Recently I was at the DuSable Museum and heard a talk on the history of Chicago’s African-Americans by Timuel Black. Black is 91 years old, a noted local historian, educator and activist who personally knew a “Who’s Who” of prominent black Americans, including Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Ralph Metcalfe, to name a few. Black is the kind of person who has forgotten more than the rest of us will ever know.
Black spoke about his family’s own remarkable history, telling the audience that his ancestors were once slaves of the family of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. He said that a relationship with Hugo Black’s family continued into the 20th century with that family acting as informal “sponsors” to his own. Timuel Black said that, because of that relationship, his own father was given some latitude by whites in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. With a touch of melancholy in his voice, Black said, ” He was considered Hugo Black’s n_____.”
Hearing the word in any context is jarring to me. But in the context of this speech, coming from this speaker, and in that location, it felt totally appropriate. It was used in the context of history by a person who had the authority–and the right– to use it.
I thought of that in relationship to the most recent flap over the word– its use by talk show host Laura Schlessinger, who then left her radio job as a result. Is there a First Amendment issue? No, you can use it. But there are real-world consequences, sometimes serious ones. Should there be? That question is the basis for an ongoing and complex debate.
Mary Mitchell wrote about it recently in the Sun-Times and cut the Gordian knot when she wrote: “Yes, I recognize this prohibition is a double standard. But given the painful history the word carries, this is a double standard that whites ought to be able to live with.”
Mary’s right. There’s probably no other word like it in our culture. It shouldn’t be that hard to understand why.