The Other N Word

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I was having lunch with Buckwheat at the Home for Retired Racial Stereotypes in Hollywood last week when the Kingfish rushed in. "Holy mak'rul dare, Brother Buckwheat, a real stupid argument has erupted in Washington," he announced. "You better git dare rat away." "Dare I is," Buckwheat proclaimed, leaping up from the table and inviting me to follow. "It's stupid," he explained. "The Society for Turning Up Phony Issues and Diversions, a secret outfit dedicated to making us black folks look like fools by stirring up dumb racial controversies. I'm coming out of retirement to fight them."

As we flew east, Buckwheat filled me in. "STUPID ideas have been on a tear since the Oakland school board declared that Ebonics was an official language," he began. "Then a few months ago, some black militants in New York City scared a young white teacher out of her job for using a wonderful book called Nappy Hair to teach kids that black is beautiful.

"But even that wasn't as STUPID as the fuss in Washington," Buckwheat added. "David Howard, a white man just appointed as ombudsman for the new mayor, Anthony Williams, was talking to two staff members about the budget. He said that since funds were limited, he'd have to take a 'niggardly' approach.

"Howard immediately realized that using that word was a big mistake. The black guy he was talking to was sure he'd used the N word. Howard tried to explain that niggardly is a legitimate word meaning 'miserly' and has no racial connotation, to no avail. In a flash everybody in city hall thought Howard had called the black worker a you-know-what."

Buckwheat sighed. "You probably know that Williams has been smarting because some African Americans have knocked him for not being 'black enough,' because he's more concerned with fixing potholes than delivering fiery speeches. So instead of telling the black guy to calm down and consult a dictionary, Williams accepted Howard's resignation." Buckwheat paused. "In a city like Washington this could start an epidemic of oversensitivity. You could have an explosion the next time somebody says there's a 'nip in the air' or a 'chink in your armor.' We've got to inject some common sense into this STUPID fuss."

By the time we landed, the story was all over TV. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was railing about "some poor overeducated slob" losing his job for using a "Swedish word," a reference to niggardly's origin in 14th century Scandinavia. Keith Watters, former president of the mostly black National Bar Association, asked in conspiratorial tones, "Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?" Buckwheat said, "I've got some calls to make."

Within hours, several thoughtful black leaders started decrying the whole affair. The mayor, said N.A.A.C.P. chairman Julian Bond, had been "niggardly in judgment on this issue." H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, advised people to "count to three" before leaping to any conclusions. Meanwhile Mayor Williams said he'd consider reinstating Howard. With a shouted "Here I was!" Buckwheat headed back into retirement.