I remember being shocked, when, as a 10-year-old, I heard one of my father's friends casually use the "N-word." My parents had instructed my siblings and me from an early age that that word was wrong and not to be used, ever. "Some people say it," my dad explained later, "but that doesn't make it right."
To this day, I've never used the N-word as an epithet. But if you asked me under oath whether the word has ever crossed my lips, I'd have to say yes, as it did last week, when I was discussing the Paula Deen situation with friends. It is, after all, difficult to have an adult discussion about the N-word without saying the N-word. And I would venture to say there are very few people reading this column who've never uttered it for one reason or another.
In his memoir, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes wrote: "The word ... sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." The word remains toxic, so weighted with ugly history that I don't feel comfortable putting it in this column, even though I'm just discussing it, not using it as a pejorative. So I dutifully type "N-word," which, like "F-bomb," is code for that which cannot be said or written in polite company.
Unless it can.
Most of us read the word in high school, when we studied Huckleberry Finn. Leonardo DiCaprio said it countless times in Django Unchained, to cite just one recent film example. And we've all seen Richard Pryor and Chris Rock comedy routines and heard the word booming from a nearby car stereo. My friend, Lee, who was black the last time I looked, is fond of saying, "Negro, please," in an ironic fashion. The N-word is everywhere.
So it's obviously not so much the actual word that is the problem, but who is saying it and why. Samuel Clemens used it in its historic context. Director Quentin Tarantino used it to make DiCaprio's character seem evil. Comedians use it for shock value and humor. Rappers use it to sound bad-ass. You might — or might not — approve of the word's use in any or all of these instances.
But what about Paula Deen? She testified under oath that she'd used the N-word earlier in her life, possibly when describing "a conversation between blacks." She added that "that's just not a word we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the 1960s in the South."
Fair enough, really. Not a fireable offense, in my mind, anyway. But, unfortunately, Deen went on to admit in her deposition that she once expressed the desire to have an Old South-themed wedding with black men dressed as house slaves.
And to that, what could the Food Network execs say but, "Paula, please."
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...