Language and Art: The latest ‘No-No’

The ‘N’ Word Buzz and Black History Month

By Eric K. Williams

Comrie and company at City Hall News Conference

New York — The jury is out over whether a symbolic ban on the ‘N’ word will have a long lasting impact on New York’s youth. The jury is also out on just how committed those who appeared at a City Hall news conference are in supporting the call. Yet, one elected official is dead serious about stemming the long-term use of the word in popular culture, to a generation largely removed from the Civil Rights era.

More than a dozen civic leaders, elected officials and those in the entertainment industry joined Leroy Comrie, a New York City Councilman, on the first day of Black History month to press the point. It was an impressive list of public faces among those standing with Comrie at his City Hall news conference. That list included Dennis Walcott, Deputy Mayor;Manhattan and Queens Borough Presidents, Scott Stringer and Helen Marshall. At least ten City Council members stood with Comrie including David Weprin, Gale Brewer, Oliver Koppel and, Robert Jackson. One noted recording artist included Rap and Hip-Hop pioneer, Curtis “Blow” Walker. The symbolism of the announcement on the first day of Black History was not lost to those present.

Black History month, as it is commonly understood, is a period where the nation takes time out to learn of the contributions of one of America’s oldest ethnic groups. This “month of education,” Comrie argues, presents the perfect time for “re-education” about a word that is “horrible” whatever the intent may be.

Comrie (D-Queens,) a mild mannered man, was emotional in an interview on the subject hours before his council chamber presentation. He said he was aghast about the growing, and general use of the ‘N’ word in everyday public life and, also, in present day American society. His dramatic decision to introduce a symbolic city council resolution calling for a ban was one attempt, as he put it, “to re-take our children.” What was particularly perplexing to Comrie was the general acceptance and use of the word among the young. He took aim at those in the music and entertainment community that is, largely, dominated by Blacks. Comrie said that many of the city’s young, particularly Black and Latino youth, are confused about the word and, fail to understand that their self esteem is diminished whenever they use it. He said by going public with the ban he has hopes that the city’s youth would eventually “eliminate the word from their vocabulary.”

In recent months the move to participate in symbolic bans on the “N’ word have gathered steam in several sectors, including commentary on the topic in the popular press. The New York Daily News columnists, Errol Lewis and Stanley Crouch, respectively, had written numerous segments criticizing Hip-Hop lyrics for use of the word. Lewis, more recently, had supported the move for a symbolic ban among artists and policy makers in a late December 2006 commentary. In at least a dozen American cities, including those with smaller Black populations, symbolic bans against the ‘N’ word has taken root. Efforts in cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota and Portland,Oregon, led by Black elected officials first gained notice last Spring.

At Comrie’s news conference Jill Merritt and Kovon Flowers, founders of the Brooklyn-based “Abolish the ‘N’ Word Project,” spoke first. Merritt said that their fight “is not just a fight against a word but, a war against a mentality.” Use of the word re-enforces a mentality to accept less, rather than more, she said, adding that much is lost in self-pride and is counter to the interest of current day Black youth. Citing other world events from the slaughter of non-Muslims in Darfar, in The Sudan, to the national battle to stem the tide of AIDS, Merritt said the call by Comrie was a “giant step in the right direction,” to reverse a sorry trend.

Kurtis “Blow” Walker, a Hip-Hop pioneer of the genre, challenged the Rap and Hip-Hop generation to not only stop using the term, but to “try to see themselves differently.” To quit using the word, he said, is a positive step toward changing the mentality of the community.

Dennis Walcott, a surprise participant for a Deputy Mayor, took off his title and spoke from the heart, saying he is more than a deputy mayor and called himself “a man of the community.” He said that many who use the word don’t know the history of it, the origin, and how it’s use “goes to the heart of the person’s value of self, value of community and a person’s value of their worth.”

Richard Basciano, owner of the comedy night club the Laugh Factory, said he was ‘bursting with pride’ to be there and to take part in the symbolic ban on the word. It was in December when Michael Richards, the former television situation comedy actor who uttered the N word during a flagging performance at the comedy club’s Hollywood setting, that may have helped to generate momentum towards such calls for the ban. Basciano said that incident was “the kick-off” to eliminate use of the word at his Laugh Factory venues.

Nearly all who stood with Comrie spoke at the news conference. Of note, it included an emotional plea by Helen Marshall, the Queens Borough President, for young people to take time out to learn more about recent Black American History. Marshall attributed her rise in politics directly to the gains of the Civil Rights movement. She is the first African American woman to hold the post of Queens borough president in the City’s history.

Until now, New York’s Black elected officials were among the last of those calling for a ban of the word in the nation’s big cities. It remains a controversial call and, it also raises constitutional questions over the right of freedom of speech. Comrie said that he plans to use the rest of February to visit city schools, discuss Black history and challenge students to write essays on the matter. The best of the finished essays would be read aloud at City Hall near the end of the month. A vote on his resolution after Thursday’s introduction to his council peers will likely come up at the next Stated Meeting.

Eric K. Williams is a reporter for Pacifica Radio’s WBAI-FM in New York City and, Executive Director of the International Access Networks, a web-based media center.