Why You Cannot Use the N-Word: Observations from ‘Kill ‘Em and Leave’ re James Brown
December 15, 2022
If you read James McBride and you are white, it may dawn on you why you cannot say the n-word and Blacks can—at least it did on this northern white boy as he was turning through the pages of ‘Kill em and Leave,’ a James Brown biography. They do it freely—at least some will. You cannot. ‘What gives with that?’ many a white person has said.
You’ll muck it up is why. It’s like the power saw your dad would use with ease but he wouldn’t let you touch it. It cuts unpredictably. He knew. You didn’t. He had experience you did not. So it is with the n-word. Best to just accept it as the way it is. Blacks can say it. You can’t. You haven’t had the same experiences as they. You’ll muck it up. They won’t.
It’s like when I called door to door and a woman told me to return at end of day if I could because her husband loved to talk Bible. So I did. The black man, just returned from work, still in his work clothes, ushered me into to his living room. Assorted Bibles and commentaries lined his bookcase. The man was instantly likable, a serious student of the Word who was not wound up too tight, did not embrace dogmatism, did not take himself too seriously, and had a kindly way about him—but that doesn’t mean he would be any pushover. Differences of interpretation soon emerged. He directed me to such and such a passage, but when it dawned on him that I meant to read it aloud, he exclaimed in mock-panic, good-naturedly chuckling at his predicament, “No. Don’t you be the one to read it. You’ll muck it up!” He had intended to emphasize different words.
Same with the n-word. You’ll muck it up if you say it. They won’t. You won’t appreciate the James Brown who moves north “where the white man’s foot was off your neck” but later returns south where “I know who I’m dealing with.” It’s like when Leroy White raises his hand at the Watchtower study and unselfconsciously recalls before the 50/50 congregation when he was “working for the white man” back in Mississippi—naw, you won’t understand all the nuances, but it doesn’t matter to him.
Leroy White—the man who I hoped might give my funeral talk had he not pre-deceased me, because I knew it would be a beaut: “Hee-hee-hee—that Tom Harley was a good ‘ol boy,” he would boom in his deep voice, “but he’d deeaaad now—D-E-A-D!” Leroy White, who his son confirmed at his funeral, passed up an invitation to tour with B.B. King, because he knew it would be detrimental to family and spirituality—just like James Brown’s friend Leon didn’t know it but came to find out, thankfully in time to not derail his stable life. Leroy White, who would jam guitar with congregation brothers of both races young enough to be his grandchildren.
It’s also like when I worked in the ministry with Alma and she told me of her early days as a Witness. As a return visit was wrapping up, the householder asked if she would mind taking the trash to the curb on her way out. ‘Oh sure!’ she starts to bristle inside, ‘look right at me, the black woman, and ask me to take out the trash!’ Knowing she might explode, her white companion grabbed that trash and took off with it. ‘What would Jesus do?’ she said later.
‘I dunno,’ my wife said later at the nervy request. ‘It could have been that way but I can think of many clueless people asking it oblivious to racial concerns.’ That’s the trouble. You don’t know. The boorish white person who assigns a menial task to me, I don’t think of race for a second, but if I were black—then I would. I haven’t been there. That’s why I can’t say the n-word. Fortunately, I don’t feel a need to—notwithstanding how I feed my Civil War book into Word dictation and it stars out the n-word—not only the n-word, but also ‘Negro’—not only ‘Negro’ but also dix (Ft Dix), hooker (General Hooker), and Fanny (a once-common woman’s name. Political correctness anyone? Never mind if it thwarts comprehension. Blacks can say any of those words, including the n-word. But you cannot say the latter. You’ll muck it up.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have essentially solved racial prejudice. More than any other atmosphere I have even experienced, they have solved it—by instilling such passages as Acts 10:34-35, taking for granted the reality there taught: “At this Peter began to speak, and he said: ‘Now I truly understand that God is not partial, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” It’s like when one of those Bethel brothers—I forget who—was chewed out by some social activist for not taking a more active role in social affairs. ‘Why should we?’ he retorted. ‘We have solved most of the problems that you are yet grappling with. Why should we trade the superior for the inferior?’
But it’s not perfect. In the all-white suburbs you might find a youngster uttering something none to racially sensitive, particularly if they heard such remarks in a religiously divided home. They wouldn’t say it in front of my daughter, however.
“Dad, it’s not like I remember you ever giving any speeches about it,” she said. “It’s just in how you treated people—you treated everyone the same.” When told her friends in those all-white suburbs would caution each other not to inadvertently say anything derogative because Robin was particularly sensitive to it, she’d erupt, ‘Forget me! What about Jehovah?!”
I’d like to say it’s due to my training as a Witness. And I’m sure it is. But it is also no doubt due to my being the grand nephew (through marriage) to the black heavyweight fighter Joe Jennette—the fighter who routinely fought Jack Johnson until the latter captured the formerly-reserved-for-whites World Heavyweight Title, and thereafter he also would not face black opponents. Doubtless due to my folks witnessing his troubles—the mixed marriage made our entire extended family “the disgrace of the neighborhood,” said my dad—I grew up in a home where prejudicial remarks were never heard. I was slow to imagine that any white family might be different.
Joe even has a chapter named after him in ‘Go Where Tom Goes.’ I had gone to Union City, to spy out his old gym and three apartments, which during the depression once housed all my relatives. It still stands. But nobody was home as I knocked on all the doors. The Joe Jennette plaque was encased in an opaque stainless steel box, probably to protect against vandalism. The street crossing guard just a few yards from me knew nothing of the building’s history nor Joe.
Even the white police detective with a side interest in boxing, the one who wrote about Joe Jennette, was nowhere to be found. I roamed the area and in time spotted his name, Joe Botti, on a plaque for the ‘Union City Boxing Club’ affixed to the police station. But when I made to enter the police station, a huge building that seemed to comprise an entire city block, I found it was abandoned and locked. Down the street, however, was a ‘Police Command Station’ trailer. I opened the door, expecting a lobby area, and instead found myself interrupting a three-person conference in a tiny room
With some embarrassment, I asked about Botti. ‘Oh, he retired ages ago,’ one of the officers told me. ‘Sometimes the guys stop in to visit after they retire, but we don’t see him at all,’ a circumstance he allowed might have something to do with the fellow’s contented life and a new girlfriend. As to the police station, “the city condemned that long ago. That’s why were here in this trailer.”
I read Botti’s book, parts of it. It delves into my great uncle’s boxing life in commendable detail, and his personal life as well—but it makes the odd blunder of writing as though it were Joe himself writing in the first person. My cousin, the family historian, says she isn’t crazy about the book. It puts all sorts of progressive words in his mouth that don’t ring true to those few still alive who knew him. “Unkie would never had said that!” my cousin fumes.
That’s why Joe Botti also should not say the n-word. He too, will muck it up. Even writing in what he thinks is a supportive stance, he’ll muck it up.
****** The bookstore