When Word Is Deed

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Down in the chigger latitudes when I was a kid, it used to pass for tolerance, now and then, to try to get away with a formula stating, in effect, that one's racism had nothing to do with race.

The routine sounded like this: "Why, that dumb n-----....." Then the speaker would realize he was talking to someone (probably a Yankee), who might not be in harmony with going around saying "n-----." So the speaker might backpedal, with an unction of benevolence: "Uh, 'cose, you know, I don't mean nuthin' by that. (Squinting now into the middle distance, with a philosophical air; if outdoors, he might even spit speculatively.) "The way I figure, they'se white n------ as well as black n-------."

'Cose they is. N------, you see, is a metaphysical concept rather than a racial designation, and as such, it partakes of the prestige of abstraction.

The "white n-----" dodge was an effort to apply hilariously moronic last-minute reverse English to realign oneself with the Quality. The speaker sniffed in two downward directions at once — the direction of race (where, you unnerstan', the black n------- are to be found) and the direction of class (it's pretty foxy to condescend to white trash when you are white trash yourself: Throws 'em off the track).

I heard the "white n----/ black n-----" idea a hundred times over the years. It was not convincing when I was a kid, in the days before the Brown decision. Coming, the other day on Fox Television, from Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the only ex-Klansman who plays the fiddle and reads Plutarch both, it seemed a period piece brought down from the attic, to the surprise and confusion of those gathered in the parlor — an item of yesteryear's genteel insincerity with the mildew of viciousness still on it.

N----- is, arguably, the most powerful word in the American language. Tell me one more explosive or poisonous. A friend and former colleague who is black, James Reynolds, is writing a book which explores that thesis. (By the way, I use dashes rather than spelling the word out on the grounds that it's bad manners, or worse, to sling around a word that is historically toxic and has always been used, by whites, as a weapon designed to be hateful and wounding to those whom it is aimed at. If blacks use the word — as they sometimes do, with versatility — it is their business, a usage at home in contexts of their selection.)

I suppose that Senator Byrd's use of the "white n-----/ black n------" formula might be excused as an indiscretion of senility. (On the other hand, I'd like to hear the commentary if, say, the current United States attorney general had delivered himself of this charming conceit during his confirmation hearings. Borked? He would have been lynched.)

One may also consult generational differences. Whites of Byrd's generation might sometimes have said "n-----" in the past without any consciously malevolent intent. Land sakes, the word was just sort of casual, conversational, descriptive. Nothing ugly meant. It has often been noted that Harry Truman used the word, which was part of his native Missouri's culture, you might say. And Truman was the man who integrated the armed forces.

I realize there is much silliness and hypocritical outrage surrounding the vocabularies of political correctness. But n----- is a word with an evil magic about it, from long, long ago, and therefore should be, to anyone with sense or manners, taboo.

Some years ago, in a famous early case illustrating the stupidities of political correctness, a student at the University of Pennsylvania got himself into trouble, charged with racist hate speech, when he shouted out the dorm window at a group of black female students who were making noise late at night: "Shut up, you water buffalo!"

Water buffalo??!! Too bad Byrd did not have the wit to remark on television that "my old mom used to tell me, son, there are white water buffalo and black water buffalo." That would have left a national television audience in a cloud of harmless mystification.