On February 1, the first day of Black history Month was ushered in with a bit of local media brouhaha here in New York when Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie, hip-hop artist Kurtis Blow Walker, and other community leaders headed a press conference calling for a symbolic, non-binding resolution urging New Yorkers to stop using the "n" word. Though no one could possibly imagine this could be made into a real law (just for starters, the First Amendment implications would be huge) it did give people of all races ample food for thought.
Black spokesmen such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have spoken out for decades about racism in America. Bill Cosby has been very open about the willful rejection by many black youths of education as a way out of poverty and the peer pressure faced by those who study hard and are mocked by their peers for “acting white.”
The point we are at now in America, Jackson and Sharpton claim, is that most whites feel that racism is now a non-issue, while many blacks know it’s just been pushed under the “PC” surface. The frustrating thing about this underlying, even unconscious, racism is that it’s so insidious that white people don’t even realize they are still bigoted.
So if Black History month is to live up to its name, it seems logical to assume that the implications of the “n” word, its role in racism, and the black struggle for equal opportunity are vital issues to explore. Bringing this topic into the light of day has considerable merit to it, especially since young people who use the word as a term of affection seem unaware of the negative historical connotations. They didn’t live through the civil rights movement and may be unaware that some dedicated people, black and white, died for this noble cause.
They may have little clue as to the horrible and shameful history of discrimination, segregation, lynchings, redlining, and slavery that decimated the black family unit and perpetuated a tragic cycle of multi-generational poverty. The repercussions of this appalling American legacy are still being felt today.
Save for the equally-oppressed Native American, all Americans' roots lie elsewhere. Our ancestors fled oppression and lack of opportunity in the old country and braved the journey to the new land with its siren song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free.” The crucial difference between African Americans and other "immigrants" is that blacks were brought here against their will in the service of oppression rather than liberation. Conversely, the vast waves of European immigrants who began to arrive in earnest at the turn of the twentieth century personified the typical road to assimilation taken by those from other countries and cultures who come here.
My grandparents, for instance, came from Eastern Europe and settled, like so many others, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan early in the last century. My grandfather worked hard to support his wife and five children, but died at a very young age, leaving my non-English speaking grandmother to care for her American-born children in a cramped walk-up tenement.
In order to survive, my mother and her older brother had to complete their high school degrees at night so they could work during the day. My grandmother insisted that everyone finish high school, as she knew this was necessary in order to move ahead and succeed in America. Like many children of new immigrants, my mother, aunts, and uncles wasted no time in trying to escape the ghetto life they had been born into. As fully assimilated Americans, they wanted to move out of the old neighborhood at all costs.
My mother and her youngest sister were especially adamant about this. When they double dated, they didn’t want their dates to pick them up from home. They broke from their Orthodox Jewish religious traditions, spoke perfect English, and succeeded in fulfilling the American dream in earnest. Only one of my aunts — an Orthodox Jew — still lives in the old neighborhood (what my other aunt also refers to as the “schtetl”). Like some others of her generation, she chose to stay in a working class co-op development that had been designed by Jewish union leaders early in the century to provide the working and middle class with decent, affordable housing and an escape from the cramped tenements a block or two away. For decades — until a discrimination lawsuit changed all that — the massive high rise co-ops up and down Grand Street on the East Side were, indeed, virtual Jewish enclaves.
In this safe haven, American-born Orthodox Jews could escape the pressures of full assimilation and retain their essential “Jewishness” without shame or apology. As a result, it is quite easy to tell at first sight (and sound) that my aunt is Jewish. She talks and looks like a stereotypical Jew, though she worked for years in a mostly Chinese school district as a secretary and got along with everyone. But until recently, time really did stand still — at least culturally — on Grand Street.
When my mother and her siblings were growing up, successive waves of immigrants from all corners of the globe had also come to America for a better life. The newer arrivals were looked down on by those who had come before them as “greenhorns,” or country bumpkins — a source of derision and embarrassment to their more established brethren. The Irish were among the first wave in, followed by Italians and Jews. Later came Puerto Ricans, and later still came Hispanics from other parts of the globe.
German Jews in particular had assimilated and thrived personally and professionally in their homeland, but were forced to flee when the Nazis refused to recognize them as Germans first and Jews second. But when they arrived here, they wasted no time in assimilating, and looked down their noses at the throngs of eastern European Jews who came after them. They wanted nothing to do with these "greenhorns" who represented all the stereotypes they — and their new fellow Americans — abhorred.
The same can be seen in some Hispanic neighborhoods today. American-born Puerto Ricans may look askance at new arrivals from the Dominican republic who “bring down the neighborhood” — refusing to learn English and clinging to their old culture.
But the history of African Americans in this country is a very different one. Unlike some other ethnic groups who band together and start new businesses here by pooling resources and setting up new arrivals with funding and support, African Americans have little in the way of this kind of community unity. Despite their incredible cultural contributions to our country, even at the height of the Harlem Renaissance they still faced discrimination and segregation. The cycle of crime, poverty, lack of education and accessibility to resources is still a huge problem, despite a sizeable and thriving black middle class.
It is this successful middle class that represents the loudest voices in this clarion call for an end to the “n” word, which is still embraced by many black youths. It serves as a source of shame for those who have worked so hard to gain a foothold in the larger society by education and hard work.
It could certainly be argued that bringing this hot topic to the forefront can only be a good thing. The recent brouhaha over Michael Richards’ disastrous stand-up routine where he used the “n” word to retaliate against hecklers demonstrates how it is still acceptable for a black person to use this word but not a white person.
Though there are many who abhor the use of the word by any race at any time, the use of the “n” word as a form of affection is rampant among today's black youth as well as entertainment figures. By openly challenging this, it is possible that a form of positive “social engineering” can be put into play, similar to the anti-smoking campaign.
By refusing to run cigarette commercials, asking for ID from young smokers, running scary anti-smoking ads, raising taxes on cigarettes, and banning smoking in most public spaces, many smokers have quit and doubtless many young kids who would have once thought it “cool” to smoke now realize that it is not. As a result, even the most rampant partier who spends each weekend high on X at a local rave may eschew cigarettes. It’s too expensive, there’s no buzz to speak of, and it’s bad for your health. What’s the point? Though most teens are still too young to wrap their minds around their own mortality, for many, smoking is still an outdated relic, no longer useful in order to be “cool” with peers.
By the same token, by rendering the use of the “n” word politically incorrect, many impressionable youth may start to think twice before bandying this word around quite as freely as before. Now that the problem has been put out in the open and addressed, some young people will no doubt take heed, learn more about the horrible legacy of this slur, and realize that it is not only a source of shame to their elders but also one reason why many black youths still haplessly play into the self-destructive role of the unassimilated “greenhorn” within the great American melting pot.
But still and all, is there any merit to using the “n” word amongst one’s peers, or in the privacy of one’s own home? In a word, I say yes. As a Jew, I would be livid if someone addressed me as a “dirty kike.” Yet among my friends, Jewish or no, I might privately label an unscrupulous landlord, real estate agent, mortgage broker, or lawyer with this epithet.
Of course greed and avarice are universal traits, but when a fellow Jew lives up to all the horrible stereotypes we have struggled so long to rise above, it makes me feel that these bad apples give my people a bad name. Jewish humor has a rich tradition based in large part on the tragedies of persecution throughout the centuries. Much of this humor is self-deprecating, and stems from the struggle of the perpetual outsider attempting to come to terms with an often hostile gentile world.
So when I talk in private to my non-Jewish friends and one of them tells me of a Jewish businessman who took advantage of them, I have no qualms about referring to him as a “dirty kike.” When my disabled friend was recently led on a wild goose chase by a Jappy Westchester real estate broker motivated only by greed and gaining “points” for showing as many apartments as possible — no matter how unsuitable — after reeling folks in with an alleged "teaser" ad, I made no bones about privately referring to her as a “Jew bitch.” As a matter of fact, just yesterday, I fired the Jewish attorney who was supposed to handle the contract and closing on my new co-op after this shameless shmuck proved himself to be a lazy, lying, self-important, condescending sack of shit. And of course, “kikes,” at least to my mind, can come in all colors of the rainbow — it’s the stereotype of the cheap, greedy, unscrupulous shyster of any race or creed that’s in play here.
I often joke with my non-Jewish friends about the culture shock of living with a non-Jew. I praise my boyfriend’s uber-Goyishness, and the fact that he can repair things and is not afraid to get his hands dirty, while I, the coddled Jewish princess, must hire movers, get my air conditioning professionally installed and my walls painted by experts rather than friends. (The old joke applies well here. Question: what do Jewish wives make for dinner? Answer: reservations.)
Meanwhile, my boyfriend has worked on oil slicks in the wilds of Louisiana, lived in New York City shelters when his luck ran out, gone to Mexico with his friend on a roll of dimes and a raised thumb at 16, moved to New York City in the crime-filled ‘70s and lived in areas I would never have ventured into if you paid me, done back-breaking day labor, worked as a garbage man, a janitor, a cook, an art supply salesman, a messenger, a house painter, and so on.
Since his parents could not afford to send him to college, and having grown up on Air Force bases since his dad was a career Air Force man, he volunteered for the army at 17 rather than wait to be drafted. His MO was medic, for he wanted to help people rather than kill them. Fortunately, he got a “million dollar wound” in AIT — he rebroke an arm that was already damaged badly enough that he should never have been allowed in in the first place.
My goyishe boyfriend’s adventures are something I can only admire. As a New York female Jewish baby-boomer, I was expected to go to college, never had a job that got my hands dirty, would never join the military or do day labor, and can hardly figure out how to turn on the TV without help. In a word, we complement each other beautifully. Although he is highly intelligent and largely self taught — he knows more about American history, for example, than I will ever hope to know, thanks to reading on his own — and a talented portrait artist, I am still the Jewish “brains” and he the goyish “brawn” in the relationship.
We have arrived in the 21st century with much of our old prejudices behind us. We now have a female Speaker of the House, a black female secretary of state, a conservative black supreme court justice, and a wildly popular black presidential candidate who just might win. What all these incredible people have in common is that they, like women and other erstwhile persecuted groups, had to work doubly hard to prove themselves, and be both extremely qualified and beyond reproach in order to gain entry into what was formerly the sole purview of white Christian males.
I believe that on the whole, white Americans are immensely gratified when they see a black professional who is virtually “whiter” than they are. It alleviates guilt, confirms that the American dream is truly open to all, and reinforces the beauty of our assimilated, yet multicultural society. What is still left to be done is to convince disenchanted black youth that rather than embrace their “blackness” to the detriment of themselves and their community, it would be far more productive to work within the system, educate themselves, struggle and work hard, and prosper as full fledged Americans. Those who drop out of school; dress, act, and talk “ghetto;” use the “n” word publicly and continually; and eschew the rewards of embracing the “white” culture do themselves a grave disservice and exacerbate what is still a grave national problem.
African Americans, I maintain, are the non-immigrant “immigrants” who are still struggling with assimilation and self-loathing generations after they were brought here against their will. Our greatest challenge lies in convincing them that it is in their best interests to leave the “n” word out of public discourse, and limit it mostly to private usage. They can still “own” the slur, but the time has come to stop embracing it publicly as some sort of self-destructive, self-hating badge of honor. Perhaps this call to ban the “n” word, though of course nearly impossible to enforce, is the best message we could possibly convey to our still-largely "unassimilated" black youth.