Psychologist Laura’ Schlessinger was publicly pilloried for using the “N-Word” eleven times on her radio talk show in a conversation with an African American woman. Married to a white man, the black woman was upset that he didn’t take a stand against the use of what she considered racially hostile language by his family members and white friends.
Dr. Laura thought the woman was “hypersensitive.” When the use of the N-word was brought up, Dr. Laura attempted her version of desensitization therapy. She tried to make the point that since black people used it themselves so frequently, that the word was no longer taboo. She cited the fact that African American comedians on the cable-TV network HBO used the N-word all the time.
After a barrage of criticism, Dr. Laura publicly apologized for using the N-word to make a philosophical point. However, she did not apologize for any other errors. Historically, it was whites who introduced the taboo word into popular culture.
Birth of a Nation
When David O. Selznick made Gone With the Wind, he wanted the “N-word” to be used in the movie for authenticity. It had been used in the novel, which was wildly successful and won the Pulitzer Prize. Selznick also wanted to use the word “damn” that was forbidden by the Hollywood Production Code that imposed self-censorship on the movies.
Remembering the riots sparked by the racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation(which was the highest grossing movie in cinema history until — Gone With the Wind) — the N-word was dropped in favor of darky. Aside from concerns with offending social mores, the decision was an economic one.
When African Americans had gone to showings of Birth of a Nation, (also released under the title of the nove it was adapted from — The Clansman — as it glorified the Ku Klux Klan), many carried bricks and rocks in the pockets. When the N-word was first used in one of the inter-titles, the armed blacks would stand up and hurl their missiles at the screen. Quite a few expensive movie theater silver screens were ruined, and a generation later, movie exhibitors wanted no part of a film that might set off a similarly expensive protest.
Once hailed as the “Supreme Motion Picture” of all time, Birth of a Nation features such gems of dialogue as the character “Mammy” (played by a white actress in black face) telling the servant of a carpet-bagger from the North, “Dem free-n—-s f’um de N’of am sho’ crazy.”
Selznick got his “damn” but not his N-word. And Mammy was played by black actress Hattie McDaniel, a supremely talented performer who was the first African American to win an Oscar.
The N-word creeped back into movies, but was used judiciously and not in a manner like in Birth of a Nation that suggested approval. To audiences outside of the Deep South who watched the classic 1962 cinema adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, when Gregory Finch’s Atticus Finch was called a “N—-r lover” by a white trash character, it was a shocking scene and was meant to be so. This was two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. The N-word was taboo among polite Americans, even then.
The Republican Party, up until the triumph of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been the natural home of African Americans, but by the 1960s, that was no longer so. By the late-’60s, the taboo on the N-word was lifting, though only if it was used by African Americans or by liberals making a point. (In the 1970s, the white producers of “blaxploitation fllms” also trucked in the world, but it was natural to the milieu of their grindhouse movies, though not everyone was happy with it, or the genre.)
Dick Gregory, the politically conscious African American stand-up comedian who later became an important progressive activist, entitled his 1964 autobiography N—-r. It was meant not only as a shocker, and as an exercise in irony, but as a political statement — a way to reclaim the word and take away the pain it inflicted on African Americans.
On the jacket of book, Dick Gregory had a message for his “Mama” saying that whenever she heard the word now, she could be happy as people were advertising her son’s book.
The first major use of the “N-word” on television was not from African American comedians but from the white liberal Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family. Anxious to spin off a series featuring the black family that lived next door to the white working class bigot Archie Bunker, he started a plot line where the Jeffersons’ son Lionel would marry a mixed race girl (her mother white, her father black), as she and her parents would be characters in the new series, The Jeffersons.
Ironically, Archie — the greatest bigot in TV history — never used the N-word, but George Jefferson — who felt roughly the same way about white people as Archie did about blacks, but for different reasons — did:
Later, the same scene was repeated in the Jeffersons.
The N-word was also used by characters on Sanford and Son, featuring the legendary “Chitlin’ Circuit” comedian Redd Foxx, an African American.
The shows All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son were created and mostly written by white men, so ironically, it was whites, not blacks that re-introduced the taboo word back into popular American culture. They set the stage wherein a comedian like Richard Pryor could make comedic capital out of the N-word, both in his short-lived The Richard Pryor Show on TV and in films made from his night-club act.
Richard Pryor had a hand in writing two episodes of Sanford and Son and the script of Mel Brooks’ Western spoof Blazing Saddles, about a black sheriff who helps save a town settled by white, bigoted settlers from the machinations of a land grab. The movie, the ultimate creation of a white man, set a record for the use of the N-word.
Blazing Saddles, which made comic hay of racism and the taboo N-word, was a blockbuster, and one of the top grossing films of all time up to that era. The racial Rubicon had been crossed, but it was white producers and directors who had led the invasion.