No more n’s

Howard Stern had a fascinating interview this morning with comic Paul Mooney, who, along with Richard Pryor, took some credit for popularizing and, they hoped desensitizing the use of the N-word. After Michael Richards’ implosion, Mooney has given up the word, saying that he and others held some responsibility for Richards. He also said that he spent a few hours meeting with Richards and Jesse Jackson in the redemption tour. What scared Richards most, he said, was when white people came up to him saying they agreed with him. Mooney said he has known Richards for 20 years and that what we saw on that camera-phone video was not a shtick gone out of control but a mental breakdown. He also said that Mel Gibson was the A-bomb and Richard is the fallout. Stern and Mooney recalled when Pryor came back from a trip to Africa and foreswore the word. Mooney was there that night and still used it. But no more.

I’ve been thinking that the dividing line has been not just the word and not just the race of the speaker but instead irony. When Pryor and Mooney and hip-hop artists used the word, they used it with obvious irony. When Richards used it, he had none. We Americans are often accused — usually by our witty British cousins — of being deaf to irony and that’s generally true.

  • ronbo

    “We Americans are often accused — usually by our witty British cousins — of being deaf to irony and that’s generally true.”

    Oh, please, must you really go there? I’m sure it’s a gas to be America’s minister of blogginess to the brilliant Brits, but I’m sure you would call bullshit on anyone else who engaged in such lame and easy stereotyping.

    Since I’m just a Murkin I’m probably wrong, but it seems to me that Pryor and Lenny Bruce (I’m not as familiar with Mooney although I’ve seen his act once) were being more than ironic, they were being genuinely subversive. They were using a comic crowbar to pry open the minds of audiences that needed to confront their own prejudices. When your act gets you arrested, that’s more than irony. It’s civil disobedience.

  • Uh… Ronbo… I was being… ironic.

  • ronbo

    My … uh… bad.

    Coffee kicked in before the meds.


  • As much respect that I have for Mooney’s career (which includes writing for SNL and Richard Pryor) I think he’s way off base here.

    The reason you have that Howard Stern tag is because many of your posts that include that tag are for pieces where you wrote about Free Speech. And as most people know, that inalienable right is there for troublesome words, not safe ones.

    When we have freedom of choice we can experience life-changing events like Pryor deciding for himself to no longer use the n word after returning from Africa.

    As a Black man I’m all in favor of people of all colors using the n word all they want, but I’m also in favor of people beating the piss out of non-blacks who use the word poorly, as in the case of Kramer.

    To me the n word is like lsd, semi-automatic weapons, and unprotected sex. In the wrong hands and in the wrong situations it could be a bad trip. But when used properly it can be a positive, life changing tool.

    Pryor used the n word powerfully almost every time he used it, but no more so than when he said, “When I went to Africa I didn’t see any niggers.”

    Likewise N.W.A also used the n word powerfully in their albums. At the time they were criticized for being reckless and worthless, but Dr. Dre and Ice Cube have spun off and created even more powerful music and movies that wouldn’t have seen the light of day if they hadn’t gotten their start with the inflammatory rap group.

    So Paul Mooney has taken his journey with the word and reached a new conclusion about it, but to try to prevent others from taking a similar journey, I believe is selfish and foolish.

  • wonderfully said, tony.

  • > wonderfully said, tony.

    Yeah, that’s one articulate ______


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