Friday, January 4, 2013

The N-Word, Samuel Jackson, and Django Unchained

The controversy over the use of the n-word rages on, this time spurred by an interview about Django Unchained with Samuel Jackson, during which Jackson tried to goad interviewer Jake Hamilton to say “nigger,” instead of the more polite and accepted “n-word.” (Hamilton did not succumb.) Some criticize Jackson for making an issue of Hamilton’s reluctance to say the n-word aloud, and some question Hamilton’s sincerity when he says he “doesn’t like to use that word.”

After watching the interview, I don’t find fault with Jackson or Hamilton. I think Jackson is being cheeky and just messing with Hamilton; Hamilton is understandably uncomfortable, and I see no reason to doubt his apparent lack of comfort. If I were interviewing Steven Spielberg (Lord, from my lips to your ears!) about Schindler’s List, and Spielberg encouraged me to call him a “kike,” I wouldn’t. Nope. No way. (I can’t remember if the k-word was actually used in the movie, but you get my point.)

I wrote in my review of Django Unchained that I wasn’t entirely thrilled with how much the n-word is used throughout the film, and I honestly believe that Quentin Tarantino thinks it’s a cool word. I am absolutely convinced that if one wanted to make a film set in slavery times without using the n-word at all, one could do it. Heck, folks have done it. So I’m certain that Tarantino’s use of the word is because he wants to use it, not because it lends “authenticity” to his story.

But I’m not going to get mad at him per se, because I love words too, and I know how that is. The n-word feels good on Tarantino’s tongue and in his ears—I don’t know why. I wouldn’t give him the okay to insult me to my face by calling me the n-word instead of my name, but if he wants to use it in movies and he can give it relevance, then I can be tolerant.

That said, personally I don’t use the n-word in my conversations, because the word does carry such weight and is so hurtful to many. My husband, who is white, is absolutely forbidden from saying it, even if he’s only repeating someone else, as well as the word “nappy,” as in “nappy hair.” (And if I could, I’d also ban him from using the word “chocolate” as in “You’re such a sweet piece of chocolate” or some crap, but that’s another story.)

Huh, you say? She’s okay with Tarantino but hubby has to step back? Yes, and you know why? Because I know my husband, and when he’s thinking about using the n-word as an “accurate narrator” of someone else’s story, he’s thinking about getting away with something. He’s thinking about getting a chance to break a taboo, to be naughty and not get called on it, and I’m saying—hell no. With Tarantino, I can only guess his intent, so I’ll give him some room.

Some black folks are adamantly opposed to anyone at any time using the word, but my feelings are more ambivalent (as you can see). Here’s the crux of the matter. When a white person with nasty intent practically spits the word, it hurts and makes me angry (it’s happened, so I know). But when Alicia Keys sings that her jealousy about her boyfriend’s “just-a-girl girlfriend” is “enough to make a niggah go crazy” it really doesn’t. That’s the power and the history of the n-word. It’s a sensitive issue to be sure, and I can’t teach someone all the ways in which he might stumble using this word. So while I’m not for an outright ban, I do say, proceed with caution. And, if you’re a white person, unless you’re extraordinarily talented, funny as hell, and authentically “down,” you should probably just leave it alone, ‘cause even then you’re pushing it. I think Tarantino’s pushing it, but for now, he gets a pass. For now. 


  1. Interesting take on the use of the world. I use to cackle with glee at Richard Pryor's routine (and still do), but I stopped using the word in casual conversation years ago. Now, I can barely get it across my lips. If someone is quoting something or someone else, then, okay; otherwise, I don't want to hear it. I'm a baby boomer, so the word, no matter how often I hear or read it, carries a certain sting and shock, and no amount of singing it or rapping it has changed that. Okay, a work of art has to be true to itself (character, plot, etc.). Fine. But I do think that QT has a fascination with the word. Nice post.

  2. Thank you very much for your comments and your compliment! Chris Rock has a routine about how much black people hate "n-s," because they "always mess everything up," and I confess that the first time I heard him, I was shocked out of my mind even as I was laughing with tears running down my face. There’s no question that we've got a complicated relationship with this word.

  3. I have to comment on just two things:
    First, using the N-word is bad and I think Tarantino wanted us to be shocked. That's sort of his style. Note that in the movie every so many scenes he would have "For Your Consideration" across the screen. Could it be that he really wanted non-black folks to examine how messed up slavery was. We have a black president so it's like "Look how far black people have come." sorta thing.

    And Second, In my opinion the word nappy is not the N-word. Lots of people like to make like it is but that's fine. It's just one of those defense mechanisms natural 4C girls like myself can use. When an older black woman (not really accepting of natural hair) makes an off handed comment like "Girl you've got nappy hair!" I can say "Yeah I do. Is that an issue? That's exactly what my hair is. And there is nothing wrong with it. Tell me what is good hair and why and I will show you, self-hate." Not all black women/men have a nappy texture. I admit some really do have curly coily or kinky hair but that is the way a lot of black women (who love their hair) talk about it. Simply because curly/kinky don't do my hair justice as a descriptor. I think calling my hair curly would be a huge understatement. When I think of curls I think of spanish wavy. Ok. Just my 10 cents.

  4. "Lady 4C" love that! I don't think I would care if an older black woman called my hair "nappy." Way back when, during my "twist" phase, my mother said she thought "those are the ugliest things I've ever seen," and this was my MOTHER, able to push all my buttons, but I honestly didn't care. However, my white husband better never call my hair nappy. I will allow him the use of the word "kinky," however, as in "Kinky Curly," the hair product I use!