This 'n' That

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


It was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early nineteen eighties.  During Eddie Murphy's stand up comic routine, he announced to the audience that on the count of three or maybe five, he and the audience were going to say aloud the forbidden, racist word that some people used in reference to black people.  As Mr. Murphy began his count down, one could sense the tension, the uneasiness audience members began to feel.  They didn't know whether or not he was serious.  And if he was, how should they respond, if at all?

Mr. Murphy paused at different intervals during his count down to admonish the audience that he wanted to hear them say the "n" word and not other derogatory words commonly used to insult black people.  He then began to list them:  "Alabama porch monkeys"; "Spear chuckers"; "Burr head", etc.
Nervous laughter.  There was some.  One can only surmise that the majority of those in attendance at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were white.  Not that those in the audience who may have been black would have felt more comfortable speaking the word out loud.  Nonetheless, nearer the time came for them to join Mr. Murphy in enunciating the epithet, the more prevalent the dreadful silence became.  Finally, Mr. Murphy chuckled and released the audience from what they feared they would have to say.  Instead he spoke a word that was completely innocuous.  Which resulted in cheers, laughter and relief from the audience.

The power the "n" word carried over three decades ago, still holds sway today.  Why?  In a television interview with Barbara Walters also in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy challenged Ms. Walters when he told her that everyone had used the "n" word at least once.  When Ms. Walters seemed to doubt Mr. Murphy, he asked her if she had ever used the word herself.  Wisely, Ms. Walters demurred and did not respond.  Her silence spoke more truth than anything she could have verbally expressed.

When President Obama, the first Black President elected in the United States, used the "n" word in a podcast interview with Marc Maron, it seemed to have accumulated more power than ever before.   Negative as it is.  President Obama dared to say what Eddie Murphy challenged people to say out in the open.  Inadvertently or otherwise President Obama also may have challenged us all and offered an opportunity to begin positive discussions about race in America.  A subject that seems to cause distress and therefore, fear and hatred.  And sadly violence.  Why can we not speak openly about how we think and feel when it comes to the subject of race relations?   We desperately need to.  It may be one way we can exorcise the demons of our dark and evil past that continue to haunt us in the present day and, perhaps, provide a brighter future for generations to come.