I usually don’t self-censor and would normally just say the word as if I were citing from the American novel English profs know as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by the esteemed Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who wrote famously of the character we would now have to call “N-word Jim.”
But such is the world we live in today when people fear the First Amendment, especially if it involves words that rhyme to a dance beat.
So for your sanitized protection, “N-word” it is.
Unless you are a courageous, heartfelt, shaved head, African-American male comedian named Larry Wilmore and then, by all means, say it, my brother.
And at the White House Correspondents Dinner this weekend, Wilmore did.
“When I was a kid I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback,” Wilmore said. “Now think about that: A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team. And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, I’m going to keep it a hundred. Yo Barry, you did it, my n—a.”
And with a fist-thump to the chest, it was “peace out” to the president, who responded in kind.
But in Washington, everything is up for debate. And, surprisingly, it was Rev. Al Sharpton who has been one of the loudest.
“Many of us are against using the N-word, period,” Sharpton said after the dinner, according to a Los Angeles Times report. “But to say that to the President of the United States in front of the top people in media was at best in poor taste.”
Sharpton plays politics. Satirists expose them. To not expose them would be malpractice.
Wilmore just wouldn’t have been doing his job properly if someone didn’t find him in poor taste.
Laughs really aren’t the name of the game when you’re making a point.
President Obama, who spends most of his life making a point, doesn’t generally get laughs at press conferences.
Here he was set up to get laughs.
You didn’t really expect him to tell a joke about Kendell Jenner, did you?
But if laughs are your standard, the president set a high bar right from the start of his eighth White House Correspondents Dinner.
Calling it “my last and perhaps the last White House Correspondents Dinner,” the president got a huge seven-second laugh.
To pro comics, three-seconds is a solid base hit.
A simple second-long laugh is a titter. You build on those.
But seven seconds? That’s like a grand slam.
And then Obama went for crowd vanity. “You look great,” he said. “The end of the republic has never looked better.”
Another solid seven seconds of laughter, with clapping!
Back-to-back grand slams.
But the president wasn’t done. And in a way he showed why we may miss his Obama-ness.
Because who else could have delivered the next joke in the open?
“I do apologize, I was a little late tonight,” said the president. “I was running on CPT.”
The reference to the recent comment of NY Mayor Bill DeBlasio in a skit with Hillary Clinton got another howling laugh that was close to seven seconds.
And then he tagged it by defining CPT.
The president said: “Which stands for jokes that white people shouldn’t make.”
A full :16 seconds more. With another tag that took it three seconds further, until he ended it with an, “Anyway …” transition.
Nearly :30 seconds of laughter is pro level. Fairly easy, if you’re President Obama whose status provides the setup.
As POTUS, say anything other than a passage from the State of the Union and you’ll get a laugh.
Wilmore couldn’t compete with that.
When you get laughs for a living, and you’re speaking to a room of the powerful, it’s better to let them laugh at the president, and just be real.
And Wilmore kept it real. He didn’t always hit, though he struck a nerve when he called CNN’s Don Lemon an “alleged journalist.”
And then Lemon, on camera, was caught giving Wilmore the finger.
Now that was in poor taste.
Wilmore comment on the pres?
Even the president pointed out, this was a time for “jokes white people shouldn’t make.”
This was as diverse and as real as a White House Correspondents Dinner will ever get.
And so what Wilmore said at the end of his monologue was fully appropriate.
It was the “N” word in all its re-appropriated glory.
Every single syllable intact.
Said exactly the way it should be said.
Not full of hate. But full of love.
And suddenly, the word got bigger.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator on race, politics and society who writes from California. He blogs at http://www.aaldef.org/blog