Angelou countered, politely, that the word is hurtful and demeaning. Period.

Dave had better listen to Maya on this one. Retire the word. Put it out of our misery. Banish it to a linguistic graveyard never to dig it up again. But it just won’t go away.

Apparently concerned that Michael Richards was still grabbing all the headlines, another has-been comic got N-to the act. Andy Dick (who actually may be a never-was) leapt onto the stage at a comedy club during somebody else’s routine last week and said the n-word. And of course, he, too, apologized, and now awaits the inevitable talk show gigs to follow.

Meanwhile, some black comics and black leaders are declaring war on the use of the word by anyone. What took them so long? Frankly, I have as much a problem with black people using the word as whites.

Some obviously disagree. And not just rappers and teenagers. I’ve had to ask black people old enough to be my daddy not to say that word around me.

Other folks argue that one way to strip the word of its negative connotations is to demystify it by embracing it. Linguists cite the power of “inversion” — or turning a word intended as hurtful into a badge of pride, so that, suddenly, it loses its sting. For instance, a number of gay people now refer to themselves as “queer.”

So maybe I should tack a Confederate license tag onto my car to defuse its hateful message?

Screenwriter John Ridley, who is African American, has taken another direction entirely. In an essay for Esquire magazine, Ridley ascribed the n-word to a particular class of black people, “always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can’t catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves.”

While I fully agree with Ridley’s concern about personal responsibility, I don’t see that as an excuse to call other African Americans “niggers” in a national publication.

As for Dave Chappelle and his Lunch with Maya, he of all people should recognize the danger of the mixed signals black folks’ use of the word sends to everyone. After all, Chappelle says, he walked away from a $50 million contract because he worried about misinterpretations of his message.

What kind of misinterpretation does crass, gratuitous use of the n-word create?

As rap music grows in appeal across the world, inevitably other races and cultures are hearing the word and feeling inspired to use it. It won’t be long before Iraqis, Europeans and, yes, Africans, will be feeling moved to call black people by that name, in every accent and in every time zone on the planet.

Kill the word. Now. This is one universal language none of us needs to speak.

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