Of N-Words and Race Men
Washington, D.C., is such a racial hotbed that when a White man uses the word “niggardly” — Teutonically speaking, of course — the Black man whose ears were boxed by the arcane reference becomes the bad guy. The nation’s capital is such a tinderbox that the niggling (which also means “petty, trivial, or picayune”) use of niggardly has been blown into a referendum on whether a bow-tied wearing brother is “Black enough” for D.C. When folks ask me to measure Blackness, I skip past the golf and bow ties, past the dashikis and red lights (remember that song “Be Real Black For Me”?), to the 1920s’ definition of “race men,” whose goal and role in life were the preservation and protection of Black folks. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams may be real Black for me, but he is no race man.His choices for the first round of cabinet appointments were not only mostly White, but mostly male and gay. His second round hardly raised (or lowered) the bar. And in the midst of this, he came out sounding like massa’, saying he cared less about race and ethnicity than about competence. I’ve heard too many White folks tell me that they could not find qualified Black folks to interpret Williams benignly. This is a case where imagery isn’t everything, it’s the only thing — especially when the mayor’s office has been transformed from mostly Black to mostly White and the mayor’s aides are tossing around words like “niggardly.”Imagery is everything. Williams introduced his coterie of White folks and expected that Black folks wouldn’t have anything to say. Then he introduced another set of them, and appeared wounded when the folks asked if he was “Black enough.” I don’t like those conversations that wonder whether melanin trumps, but I do hark back to the question about whether folks are “race men and women,” those who took it upon themselves to protect and promote African Americans.This is the crux of the Williams story: Do you believe Black folks need to be protected and promoted? Or do you think the playing field is so level that you, a Black man, can talk about “competence” with the same insensitivity that so many White men do? And can you really, as someone who can be even slightly perceived to be sensitive, suggest that Black folks need more dictionaries instead of suggesting that White folks need more sense?I have a bunch of dictionaries in my house. I got one nearly three decades ago, when I graduated from high school. I got another when I wrote a piece and a reader thought I needed a big old two-volume dictionary. There’s a funky little paperback here, something I bought at Kinko’s two decades ago rather than be “uncovered” in debate. I have a bunch of dictionaries, and I understand that “niggardly” and “niggling” are not the same as the n-word.But I am still annoyed, amazed, outdone that a White, male, restaurateur-turned-constituent-services-director, would be so empowered to be offensive that the nation’s White press would build firewalls around him and offer Black folks dictionaries like some folks offer candy. David Howard has turned into a poster child for reverse discrimination and I don’t like it. He is affable, assuasive, mellow, and malleable. He supports Mayor Williams and he understands that perhaps there are other ways to indicate a tightness in a budget — that one might say “parsimonious,” “frugal,” or “miserly.” What was he thinking when he said that “tight” and “niggardly” were the same thing?Apparently, David Howard was thinking that he lived in a color-blind society. He was thinking that he could dip into an arcane bag of tricks and come up with words as close to an insult as ever existed. He was thinking, perhaps, that White folks, the folks who run the media, would have his back and offer all Black people dictionaries as a way out of this imbroglio. And he was demonstrating exactly why he, a former restaurant manager, is unqualified to run a constituent services office. I’ve been chafing at this dictionary thing, chafing at the notion that African American people can solve all our nation’s racial problems by buying us — ebonically speaking — some Webster’s. No matter how many times Teutonics attempts to trump ebonics, the fact is that the n-words — be it the n-word or niggardly — rankle. And the unabashed right or privilege to use these words goes down the wrong way, as well.Why would not a manager or leader have a bunch of parsimonious words at his vocabulary? Was there a hidden meaning to his use of a word that sounded too much like the n-word? And are these White anchors and analysts getting some kind of satisfaction, finally, by smugly noting that “niggardly” means stingy and nothing ethnic?I was such a brat at 10 years old that I was sent to Los Angeles to be cared for by a great-aunt. Amazingly, my sojourn into good behavior coincided with the 1965 L.A. uprisings. This matter has such an impact because I will never forget L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty talking about the “n-word-o” which is exactly how he pronounced “Negro” on television. I remember watching my uncle, who was 60 years old then, slam his ramrod straight back against the couch every time Yorty opened his mouth. His lips, chocolate and thin, would narrow and he would look at me and say, “He figured out how to call us a [n-word], and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.”David Howard benignly figured out the same thing, and D.C. Mayor Williams figured out how to affirm his stupidity — and make Black folks feel unqualified in the process. Those who did not understand the stiffening of their spine, the tightening of their craw, the quickening of their blood, were told to get a dictionary and get over a history of exclusion. Even the Mayor — a Black man, but no race man — embraces exclusion with every move he makes and every step he takes. Mayor Williams has been niggardly in his embrace of qualified Black professionals.This is the context through which the flawed use of the n-word should be viewed. That the majority press has made David Howard a victim, and that there are no published dissenting voices — except Courtland Milloy’s Washington Post masterpiece — speaks to the layers of lies, exclusion, and racial bias that shape our media and policy analysis. That this niggling incident — which pales in the face of layoffs that Williams has threatened for “ordinary” workers — should make international headlines speaks to the frailty of our nation’s race relations. Those who study race, journalism, public affairs, and policy have also been handed an exciting vehicle through which to study our nation’s race matters.
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