There are some people in Memphis who think John Branston and I are SOBs. And racists, too.
Last week in his City Beat column, John used the acronym "HNIC" in referring to the search for Memphis City Schools' next superintendent. Like "SOB," the initials HNIC contain a word that isn't spoken in polite company — a vile epithet that has become ubiquitously known as the "N-word."
John was referencing the movie Lean on Me, about a bat-wielding, African-American high school principal named Joe Clark. Clark, played by Morgan Freeman, famously called himself "the HNIC." Earlier in the week, Mayor Herenton had said we needed to hire a Joe Clark-type superintendent. School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. added that the next superintendent should be a "strong black man."
So John took it from there, assuming that people would get the cultural reference (which he explained in his column) and not see it as a slur. That night, WREG Channel 3 made John's column its "Big Story." Using a single complainant, a Memphis bail bondsman who found John's column objectionable, WREG led its newscast with the story, "Flyer Flap: Did a Memphis Flyer writer go too far?"
Whether John's use of the phrase was insensitive or just provocative literary license (or both) is certainly open to debate. As one of our readers said: "White people don't get to use the N-word under any circumstance." Even though John didn't actually use the N-word itself, she's probably right.
As editor of the Flyer, the buck stops with me. John wrote the column; I edited it and allowed the provocative sentence to remain. I humbly apologize to those who were offended. I assure you it was not intended as a racial slur or a putdown of candidates applying for the superintendent's job.
Lost in the controversy is the fact that in his column John asks some very pointed questions of potential superintendent candidates — questions we ought to be asking.
And I'm convinced that very few of those who called and left me angry voice-mails actually bothered to read John's column. Most callers mentioned hearing about it on television or talk-radio shows.
My favorite was a lady who screamed that she would "never buy the Flyer again."
The lady doth protest too much, methinks. — William Shakespeare
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In the 14 years I've been the Flyer editor, I've gotten lots of hate mail. It mostly used to come in envelopes filled with pages of scrawled handwriting. I read them and put them in the wastebasket, chalking it up as a natural by-product of writing for a liberal paper in the conservative South. Lately, the angry folks have switched to email, and it comes in waves ...