This morning in Detroit at their annual convention, the NAACP held a funeral. There was a coffin, a long, slow horse-drawn procession from the church to the cemetery, pall bearers, mourners dressed in black, and speeches given in remembrance of the deceased. It was not a slain civil rights leader or a victim of a hate crime being laid to rest; it was “nigger,” the granddaddy of all racial epithets. The word.
It all seems very silly to me, yet another sign that the NAACP, once the most important civil rights organization in the world, is now more interested in hollow publicity stunts than in actually trying to help people. Then again, I’ve never been called a nigger. Though hearing the word used pejoratively makes me angry and uncomfortable, I’ll never know what it feels like to have that slur directed at me. Maybe then I’d feel differently. As it stands, I can’t help thinking that the NAACP is attacking the symptom instead of the disease. Of course “nigger” can be a vile and hurtful word when employed out of anger or prejudice; in that context, it is probably the ugliest word in the English language. But the word itself isn’t the problem — it’s the attitudes that drive people to use the word in such a vicious way. There are lots of other epithets racist white folks can throw at black people. Growing up in a rural community populated almost entirely by undereducated rednecks, I heard ‘em all: jigaboo, jungle bunny, porch monkey, spade, spook, darky, coon — people around here are especially fond of “coon.” We can hold symbolic funerals for all those words too, and it wouldn’t change a thing. Words are not the problem.
And anyway, about this funeral, does a word as unlikable as “nigger” really deserve such a lavish send-off? I know the “mourners” cheered at the end, but still, doesn’t giving the most infamous racial slur ever a memorial service and formal burial (complete with headstone — I’d love to see that one) send a mixed message? If the NAACP were determined to bury “nigger,” it seems to me they could have managed something more appropriate — a quiet service for friends and family of the deceased, with only rappers and skinheads invited to the service. Dr. Dre and Johnny Rebel could’ve been lead pall bearers, Chris Rock could have given a hilarious-yet-thought-provoking eulogy, and the not-so-dearly departed could have been laid to rest anonymously in the plot of some prison graveyard outside of Detroit (there must be a few of those around). If “nigger” must have been buried, it should have been buried that way, consigned without fanfare to linguistic oblivion.
Instead we got another circus, tailor-made for the clownish likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who will always be ready to rush the stage should anyone ever start to think that the civil rights movement is still about helping people escape and overcome prejudice. It hasn’t been about that for quite some time.