Approximate number of uses of nigger and its derivations in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: 210

Approximate number of uses of nigger and its derivations in Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: 38


Total word count, Huckleberry Finn: 110,253

Total word count, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: 4,000


Usage rate of nigger in Huckleberry Finn (per thousand words): 1.9

Usage rate of nigger in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (per thousand words): 9.5

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GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

163 responses to “Notes on the Removal of the “N-Word” from Huckleberry Finn

  1. Matt says:

    This has got to be, hands-down, one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of. Removing the word nigger (no, I’m not afraid to type it) from Huckleberry Finn just shows you don’t understand why it’s in there in the first place.

    I’m sure Kanye would agree.

  2. What foolishness. I’m a bit of a lit snob and I’ll admit that. I like literature to be kept as it was, and looked at in some strange light as a weird creature from another planet. That’s fine with me. It sickens me, though, when idiots try to change it to fit in with a world which should learn to stand back, hands off, and observe.

  3. Well, Kanye is allowed to use the N word. For others to use it is verboten, even if in the context of Huck Finn, which I taught in English class for years…and the point of it, as I am sure Matt and many others know, is to show how racist and horrible people used to be (and still are, probably, in some cases).

    Once that is explained, no one minds that “the N word” is used in Huck Finn, as there is a noble purpose to it. Still, some years, I could not say it while reading passages. I wasn’t going to go there. It shouldn’t be sanitized out, however–even though I think Huck Finn is past its prime in terms of literary value.

    I still appreciate the novel for its cultural and historical signficance, but as funny and amazing as I thought Twain could often be in his essays and other works, I do not love Huck Finn. It stops and starts (it was written that way, after being put down for long stretches) and gets on my nerves in terms of complicated plot minutiae. But that’s just me.

  4. Brian Eckert says:

    Usage rate of nigger in this comment: 8.33.

    Whose censoring this site, anyway?

  5. Lorna says:

    I heard that word at least 3 times a few weeks ago at the DMV. It was being shouted across the parking lot by a black man; at whom, I am not certain. There were plenty of colors of skin amoung us standing in line. People just sort of brushed it off. I’m sure it would have been much different if one of white folks were shouting it.

    I’m so tired of this polical correctness bull shit.

    • Greg Olear says:

      The DMV can drive anyone to spout off bad language.

      (Get it? DRIVE anyone?)

      • Lorna says:

        Yeah, I get it. We’re all savages at the DMV.

        Wait!! Mark Twain refers to American Indians as savages. Now I’m offended.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I believe it’s the Cleveland Indians he calls savages.

          Speaking of names and things. How is it 2010 and there can still be a football team called the Redskins?

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Native groups have been angry about that kind of thing for years, but at one time, at least, it was pointed out that they, too, had high-school and intramural teams with names like Warriors and Braves and so on, with mascots in warpaint and stereotypical regalia. Which is a bit like Kanye using the n-word.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I have no problem with the Braves. Braves are a warrior who happens to be Native American. But “redskin” is an incredibly pejorative, insensitive term. To name a team that, still…how is it different from having a team called the Washington [word you called that teacher when you became human]s?

        • Zara Potts says:

          In New Zealand we have two sports teams.
          One is called the All Blacks.
          One is called the All Whites.

          (Oh and Greg – it’s 2011!!!)

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I understand, Greg, but Native Americans (a PC term unto itself, since “Indian” is not, in my view, pejorative) were upset about names like Braves and Warriors. I mean, do Swedes and Norwegians get upset over Vikings as a team name? Do Catholics get upset because of the Saints? In the future, maybe so. It seems to me inevitable, going by the American trend.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Zara: I blame the strep.

  6. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
    –George Santayana

    Books contain a record our human legacy. It’s often pretty damn ugly. Taking the n-word out of Huck Finn breaks a link to understanding racism in a broader context.

    Elizabeth commented above that sometimes she didn’t read the word aloud to her students. That strikes a balance, I think, being sensitive to how things HAVE changed, and likely invites discussion rather than avoidance.

  7. Gloria says:

    I think that Kanye West should do the audio book reading of Huck Finn. Problem solved.

    Censorship makes me stabby.

  8. I’m with Gloria. Perhaps he can also get Taylor Swift to assist — since she and Jake split she might be in a low place and Kanye is the man to give her a boost.

    And I am in awe of your math skills while sick. Seriously, I’m not even on antibiotics and it would have taken me waaay longer to *figure* the figures….

    • Greg Olear says:

      Illness makes me nuts. I literally went through the lyrics and did a tally.

      Also, US Weekly reports that Jake and Taylor are just cooling off — presumably until he starts “feeling it” again.

      Okay, back to bed. Strep calls.

  9. Becky Palapala says:

    It’s ridiculous. One of literature’s primary long-term functions is as historical artifact, whether we like what it says about our history or not. To change it is an attempt to change history. Or at least the record of it.

    Go ahead and toss that tarp over Dorian’s painting, kind publisher. I’m sure no one will notice.

    If people are going to sell or buy a copy of Huck Finn without “nigger” in it, they might as well be in Miami selling or buying knock-off Spanish doubloons like the hucksters/suckers they are.

    It’s not the real thing. It is only close enough to the real thing that an ignoramus can’t tell the difference.

    I have to stop now, since I’m running out of metaphors.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I hear next is a New South Merchant of Venice, with a nondenominational Shylock. Hath not a usurer eyes?

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Honestly. I’m just sitting here trying to comprehend it.

        It is either an impossible precedent or naked & arbitrary hypocrisy.

        Why JUST Huck Finn? Why indeed not Shakespeare’s Shylock or Caliban? Clearly they haven’t read The Color Purple or Invisible Man yet. They just go right ahead and beat black people in those books!

        On the one hand, this may be the solution to the English major unemployment problem. Set them all to the impossible task of identifying and deleting every instance of bigotry in English language literature ever. Or why stop there? Why not bigotry in all literature ever!

        But of course, they can’t do that. Because it can’t be done. Which leaves arbitrary hypocrisy.

        There is no circumstance in which this particular action can be made logically consistent or in anyway coherent with regard to any kind of overarching theory or personal, professional, or intellectual conviction.

        None. It is literally impossible to make sense of this.

        *sit down* *fan self*

        • Greg Olear says:

          Wow. New South Press broke Becky.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I just found out that this particular professor’s reasoning was that because of the book’s contentious language, it was not being taught as regularly as it used to, which he considered a shame.

          So…since people were uncomfortable teaching the real book, he made it into another book that people would teach. So people still won’t be teaching the f’in’ book.

          What an incompetent crusade.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Maybe it’s time to shake up the canon. More Melville, less Twain.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, and that’s kind of it.

          This kind of thing is normal.

          Books fall into and out of favor regularly in scholastic/academic circles.

          For any number of socio-cultural reasons. It’s perfectly normal. But here this dink thinks its his job to intervene.

          I’m going to jazz-up On the Road with more concrete socially conscious sentiment and remove some of Kerouac’s more annoying compound words so that people will start assigning it to high school kids again.

          Because man, that’s an important book.

  10. Stephanie Chick says:

    “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in America in January 1885, has always been in trouble. According to Ernest Hemingway, it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and contemporary critics and scholars have treated it as one of the greatest American works of art.”(

    Removing the term “nigger” from new editions of Huckleberry Finn demonstrates a pattern of providing selective history lessons to younger generations, promoting a dangerous cultural amnesia.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Amen. Thanks for the comment, Stephanie!

      • D.R. Haney says:

        We used to think of cultural amnesia as a Soviet specialty, but in the USSR, it was the government only that practiced censorship. In the US, we don’t require the government to practice it; citizens will happily promote censorship on their own. Oh, and I count willful ignorance as a form of censorship, too.

  11. pixy says:

    i like that you’ve listened to kanye to count the number of times he uses that word. i notice it quite a bit as well.

    being reared part of my life in deep southeast alabama (the nearest place considered a “town” was clopton, al. and that was 5 miles away and consisted of a church and a general store/mail drop. can you find that on a map?) and having fairly traumatic memories associated with my grandmother and that word, i still can’t use it, but i don’t think it should be removed from literature or any other applicable usage.

  12. This just in: According to reports from Ice Cube’s twitter feed, NWA has officially changed their name to (censored)WA.

  13. jmblaine says:

    Here Here!

    Ice Cube getting lyrical
    when he’s full of that
    8 Ball!

  14. angela says:

    really interesting breakdown, greg.

    i love Stephanie Chick’s comment! especially “a dangerous cultural amnesia.” makes me think of japan erasing the Nanjing Massacre from their history books.

  15. Are you sure Kanye isn’t saying “nigga”?

    Because that’s different.

    Er. Right?

    I came really close to posting my own discussion of the story here, but I put it on my site instead, after you posted this.

    For a moment, earlier today, I thought Zora Neale Hurston was trending because New South was publishing a Their Eyes Were Watching God in which a Hurston scholar changed all of the instances of “nigger” to the less offensive “zigaboo.”

    I think it’s sort of a shame a publisher felt the need to change a book due to a professor’s inability to teach it.

  16. Zara Potts says:

    I am gobsmacked that this rewriting has been allowed to take place. The most ludicrous comment I saw about it was some apologist saying that “[it] was what Mark Twain himself would have wanted to happen.”

    Excuse me???

    Honestly. By removing the word, it removes the historical context so that future generations have a whole epoch of history whitewashed away.

    Censorship and rewriting of history, not to mention literature, really pisses me off.
    What other work will get this treatment? Shall we make ‘Lolita’ older? Shall we rewrite everything that could possibly give offence, including The Bible?

    It’s a very slippery slope…

    (Well done on the maths, Greg. You summed (!) it up perfectly.)

  17. Tony DuShane says:

    thank you.

    and another 100 years from now they’ll take out that offensive word they changed it to, the “s” word.

  18. Dana says:

    Dear Greg,

    Math is hard. This post was not.

    Also, I am very concerned about what word they’ll try to substitute when fathermucker is deemed inappropriate.

  19. Lenore says:

    i hope no one ever does this with my writing and the word “cunt.” writers wrote things the way they wrote them for a reason. people need to fucking leave it alone.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yeah, and good luck. Your “cunt” usage rate is way higher than Kanye’s for the n-word (although probably about the same for his use of “motherfucker”).

  20. Justin Benton says:

    Approximate uses of “I put the pussy in a sarcophagus!” in Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: 1

    Approximate uses of “I put the pussy in a sarcophagus!” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: 0


  21. Nathan Pensky says:

    My opinion = Your very justified disgust with the bowdlerization of Huck Finn still does not make it appropriate for you to use with abandon the “n-word”. We’re all offended by something and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. That HF effectively used the offense inherent to this word is one thing. That one would use the same willy-nilly in conversation is something else.

    • It’s not really willy-nilly use in conversation. It’s extremely relevant to the discussion, and people who constantly use the “n-word” expression make me wonder if they’re referring to nincompoop or nutcracker.

      Twain himself said the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is large, akin to the difference between lightning and lightning bugs. “N-word” and “slave” are almost-right.

      • Nathan Pensky says:

        Indeed, about the Mark Twain quote. But the use of a word in art is different than its use in conversation, yes? In art the word signifies not only its use within the art but outside as well. There are two levels of signification there. A) How the word functions IN the art, and B) as we see the art from the outside. In Huck Finn’s case, and maybe in all artistic cases, one usage somewhat defangs the other. Words in conversation, on the other hand — as this is a conversation — aren’t like that. We interpet them as in direct contact with their meaning. It’s the difference between calling someone a name, and telling a story about as much. One is directed at a specific person, the other meant to be interpreted generally or “academically.” We can be “academic” about the latter but not the former.

        I think people have mistaken the academic use of “the n-word” by Twain and others to mean that the word has lost its offense. And this just isnt the case, no more than any racial slur. If you think otherwise, try throwing it around people of the race for whom it was intended. And I see absolutely no problem with this sanitzed version in this respect, as it renders innocuous the insult intended.

        • “But the use of a word in art is different than its use in conversation, yes?”

          Well, yes. As is the use of the word in criticism. And commentary. Which is what this is, no?

          “Try throwing it around”

          But that’s not what I’m advocating. I’m advocating discussion of both the word and the offense it causes, and in such a discussion, I think constantly referring to “the n-word” is as silly as the characters who always called Voldemort “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” Always all caps, mind.

          “Innocuous the insult intended”

          Ah, but stories like “A Party Down at the Square” and novels like Twain’s don’t intend insult. They intend effect. Which is what the discussion pertains to.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          A) “Well, yes. As is the use of the word in criticism. And commentary. Which is what this is, no?”

          I would say absolutely that commentary and criticism qualify as “conversation” in the way I mean. If we can be so academic as to talk about the racism signified by the n-word, then can we not use language that represents that signified racism in the most “academic” way possible? If we are in the business of getting at meaning, then can we not transfer meaning to a signifier of less offensive import? Why doesn’t n-word work just as well? We aren’t actually conducting some kind of an experiment where we say words just to see how other people react, are we?

          Because to some, the very use of the word in question, in any sense, is itself offensive. It recalls the racism intended in a most un-“academic” way. So if we’re really wanting to have a discussion ABOUT the word, then why not use “n-word” which is “a word about a word,” really?

          These questions are not rhetorical. I’m interested to hear your response.

          B) “But that’s not what I’m advocating…”

          The He Who Must Not Be Named parallel is kind of interesting but doesn’t cut it, I don’t think. The squeamishness behind that phrase is meant to represent fear of the oppressor (Voldemort), while this is a word actually used by the oppressor (Racists/Slave-owners). I think the “n-word” — the actual word — is much closer to their use of “The Dark Lord,” personally. But that’s just me.

          C) “Ah, but stories like “A Party Down at the Square” and novels…”

          Yes, they do intend offense. They just intend it as pertains to a certain situation, which itself is subject to a larger authorial intent. The racism represented in “the world,” when we say the n-word without care has no such safeguard. It’s like saying that a description of a bomb isn’t intended to actually blow up. No, it isn’t. It’s meant to blow up people in the world described. But words have a unique faculty to exist both in an imagined world as spoken by imagined people and also in the real world by real people, both with the same potency depending to whom they are spoken, and on what level of reality those people exist.

          It’s okay for Huck to say the n-word, because we know that Huck is not a real person. He is not talking about anyone real; he can’t because he doesn’t live in the real world. If a critic, or a teacher, or you or I say the n-word, there is a possibility that someone in this real world, which is not subject to our own authorial intent in speaking the word, may take offense without our meaning it. Therefore, we shouldn’t say the word. We should do them the courtesy of acknowledging that we are not always in control of every verbal situation that we enter.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          And of course, when I say “It’s okay, for Huck to say the n-word,” it is in one way and not in another. It’s okay that the book describing this verbal transaction exists. It’s not okay in the imagined world, where he and Jim live.

        • dwoz says:

          Nathan, I couldn’t disagree more.

          You can’t wipe something away like that. You can’t make racism and oppression and kidnapping and subjugation and all that just go away.

          The word exists. It does not disappear because we say “the word that must not be named.”

          That’s almost WORSE.

          But, the point MUST be qualified by saying that just because we explore the connotation in an academic sense, we are allowed to abandon sensitivity. “Nigger” can be objectified, and discussed.

          I once got a chainsaw gash on my leg. That doesn’t mean that one must refrain from using the word “chainsaw” around me. It’s a painful part of my history, one that I’d rather not remember, but then again every time I USE a chainsaw, it’s valuable to me to embrace that word, for what it teaches me.

          Discussing the historical context of the word should be allowed. And not just so southern rednecks can get a free pass to say the word, but to understand.

          To me, it’s like the idea that you can’t even SAY that the government of Israel might, just might, be a little bit right wing and overreaching, without being accused of being a monster H8tr Nazi anti-semite.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Ha, but of course the real Harry Potter parallel there is “mudblood,” which was really dumb of me to not see right away.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Hi Dwoz. Well, right, so people can say chainsaw around you. I get that. But if the injury itself was a word… So, say after just a few minutes after you got the chainsaw wound someone was revving a chainsaw an inch from your face very loudly. A bit unnerving, right?

        • “I would say absolutely that commentary and criticism qualify as “conversation” in the way I mean.”

          Oh, I wouldn’t. That wasn’t what I meant. When I said “commentary” and “criticism,” I meant critics and commentators and students discussing Huck’s regular use of “nigger” in his vernacular. Not using the word conversationally.

          The difference, of course, between criticism/commentary and conversation being citations.

          No, but seriously, if a student asked me not to use a word, I would pose the request to the class. If the majority of students wished to move on or agreed, I would abide. If the majority of the students were interested in discussion, I’d grant any offended student an excused absence while I continued the discussion with the students who wished to do so.

          Certainly, in general, it’s not a word I would use in casual conversation. Well. I say that, but then again, were I talking to a friend about New South’s censoring Twain, I’d note specifically the substitution they were making. Which I could see being in casual conversation being that so many news outlets picked up the story. But that’s because of the context of the use.

          I don’t support willy-nilly use of the word. But Twain wasn’t using it willy-nilly, and I wouldn’t use it willy-nilly to discuss the use of it, either by Twain or by Ellison.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I don’t know that anyone is advocating willy-nilly use of the n-word. Kanye can use it whenever he damn well pleases; I can only use it as I have in this piece, which is to say in an academic sense, and when rapping along to “Hit ‘Em Up” in the car.

      (I’d like to your exchange with Will on FB, but I don’t think it will let me).

      • Nathan Pensky says:

        Ha, yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get all earnest or whatever. Here’s my two responses to the piece Will linked to on my FB. He makes a good point, but it still doesn’t quite sway me. Sorry that I’m all meh, and then he was all juh? and then they were all ruh?

        Response 1: I think I could MAYBE get behind a use of the word “in quotes,” as it were, for the purposes of discussion. But I’m still not sure. I still think the use of the word even in that context, as a a working part in an argument, is still somewhat insensitive to the word’s inflammatory nature. But then again, if we are, actually, in the business of using a placeholder to signify “that which was said in this derogatory manner, by these racists as concerning black people,” I don’t see why “the n-word” wouldn’t work just as well. If we’re ACTUALLY going to be academic about it, I don’t see any reason why we can’t use any other signifier in this academic sense, as “x” would be just good a variable as “y”.

        Response 2: Probably one of the greatest justices as pertaining to this issue is that white people are forced by a historical imperative to have such academic discussions about their own malfeasance. I hope it honors the memories of slaves that we don’t even really know how to talk about how terrible we were.

        • Greg Olear says:

          No, no, you make a good point, and this is certainly worthy of being earnest about, for reasons you explain eloquently in Response 2.

          My point with this piece is that eliminating the offending word from HF will not make the word go away. It is indelibly marked in the pop culture. Tupac Shakur, who used the word even more liberally than does Kanye, has sold 75 million albums worldwide — more than three times what HF has sold in 120 years. If high school/junior high school is supposed to prepare kids for the real world, HF is a really good introduction to the emotionally charged connotations of the term. If we don’t tell them, they won’t know, and they should; you’re absolutely right about how horrible we were.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Here’s you: Why did the chicken cross the road?
          Here’s me: Chickens have rights too! Someone call PETA! RAAAAHH!!!

          Shit, now I feel like I’m comparing black people to chickens. Which I am, kind of. But… I need to get into therapy.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          In response to, “we should prepare kids for the world.” I feel like in reading HF in the way we’re talking about, we’re either A) engaging in academic discourse where we talk about language, in which case using “n-word” is just as, if not more, effective of a signifier for the racist sentiment in question, or we’re B) introducing students to the sentiment itself. I hope that you weren’t suggesting B), that that’s not what you mean by “prepare them for the world,” because this preparation is basically: “being racist, so they’ll know what racism all about.” Educational, okay, but we shouldn’t BE racist to TEACH about racism, should we? But that’s probably not what you meant.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I’m fine with A — I mean, I would never utter the word myself — as long as the book stays the way it is. I think it is important to provide historical context, though; but I have no idea how to go about doing so in the best way.

        • Isn’t one giant issue with the entire substitution that students aren’t going to know Huck used the word if their teachers don’t tell them he did?

          Doesn’t that entirely change Twain’s novel? Doesn’t that entirely change the nature of the relationship between Huck and Jim? Doesn’t that entirely change Jim’s character and his motivations?

          Do we really trust any teachers to prequel every reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with that information?

          Teacher: “Now class, we’re about to read what was once a very controversial novel, but we’ve made it more appropriate for your reading pleasure.”
          Student: “How did you do that?”
          Teacher: “We changed a word.”
          Student: “Just one? Which one? Did Twain drop the f-bomb? I didn’t realize they had the f-bomb back then.”
          Teacher: “No, it’s more egregious than the f-bomb.”
          Student: “What’s ‘egregious’ mean?”
          Teacher: “Bad. It was worse than the f-bomb.”
          Student: “Worse than the f-bomb? What’s worse than the f-bomb? Did he say the c-word?”
          Teacher: “Er. What’s the c-word?”
          Student: “You know. The c-word. Rhymes with bunt.”
          Teacher: “Where did you learn that word?! Er. But no. Not that one.”
          Student: “Well which one? What’s the first letter?”
          Teacher: “N.”
          Student: “N? Er. What begins with ‘n’? Nincompoop? That’s not so bad.”
          Teacher: “It wasn’t nincompoop.”
          Student: “Um. Nutcracker?”
          Teacher: “No. It was a word people used to call black people.”
          Student: “Oh. You mean ‘nigger’?”
          Teacher: “Yes, precisely. That’s what Huck used to call Jim. Now he calls him a ‘slave.'”
          Student: “But then that whole description of Jim’s having been a ‘free slave’ doesn’t make much sense.”
          Teacher: “Well. Perhaps not. But we’ve avoided using a terrible word.”
          Student: “‘Nigger’? Well, yeah, it’s awful, but Kanye and Tupac say it all the time. Why not Twain? It’s just his book. He was writing, like, 100 years ago. It was a lot different then, wasn’t it? It’s not like white folks go around dropping the world all willy-nilly now, is it? Honestly, you’ve wasted a lot of valuable time doing something trivial when we could have been discussing race in American in the 1800s and how it’s evolved, both in publishing and in culture, over the past century and a half. Honestly. What are you getting paid for, anyway?”

      • Gloria says:

        This is the second time this week I’ve linked this piece, but it seems just as appropriate here as it did on Zara’s piece (within the context of the comment thread):

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Gloria, that is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I’d never heard of that guy. Holy shit.

        • Gloria says:

          Oh, Nathan. Look up his “If I didn’t have you” video and his “Some people have it worse than me.”

        • Greg Olear says:

          Just watched it…brilliant. (I always approach YouTube clips, ahem, gingerly when the kids are around).

        • Becky Palapala says:


          Apparently Russell Brand’s hairstylist is NOT a gingerphobe.

          I can’t get over that.

          Is that, like, the next big thing in British comedy? What the HELL is going on?

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I’m the next big thing in British comedy… maybe?

          Minchin is fantastic, and technically British. He was raised in Australia though. He’s essentially the comedy version of AC/DC.

          He’s also everything Brand isn’t. Including funny.

          He used to be brilliant. Right up until the point he became famous and his material about sex and drugs became the entertainment news.

          Rock and Roll Nerd and Darkside are two of my favourite Minchin songs.

          Also he’s just written a musical version of Roald Dahl’s Mathilda. He’s frighteningly good at what he does.

        • His cover of “Hallelujah” blows pretty much every other one–including the original–out of the water. He’s the only musician I’ve seen who’s made it a duet.

        • As a girl who grew up ginger and mocked for it, I love that song. LOVE.

          My four-year-old same-colored son has already been called a ginger and made fun of on the playground. The dissing of red hair infuriates me. It’s no different from any other type of discrimination based on appearance, and I’m tired of red hair mockery being considered “funny” or safe/harmless in the media. Because it’s not. It makes red-haired little girls feel really ugly and insecure, to the point that they bleach their hair blonde the second they are old enough to purchase hair bleach. Grrrrr.

          Thanks for sharing, Gloria. xoxo.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Irwin, he is funny and he is talented and of course you’re the next big thing in British comedy, but I was referring to the hair.

          WHY THE HAIR???

          And I mean the rat’s nest, not the fact that it’s red.

        • Gloria says:

          @Will – thank you so much for directing me to that cover. New favorite thing ever.

          @Tawni – I’m glad you liked it. You just tell Miles what I told Sierra and will tell my grandson – Gingers are actually a superior race. True story, ask Tom Robbins.

          @Irwin – YOU are hilarious.

          @Becky – why the anything? Why the hair? Why the makeup? Why no shoes when he performs? I love that dude.

        • New Orleans Lady says:

          I had never heard of him either!
          I will now spend an unknown amount of time watching youtube clips of him.
          Love it.

        • Gloria says:

          Ashley – “unknown amount of time” = + or – 2 hours. Go potty and grab a cup of coffee first. Put a video on for A.

        • Dana says:

          Wow! I’m slightly obsessed (read: very) with Hallelujah and finding the perfect version.
          He’s awesome. Thanks for the heads up Gloria!

        • pixy says:

          i spent 2 hours on friday night in between “lost” episodes trolling this guy’s youtube. i’m in lurve. yet another red-head to go barmy for. cheese and rice mary!

  22. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I’d also like the count on how often Twain said “All y’all can suck my balls through my draws,” which I feel like might be his response were the man around today to witness the censoring of his work.

    Or, as Larry David says, “Who’s my caucasian?”

  23. dwoz says:

    I know this is totally off topic, but I very recently held in my hands an original first-folio of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” from 1843.

    Hidden in an otherwise mundane collection of books.

    I think we shouldn’t fuck with other people’s stories, especially dead people, and ESPECIALLY brilliant dead people.

  24. Books need a good pruning now and again. I’m all for it.

    One drawback, though, is that one of my Iceberg Slim novels is now only three paragraphs long.

  25. Becky Palapala says:

    I am enjoying, to some degree, the incredibly neurotic, guilty, and self-conscious white-person discussion happening here.

    In which a group of exclusively white people go to war over how black people feel about this word.

    I mean, it’s not that white people can’t or shouldn’t talk about these things, but on the other hand there’s an element that’s less advocacy-based than stereotypically disenfranchising about it. And that really goes for both sides of the argument.

    “Allow me, as a white person, to speak for how [all] black people do or should feel.”

    I mean, you gotta admit there’s some irony in that.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Well, sure. But if I learned one thing during the many diversity classes I helped teach and/or sat through in my HR days, it’s that it’s better to talk about this stuff than ignore it.

      • Candice says:

        To Becky: I love you. I also would like to notice that the conversation felt that way when Nathan intervened (I am not attacking Nathan here). Before, it was about history and memory, not racial sensitivity. Oh, and just for your interest, I am black.

        I really liked what you say about the hypocrisy of doing something so stupid. I will add the following question to that: who is this imbecile doing it for? Because it is very clear to me that he is not doing that for all the black people that might be offended by the word.

        To Greg: It’s not about whether white people should talk about that kind of subjects. It is about how we talk about it. I felt hurt by Nathan’s arguments because behind it, there was the assumption that all African-American think the same way.

        • Candice says:

          I said previously that I was not attacking Nathan, but I realize my comment felt as if I was.
          It is because I strongly disagree with him. I was enrolled in a Southern literature class this fall, and the word “nigger” was the least painful thing about what we read. I also would like to point out that if African-Americans are so butthurt by the word itself, why do so many revolutionary black writers use it ? Gil Scott Heron, Leroi Jones, Ishmael Reed, Ralph Ellison. They probably do not like this word. But they had to use it, because it conveyed a truth about how they lived and how they were treated.

          We can show black students the lacerated back of slaves, we can show black students bodies swinging from side to side, but we can’t say the word “nigger” in an academic setting.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Thanks for commenting, Candace. Excellent point on the professor’s motives (the cynic in me thinks he’s doing this just to curry favor with his superiors at his university — publish or perish and what not — and to draw attention to himself).

          I still think it’s better for Nathan (or Will, or Becky, or anyone) to chime in than remain silent, if he has something to share; it creates a discussion.

          That said, I should have known this would wind up as an eggshell-walk on the subject of racial insensitivity. This is why I usually just write about the Kardashians and Angelina Jolie…

          As an aside, it’s sort of Orwellian, isn’t it, that the publisher of this sanitized tome is called New South.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          We can show black students the lacerated back of slaves, we can show black students bodies swinging from side to side, but we can’t say the word “nigger” in an academic setting

          It’s interesting you mention this, Candice.

          I’d never considered that, though certainly not random, the decision to isolate all the hurt and damage of this period of history into that one word was, in large part, arbitrary. I mean, someone chose it, or somehow by consensus it was chosen, but it’s curious to think about why.

          It’s like that word was the biggest duffle bag we could find, so we stuffed the body of that historical period into it, and now we’re trying to get it to sink.

          Not surprisingly, not working so well.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I’m not advocating ignoring it at all.

        Not even a little.

        But there’s something dishonest about that type of discussion.

        (And, I should make clear that this isn’t a criticism of the players involved here. It could be any discussion of this type, as these are common ideas and stances and the whole debate is a sort of a formulaic ideological dance. The Race-Conscious Foxtrot or something.)

        The person advocating utter abandonment of the word and decrying its use under any circumstances regularly speaks in terms of how it makes others feel without acknowledging that a significant, if not majority, portion of his motivation for his stance has to do with his own feelings of guilt and anxiety at the word’s mention. Like, black people’s feelings are lumped together under the assumption that all black people feel the same way about it…as if there’s some constitutional republic of black people and this is in their pledge of allegiance…and it’s held up as an unassailable shield of morality. “If you do not acquiesce to this, you don’t care about black people’s feelings, and that is bad.”

        It’s a form of hiding, and it is, in and of itself, a rhetorical attempt to shut down the discourse.

        Few white people refuse to use that word out of concern they might offend black people. They refuse to use it because they’d be a pariah among other white people.

        The more cavalier position is a defense mechanism in its own way, since it tries to intellectualize matter as if there is no emotional component or as if taboos should be or must be rational or something one can put rules to.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Here, for example, I keep saying “that word” because “n-word” strikes me as pre-schoolish and immature and I cringe every time I use it since it’s a reminder of general unwillingness of people to truly confront things that upset them (like pee-pees and noonies and “potty” rather than “toilet”), yet I don’t want “nigger” offending people in such a way that it distracts from the body of my argument, since it does have that power. And, frankly, I don’t want the white people yelling at me.

        • Greg Olear says:

          You mean you don’t want just the white people yelling at you. ; )

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I don’t want black people yelling at me, either.

          But that doesn’t seem to be the biggest threat at the moment.

          Or even most of the time.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Becky, I think you’ve uncovered something there. I feel that people have to make a point of saying the word in question just to prove that they can. But is this a useful exercise when trying to speak academically?

          The way I described it elsewhere was this: Since we’re using the word “in quotes,” as in as a signifier OF the word’s historical usage rather than IN that historical usage itself, why would we not want to signify as effectively as possible in the former sense and as disconnectedly as possible from the latter sense. Since we’re in the business of speaking academically, why not go all the way and use a signifier which does not evoke emotion that clouds the matter, the very emotion we are trying to comment on with objectivity? The fact of this emotion is obvious, so why not own up and just make that small concession?

          It may be that at a later date, that bad feeling may no longer exist. That this bad feeling obviously does exist now speaks to unresolved issues that should be considered carefully, I think. Also: the emotion in question seems to be the same whether one is speaking to a black person, or to a white person who is sensitive to the feelings of black people.

          As to whether one is skirting the responsibility of addressing the historical pain involved by bringing up the question of to say “n-word” or the actual word, isn’t this historical pain also a signified and not a signifier? You brought up the example of the pictures of the flayed backs. But pictures are also signifiers, and effective ones. We don’t question those because they do their jobs as signifiers. The question is whther the current use of the word in question lends the same level of objectivity. And it seems pretty clear that it does not. We could replace it with “derogatory term A” if “n-word” rankles you; we mean to be clinical because that is where we are. Neither it nor the use of “n-word” nor the word in question in quotes can perfectly get at the meaning it is meant to represent, except by way of an exercise in abstraction. The argument to use the actual word seems wrapped up in the emotion involved in said word, which I contend are counter-productive to the issue.

          If we speak the word academically, let us lend it the highest possible degree of objectivity. If we speak the word artistically, let us be sure our themes reflect historical realities. Huck Finn does the latter, but do we perform the former in our discussion of it and other pieces of art like it? I’m really not sure.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          “Since we’re in the business of speaking academically, why not go all the way and use a signifier which does not evoke emotion that clouds the matter, the very emotion we are trying to comment on with objectivity?”

          Don’t forget the emotions of white people who are trying to protect their own emotions.

          However, in the case of academic and objective uses of the word, I guess I’m not convinced that a universally strong emotional reaction to the word exists or needs to exist–at least not one so powerful that it can’t be overcome with some deliberate critical thinking. So that may be a bit of a false premise. Even if it does exist, I don’t think it can be allowed to function as some kind of rhetorical, linguistic–or arguably even epistemological–tyrant like that.

          I am, maybe, not the best person to talk to about things that evoke emotion (or even delicacy), though. I distrust it and tend not to accept it as a valid basis for decision-making. Sometimes this tendency serves me well, and sometimes it’s a weakness. But I don’t generally have difficulty objectifying things that others may consider emotionally loaded, and it’s a constant battle for me to remind myself that not everyone is like that.

          “derogatory term A” and “N-Word,” I guess, in my mind, are not clinical. They’re euphemisms intended to evade, to hide, to allow us to continue to attach emotion to this word. It stops us from having to ever really learn to objectify it.

          Anyway, the euphemisms do call the actual word and what it represents to mind; what makes them different is that, in addition to doing so, they obligatorily advertise the shame inherent in it. “Behold, I am reasonably ashamed.” It’s not bad, necessarily, to want to advertise that. But it is a social nicety. I think there’s a time to euphemize and a time confront–to get one’s intellectual elbows dirty.

          My feeling is, in an academic context where saying what you mean and meaning what you say can make the difference between knowing and not knowing, learning and not learning, challenging the status quo and maintaining it, I would rather push my luck–turn on the beast, draw my sword, confront it, and suffer the consequences as I may–than spend my time tiptoeing around it, trying not to upset the balance. I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that if there is a place to consider the word openly, without hiding, without euphemisms and to tackle the word in all its hideous power, overtly and even belligerently, academic discussion is it. I don’t think it’s an irrational or necessarily harmful position. I do think that academia is increasingly intolerant of the spirit of intellectual and socio-cultural boat-rocking that used to define it. A different discussion, maybe.

          At any rate, I do understand that some people believe that there is never any place for the word, ever, never-ever. That position strikes me as regrettably inflexible and intellectually dogmatic, but I nevertheless do my best to be sensitive to that and not get greedy or giddy in trotting the word out. That, however, is all I can promise and still remain true to my own personal intellectual convictions.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Holy f’in’ novel.

          I swear this did not seem so long when I was writing it.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Yes, Becky, I absolutely respect that position, so much in fact that in the past few days as I’ve been mulling it over and talking on the internet about it, I have been sorely tempted to adopt it myself. However, the thing that holds me back is this:

          A) Rules of language aren’t (or shouldn’t be) defined in academia but in the larger culture. The larger culture should determine what people should and should not say, because frankly they know better what is appropriate. If there is dispute between academia and culture at large, culture at large should win in the end, if only because it is “large.” By “larger culture,” I mean intelligent people speaking as people speak.

          B) Let’s say there was an argument between two people, one of whom had wronged the other in some way. Now let’s say there was a word attached to that argument that upset the wronged party very much. Okay, after the argument is over, that both parties could say the word and not get riled would be an indication that they are past the argument. But this is a process that should happen organically. One wouldn’t want to just “start saying” the word, as if the mere saying of it would bring about such reconciliation. Rather the reconciliation should come first, then the proper use of words that indicates everyone is friends again.

          Kind of like this:

          A: Honey, do you think I look fat in these Jeans?
          B: Hell, yes you do!

          (Four hours of argument later)

          A: I’m sorry for calling you fat. Really, I am. I shouldn’t have called you fat.
          B: I know…
          A: I don’t know what I was thinking calling you fat. It was really insensitive of me to call you fat.
          B: Right, I know… It’s okay.
          A: I’m not sure what I was thinking calling you fat, except that I wasn’t thinking. So wrong to call you fat.
          B: Hm. Could you maybe stop saying the word, “fat” for a little while?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, the great irony inherent in A is that it is, in large part, an academic position. So I’m not sure, logically, what to do with that level of recursion. And it is, after all, in conflict with one of the most oft-expressed purposes of academia and intellectualism, which is to simultaneously learn about and effect changes in the thinking of larger culture. That is, the ideal situation is dynamic, and the flow of information and influence should not be so one-sided, in language or anything else. So I’d have to put some pretty serious thought into that assertion before accepting it.

          I get what you’re after with the husband/wife analogy, but I find it difficult to think that in such a scenario, “f-word” would come into regular use for the remainder of the marriage as a means by which to dodge the memory and bad feelings of that fight indefinitely. It would be such a sore thumb in daily life that it could only serve as a reminder. But that’s sort of nitpicky and not my real point.

          More importantly, I think the biggest difference there is whether or not there is a 3rd person in the room. A mediator, let’s say, whose job it was to get them talking about the incident, describe and explore and question the reasons and emotions that underlie the word “fat.” Maybe they’re describing the incident to a marriage counselor or a friend. Can the marriage counselor or friend say “fat?” Or would shit be getting a little weird if the wife and husband (and some of their other friends, I guess), were all there in the room shouting, “SAY F-WORD!!”

          I don’t mean to suggest that any one individual is utterly objective or totally outside the metaphorical “fat pants fight” that we’re dealing with here, but I think academia as an institution or on the whole, as a somewhat super-organic entity being comprised of people with varying perspectives and, as an entity, having no single, particular stock in the argument itself, has an obligation–as part of its charge, in fact–to act as a mediator in public discourse. And I think, in large part, it does. And here, I’m sort of back at point A. I mean, what the heck is academia for, otherwise? Bitterly, so students can earn a 40,000 piece of toilet paper and an entry level job in some inhuman cubicle farm, but I’m feeling generous. So let’s say it’s more meaningful than that.

          Again, for me, it comes down to something like maintaining a sense of conservative, meaningful use.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Now, if you’re asking me if I want to be the person to publish the, “It should really be okay to say ‘nigger’ anywhere and anytime” academic paper, that’s a big no.

          For one, I don’t believe that, and for two, I don’t think it’s my place to directly advise the world on what is and isn’t okay.

          But if academia is able to inject into the world encouragement for people to consider these difficult issues critically and rationally, rather than emotionally, and if part of doing that is displaying an objective, critical attitude towards incendiary topics and rejecting knee-jerk emotional reactions, then I can get behind that.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          That academia is in a top-down authoritative position in the handing down of rules of language is undeniable. That, despite this, the general populace tends to hold greater sway over the dynamic of language also seems pretty clear, especially these days, but probably always. Just look at how we spoke even a hundred years ago and tell me it isn’t the case? Which party would you say holds sway?

          And anyway, even if academica was supposedly in charge, wouldn’t one want to throw one’s lot in with the general populace, if it came to that? If they are at odds, why argue in favor of academics telling people how to talk?

          The marriage analogy wouldn’t require an f-word. N-word is to silence on the husband’s part as black people’s irritation with white people feeling they are “beyond” the issue is to the husband’s feeling they are “beyond” the word “fat.”

          As for a 3rd party mediator in the analogy, I don’t think academia qualifies as a “therapist” to soothe social ills, not in the slightest. Every time academics have tried this kind of thing, mediating between social problems, I have had a hard time joining in. Everyday function instructs us how we talk; academics instruct us how to hear that talk; but I think it’s moral leaders, social workers who instruct us how to live.

          Part of the reason for this, is that academicia exists somewhat for its own sake. As in, what is most interesting, not what is most useful? “Ivory tower” is still a very good metaphor for it, even when it means well. Social work isn’t like that (or shouldn’t be anyway). Most of the time when we get word from academics on how to live, we end up with ideas like “social darwinism”. Then again, sometimes people like Jonas Salk will go out of their way to put the years and years of their academic experience to use in social programs. But this is an effort of the will on their part, not a natural extension of their roles as academics.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Excuse “academica” and “academicia.” Ha.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Believe me when I say that my hopeful feelings about what academia might be or could be or should be only barely, if at all, trump what can only be described as my searing, burning, contempt for academia.


          A top-down delegating position is not a position in which I am eager place academia, theoretically or otherwise. But I think your assertion that the people are all-powerful in terms of choosing their vernacular ignores both academia’s role in creating the extreme taboo surrounding this word in the first place and the role of other information sources, particularly media, in picking and choosing what is communicated to the public. The difference between Mark Twain’s language and ours wasn’t complicated by internet access, for example.

          The effects academia has on public thought tend not to stem from any type of specific public decree but from its power to set what can only be spoken of as thought-tones or intellectual/ideological topics or positions dujour. Media tends to absorb these vibrations and disseminate them, but rarely immediately. There is some lag, it seems to me, between the academic theory du jour and the appearance–usually first among non-academic public intellectuals (writers, journalists, social commentators, politicians, various types of organizational leaders, and other people who bridge the gap between academia and the non-academic populace)–of the corresponding layman’s interpretation of that theory or idea. This may be because these intellectuals only become intellectuals after having spent time in Universities. So the effect is delayed according to their relative speed in gaining noteriety and audience.

          And then, sometimes these ideas hang around for decades after academia has declared them passe and moved on. But invariably, academic discourse seeps into public discourse. So, I think academia is at once powerful and powerless. It seems to have little control over what people will hear or listen to or how readily they will accept it or how/when exactly the information will be transmitted to them, but the information is nevertheless transmitted. That said, I think you’re right. If what academia is proposing is hare-brained enough, it is fully within the public’s power to simply reject it. And they have. Then again, often an initial rejection becomes acceptance down the road.

          This is all just to say, as I said before, that it’s dynamic and often long-term. Academia is an institution operating within a society, not outside of it. Even if direct access is limited, to suggest that it operates in isolation strikes me as…well…I don’t know. Not very sensible. Because there are public intellectuals, ex-academics, and others acting in ways that transmit that information to the general public.

          As for social Darwinism with regard to this word, I don’t consider the modeling of rational, critical discourse and the hope that it will make its way through the societal game of ideational telephone to the general population to be a form of social engineering.

          I didn’t mean to suggest that academia is a therapist. I think you’re taking me a bit literally there. That’s why I also offered “friend.” I do think that people will look to academia and “experts” when these questions arise, just like a couple might go looking for a mediator or 3rd-party, fresh perspective in the event of a persistent interpersonal standoff.

          Again, we get into a situation in which it’s probably important to consider in what ways the internet affects all of this. People have more access to academic perspectives now, and they’re having a lot more conversations about a lot of difficult topics with people they may have never, at least 20 or 30 years ago, had the opportunity to discuss these things with. Plumbers, waitresses, writers, academics, white people, black people, all sitting in the same “room” trying to hammer out solutions. I don’t think we can have any discussion of the dissemination of information and perspectives in this day and age without considering that.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I like “academicia.” Latin-y. A particularly high-falutin’ brand of academia: Academicia.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Can you give an example of one of these “thought-tones” making their way from academia into the public world, as a natural course of the academic impulse itself, and not as an extra-academic effort on the part of an outside need? In the examples I can think of — Freud, Darwin — the public version is a pale spectre of the original, sometimes completely different than the real academic one. And even if this were to happen in a more representative way, would not some level of objectivity on the part of academics be required? And wouldn’t this objectivity itself be somewhat insensitive to the kinds of feelings the general population have about the matter? It seems that academic objectivity is opposed to the kind of involvement required to actually apply the fruits of said objectivity. It seems a level of trust is required, and trust relies on good feelings between the parties involved. Does the use of this word really support these good feelings?

          Or: surgeons sometimes cut into human beings, but they have to shut their feelings off to do so. But is this — a debate about emotions that involves everyone, and “emotions” is key — really a place to shut one’s feelings off? Is this even possible? The situation seems like a surgeon working on his own wife or mother, or on himself.

          For the purpose of “what to do now with the way I talk,” I contend that to shut one’s feelings off for the purposes of academic objectivity, one has to do it completely, to not say offensive words. For myself, I just can’t say such a word and maintain objectivity. This may be to me own discredit, I readily admit. And to speak as one does in relation with “the world,” as it were, unacademically, with one’s feelings intact, it seems clear that the word is still hurtful in certain “world-type” situations, as I tried to show in the “husband/wife” analogy.

          This is all different, however, in art, where we think and feel in a different way. Whether artists understand the perilous line they walk, who knows what artists think?

          And of course there’s really no way to prove what impulse drives academics to do social work in “the world,” when it occurs, or how exactly it works when social workers use ideas they’ve gotten from college in their work “in the field,” as they say. (I am woefully inadequate to comment on it, really.) But the impression I have now is there is a pretty severe disconnect between academia and “the world,” at least in the language arena, and that academics have no business telling people in general how to speak, except insofar as their level of objectivity is useful, which in this case I would say it is not.

          I persist in my feeling that, even if academics effect social change, that they do so apart from the academic impulse. I don’t think “what is intellectually stimulating” has much to do with “what is useful or good for people in general,” except where the questions of the latter are answered before the questions of the former are invoked. We have to know how to sit in the same room before we can start to talk to each other or learn from each other. We have to be people, before we can be smart or even good people. And someone can be very, very smart, and very, very inhumane. Just ask robots or supervillains.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          I would like to change “smart or even good” to “good or even smart,” as I believe it’s harder to be good than to be smart.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, if I were talking about Darwin, I would have said “theory.” A theory is bigger than a “thought-tone,” but smaller than a revolution….

          I don’t know. I’m making up my own words here. One example of full-on academic theoretical discourse reaching the hoi-polloi rests in the Dawkins/Pinker/Dutton discussion on evolution and religion/morality/language.

          Stephen Hawking, for a less liberal-artsy flavor, also comes to mind.

          But these aren’t the types of examples I’m really interested in because they’re so overt (and, in that, rare). I’m talking about more subtle things. A new pedagogical theory winding its way down from the tower, into continuing education for educators, and eventually into K-12 (or even collegiate) classrooms. That would effect not only how someone teaches, but what they teach, relative tolerance for argument/debate and what types in the classroom, all kinds of implications. Which would indeed influence those kids’ perception of the world.

          The enlightenment for a powdered-wig and bloomers flair.

          Feminism, actually, in its various waves, was the situation I was really thinking of when I started talking about that. That (along with evolutionary theory) was where I really started to notice that academia wasn’t, in fact, as impotent or isolated as I had been led to believe. In feminism, you have this constant back-and-forth flow from the public to the academy and academy to the public and on and on…the theory always emerging out of academia in a “wave” in the form of legislation, education, literature, art, political movements, news coverage, popular culture, etc., all of which affected the tone of our (meaning the public’s) thinking on the issue.

          Feminism, is, of course, a bit broader topic than what we’re talking about here, but the same general theoretical situation applies.

          I do think–or maybe perceive–that people are less trustful of and less willing to accept out of hand the notion that Political Correctness is either political or correct. I’m picking up that it’s less and less simply accepted as unassailable. I mean, maybe I’m imagining this. But even academics are also members of society. And so the place an idea originates isn’t likely to be tidy.

          In my case, I’m not an academic. I’m one of those non-academic intellectuals. But I’m one who is in close contact with the academy because of my work. And I’m here writing stuff. Commenting. I love talking theory–especially evolutionary and feminist theory. Here I am, infecting people with academic ideas. Without even asking them first! Take the ideas and like it! Taaake it!

          This is what I mean when I say the internet shortens the height of the tower dramatically. No. Seriously. Don, right below me, is a fancy-pants professor of Anthropology. He’s not talking a whole lot of theory right now, but sometimes he does. And just anybody can read it.

          I physically cannot talk about feelings. I turn blue and pass out. Syntax. Error.

          I mean, you’re basically saying what is not popular (or happy-feely) is not right. We could go back and forth with those tidy prescriptions all day. No one is talking about telling people how to speak. What I’m saying is that if someone wants to push that envelope–that’s what we’re talking about here, not raining down some kind of high-falutin’ linguistic assault on a helpless and indignant public–that is fully, in my opinion at least, within the realm of ethical and responsible behavior, for academics and intellectuals and hoi-polloi alike.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          effect/affect…I’m all over the board with this one. I swear I know the difference, my fingers just don’t appear to care.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Well, all of the examples you give seem to have fairly well delineated versions for public consumption as distinct from the academic enclaves where said versions originated, feminism especially. Rather the ideas originated there, the made-for-the-public versions in the dusty rooms of revolutionaries, the dusty minds of TV execs.

          And I think the level with which the academy penetrates public consciousness via television/the internet is not very profound. I do, however, think that men with letters after their names make for good copy.

          And I wasn’t arguing that whatever is popular is right, but that in this case, whatever is popular is useful. However, I admit that where language is concerned, “right” and “useful” are often one and the same. I think people who are interested in “pushing envelopes,” as you say, are the very people who are often totally intolerable to be around in actual life –and thus, not very useful outside their little rooms — and that the intellectuals you describe have finely-honed TV faces, even Stephen Hawking. How good of them to descend and let the unlucky ones understand how to live!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          How good of them to descend and let the unlucky ones understand how to live!

          Okay. I’m going to stop asserting that this isn’t what I’m talking about and ask instead: What is giving you the idea that this is what I’m talking about? I use “hoi polloi” tongue-in-cheek. After all, by most definitions, I am one of them. Educated, sure, and maybe more knowledge-hungry than the average bear, but a middle-class clerical worker nonetheless.

          You’ve said yourself, and I have agreed, that when academia or academic conversation or thinking offers up a theory or suggestion or proposition that the public finds unpalatable or not useful, they will reject it.

          So I guess I don’t understand what the concern is, unless it is that they will accept it. Which, by your argument, means they find it useful, and it is therefore, likely, right.

          I don’t see how your position, at least as I’m understanding it, is much different than what you’re trying to argue against, since it seems to put academia in an executive, overlording position over public discourse. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that you’re advocating that academia has a responsibility to keep from its discourse anything they (academics) believe the public discourse cannot handle, either emotionally or intellectually, despite academics’ alleged disconnection from the public and therefore, presumably, inability to comment on what the public wants, needs, or can handle. All of this, too, despite the fact that if the public discourse is not prepared for those ideas or finds them unacceptable, they will simply reject them.

          Last, but not least, I don’t think the reach of academia into TV or the internet needs to be profound to be meaningful. Just because Don doesn’t link to his ethnography of the Bougainvillians or peer-reviewed articles about contextual cues and taboo language in relating the story below doesn’t mean we don’t suddenly have access to academic information–and a whole new host of possibilities for further exploration–that, in the absence of the internet, we would not (necessarily) currently have.

          Don isn’t trying to educate anyone or dictate to anyone. This is all simply a consequence of him being him, knowing what he knows, and being here. It can be that subtle. It is organic. I mean, he’s an academic, and he’s part of “the public.”

          Academics are people toooooo!!!

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          I think the confusion is one of “how to live” vs. “how to do stuff in a specialized way.” Academics are pretty much only good at telling people “how to do stuff in a specialized way” but not “how to live.” Or maybe some of them are, but not too many that I’ve met, and I’ve met a fair few.

          “Talking” or “what words to use” — and this is where the confusion is coming in, I think — falls under “how to live” not “how to do stuff in a specialized way.” Talking isn’t special. Most everyone does it. People should be able to figure out for themselves how to talk, I think.

          I think the argument that supports the use of the n-word also supports the argument that academia somehow knows how to tell people “how to talk,” which I find weird. They certainly know how to tell people “how to talk in a specialized way.” But where we are in the whole issue is still in the level of “how should we live?” at least in terms of that word. At some point, when sore-headed feelings have been put aside, then we can start figuring out how to do this “specialized thing” — being wrangling this hateful word in a useful way.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I guess, I don’t share that view of academia or, maybe more correctly, ideas that come from academia, which may or may not necesarily be purely academic. I don’t feel that using a particular word in an objective way in an academic or academic-like intellectual discussion constitutes telling people how to live or talk. At best, if the usage is found to be unacceptable by someone or a group of someones, s/he has put him/herself in a position to be rebuked, rejected, or to end up, ironically, in many-thousand-word-long TNB argument about what s/he shouldn’t be saying. I think if an individual is willing to take on those risks, then that’s how it is.

          I’m also curious how we will know when the sore-headedness is gone. Will there be a memo from the Department of How People Talk Affairs? When pop culture declares it okay? Will the emperor of black people or high chancellor of the federation of politically sensitive people release a statement?

          Or will we not know, really, until we put it out there? I mean, arguably there is already a great deal of acceptance of the objective, responsible use of the word, if this thread is any indication. So, I mean, unless we’re waiting for a time at which it is offensive to absolutely no one, which seems unreasonable, then I remain unconvinced that a dissipation in sore-headedness isn’t already upon us.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Not THIS thread, between the two of us, but the comments in general.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Yeah, I don’t know, Becky. It just seems wrong.

          I just imagine a black kid overhearing some pundit or academic somewhere engaging in some discussion, and the word’s getting thrown around. And I imagine the kid sitting agog, getting pissed off. I would maybe, I think.

          Could be I’m hyper-sensitive. Lord knows, I am about other stuff. I just kind of wonder if that kid’s indignation is worth more than some guy’s argument.

          But, as you can see, my words are getting smaller, and my opinion more chastised, so, you win?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think an outbreak on national television is imminent or that kids hear many academic conversations, or that, were some kid there, or even if he weren’t, anyone using the word in a responsible way would be rattling it off every other word.

          You’re perfectly entitled to your opinion, and there’s no reason to feel castigated because it was challenged. I’m always happy to win at stuff, but that’s not what I was after here.

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Ha, no offense meant or taken. I just get tired of the sound of my own voice, especially when its unable to get across what I mean. Rather just clam up than belabor what isn’t readily apparent.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well I think you did get across what you mean. Like, I see what you’re saying, and I think your unease with any use of the word at all is not necessarily uncommon.

          I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought it was.

          Really, my whole point has been that this is a gray area in which not all people–and not even the people who are entitled to take the most offense–seem to necessarily agree, so the discussion is fluid and resistant to all-time-all-place rules.

          I mean, I would hope that anyone, even someone using the word as dryly and academically/objectively as possible, would nevertheless be considerate of his/her audience and context before doing so.

          Really, that position requires no discussion of academia itself whatsoever. That whole example/discussion, while interesting in its own right, seemed to complicate things. It started out as “academic conversation” in which “academic” was largely just an adjective signifying dry or objective discourse carried out by anyone, not just academics, and somehow nearly turned into a discussion about the accessibility/worth of higher education.

          Not that I don’t love that particular conversation, but I’m not sure it was too helpful here. We just sort of wandered down that road. That may have been my fault with lazy use of variations upon “academ-.”

        • Nathan Pensky says:

          Yes, I think you’re right there. I meant more the “academic impulse” than “the academy.” How it got into a discussion of actual academics, I’m not sure. And reading back over this discussion, I’m beginning to see that you were pretty much right about everything else, too. Thanks to you and others, I am of the view now that we are able to use the word in frank discussions.

          But my, how the word jingle-jangles in my head! Moderation is key, I think. Another person with whom I was talking about this over interwebs — Frank Portman, whose band/books I would recommend to anyone — opined that refraining from the use of the word can be “condescending and coy.” And reading back over my words in this thread, this is certainly true.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I fantasize all the time about people telling me how right I am and about how many things, but now that it has happened, I feel…depressed?

          Where is there to go from here but down? Oh!

  26. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m reminded of the time (in 2001) that I was sitting in a garden house on war-ravaged Bougainville chewing betel and shooting the shit with a bunch of guys ranging in age from teens to late thirties. The Bougainvilleans I worked with, as a population, have the blackest skin in the world.

    One teenager was wearing an approximation of a do-rag, and one of the guys, looking for approval from me, the visiting American, said “Doesn’t he look just like a nigger?”

    Consider the layers here, how many there are.

    I said, “Yes, but while we’re sitting here let’s talk about the word ‘nigger,'” and we did.

    They knew it from rap/hip-hop, which had penetrated even south-central Bougainville. They all believed that it was nothing more than an English word that referenced American black men. They didn’t know that back in colonial days and in the “blackbirding” days that Solomon Islanders had themselves been referred to as niggers, by the whites who preyed on them.

    I likened it to the usage of “boy,” which takes the same form among them as “nigger” does among African-Americans in the US. They use it descriptively to refer to a Bougainvillean man when it suits them, most often in humor. If a white person uses it, it’s pejorative. I could use it because I spoke their language and when doing so was not the white man that I was in other contexts.

    Back in the late sixties older Bougainvilleans used to call me “masta,” and when I said I’d rather not be called that they said, “But that’s the word that means ‘white man.'” Few old people knew its derivation and its baggage — it was just a word. Young people understood and didn’t use it for me except when joking.

    I’m not sure what this adds to the discussion beyond the obvious, that all words and phrases have context.

  27. jmblaine says:

    Which Caucasian recording artist’s
    most popular song
    features the N-word in the chorus?

  28. jmblaine says:

    Indeed sir.
    The Outlaw’s outlaw.
    the man who has also
    confidently sang the lyric
    “I’ve won every fight
    I’ve ever fought”
    for the last thirty years.

    I told Duke I’d
    TNB the story of the time
    Coe asked me to join his band
    which ironically enough
    had a black drummer.

    Also: was once backed by The Gap Band.

  29. Irene Zion says:

    This has made me so mad that I could spit.
    Good job.

  30. Joe Daly says:

    Absolutely brilliant.

    Technology advances exponentially, but culturally we continue to drip like cold molasses. The funny thing about the past, that inexplicably escapes so many, is that no matter how creatively you might try to repackage it, it can’t be changed.

  31. Darian Arky says:

    I haven’t attended classes at junior high in a long time, but even in the mid-1970s they were still teaching kids about the Civil War under the heavy influence of apologist “states’ rights” mythologies from a century earlier. I certainly hope they’ve fixed that, because it’s a far worse when wrong-headed ideas from the past go around masquerading as contemporary reason: there’s no “nigger” label on them to clue you in.

    Speaking of n-words, I was just reading another TNB post about a child’s reference to a Nazi causing alarm in school. Given the way that label has been slung around so loosely in recent years, we’d all do ourselves a service if we helped young people understand just what Nazis were — and what dangerous hyperbole is.

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