In Case You Still Don’t Get It: A Word From Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney on The N Word
This is Rich in the film, Live on the Sunset Strip, around 1982, sometime after he combusted from either a suicide attempt or an actual freebasing episode. He had gone to Africa, The Motherland, on vacation, and he had a message for his fans.
I have said before that I loved Richard Pryor as a comic genius. I loved him even when he used The N Word. Why? Because Richard, first and foremost, was a storyteller. He became Mudbone, the sarcastic antithesis of Uncle Remus. He allowed us to reclaim our humanity and allowed us to blow off steam for what bugged and pissed us off most in our lives and relationships. His vocabulary was the vocabulary of frustration, not necessarily just anger, about how to live with what we were given–even to be free. He told us he was crazy, so we weren’t surprised at some of the stuff we heard and read about in the media about him. The story of his life–and his gift for voices, observation and storytelling–is bigger than his rampant use of The N Word. And that’s why I can still listen to his comedy albums or films.
But I don’t allow my enjoyment of Richard Pryor to color my social interactions with others or to define my ethics. It may have been his street, but it wasn’t mine.
The man who helped to make Richard Pryor, comedian Paul Mooney, saw the 2006 Michael Richards controversy as a wake-up call. He swore off using The N Word in his comedy from henceforth.
Bankrate: I interviewed you last year, and we talked about your attitudes toward the N-word. At the time, you said you were fine with it.
Paul Mooney: I was the ambassador for the word. I was married to it. My best friend, Richard Pryor, he was the first one to say, “Don’t say the word.” He was the first comedian and human being to say that to me. He went to Africa, he said he didn’t hear the word, he didn’t see any N-people, and when he got back to America he wasn’t going to say it. But I couldn’t see the forest for the N-word.
Bankrate: After the Michael Richards incident, you got a phone call from Jesse Jackson, asking you to meet with Michael. When you went into that meeting, what did you intend to say to him?
Paul Mooney: I intended to help him, because I knew what he was going through. I knew he freaked out. He had a breakdown. I know a breakdown when I see it. It wasn’t a performance. It was a complete nervous breakdown.
Bankrate: So you don’t think it has anything to do with his real attitude toward …
Paul Mooney: No. No. There are a lot of Michael Richards out there. A lot of Americans have that in them. They saw that monster, and they didn’t like it.
Bankrate: What kind of reactions have you had from people since you announced your decision to stop using the N-word?
Paul Mooney: When I was using it, I was called a racist, which is ridiculous. I was called a communist, a demon. I used it; everyone else wants to use it, so make your mind up. So far, I’ve received negative and positive reactions. Some people worship me for it, others call me sellout. It’s very funny.
Bankrate: And so many people say that by using the word or respelling it, that black people have reclaimed it and removed its power. What are your thoughts on that argument?
Paul Mooney: I used to be into that, but I’m not anymore. I divorced the word. I want to live in a world where there is no N-word. How about that?
Bankrate: There seems to be a big generational difference in the black community. People in their 20s and 30s haven’t always been through what a lot of older black folks have been through.
Paul Mooney: They don’t understand. They have no clue.
At least, Dave Chappelle got a clue. Chapelle pulled up short using The N Word some months before Michael Richards cracked up in November 2006.
The comedian even had a segment on his THE DAVE CHAPPELLE SHOW about an all-white family, called the Niggars – but he admits the word is being misused and he’s part of the problem.
Chappelle says, “That word can still start a fight… I still say it in personal conversation with my friends, I say it sometimes on stage at the comedy club and I’m not gonna make a promise that I won’t say it again on television but right now I just feel like people aren’t responsible enough.
“There are certain things I’ve been through in the last year and there’s certain things I’ve heard people say and also all of the older black women in my family… they really get on to me about it.”
Even with older black women who are not necessarily family. Chappelle’s visit with Maya Angelou during the course of the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts series saw them differ on the use or non-use of The N Word.
[…] Chappelle argued that he can use “ugly words” because people know his intentions are good, while Angelou maintained the word was dehumanizing. Still, Chappelle remained deferential throughout, telling Angelou, “I know you’re going to crush me in a minute.”
Ugly words come from ugly minds. That’s where The N Word comes from, and it did not originate with black people.
In researching this piece, I read from white fans of Chappelle who had enjoyed immensely how Chappelle used The N Word on his show and how it had supposedly “liberated” them from holding back in describing and labelling blacks. Add a wingnut or right-wing point-of-view to this mix, and it rates with the toxic atmosphere around race in the middle of the last century.
I’m sure I can’t keep people from feeling what they do. But that’s why there are Old School things like dialogue and social discourse that break down barriers to understanding. And how you learn to respect other people as individuals beyond stereotypes, discomfort, and racial epithets through your parents, your schools, your religion, and others. At least, being Old School, that’s how I was trained and socialized. These days, that kind of thing has flown out the window.
It is illogical and irrational to stigmatize and hang onto fallacies about whole peoples, subsets of women, or even with Muslims, whole religions. As a result, racist behavior (particularly among whites) is now being studied by and debated in the psychological community as akin to mental illness.
When it comes to The N-Word, it pays to remember an old saying in our community that you shouldn’t say anything that you’re not able to back up with your dukes. That’s why Howard Stern thinks Laura Schlessinger, a woman who previously tried to abridge his First Amendment rights, is a coward. From Electronic Urban Report (EUR):
Ironically, Dr. Laura was accused of trying to snatch away Stern’s first amendment rights more than 10 years ago.
As part of a proposed deal to launch a talk show with CBS in 1999, Laura demanded that the studio forbid Stern from insulting her on his radio show, which was owned by CBS at the time.
When CBS refused to muzzle Stern, Dr. Laura backed out of the deal and ran to Paramount.