Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Of N-Words and Race Men

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Of N-Words and Race Men

Article excerpt

Washington, D.C., is such a racial hotbed that when a White man uses the word "niggardly" -- Teutonically speaking, of course -- the Black man whose ears were boxed by the arcane reference becomes the bad guy. The nation's capital is such a tinderbox that the niggling (which also means "petty, trivial, or picayune") use of niggardly has been blown into a referendum on whether a bow-tied wearing brother is "Black enough" for D.C.

When folks ask me to measure Blackness, I skip past the golf and bow ties, past the dashikis and red lights (remember that song "Be Real Black For Me"?), to the 1920s' definition of "race men," whose goal and role in life were the preservation and protection of Black folks. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams may be real Black for me, but he is no race man.

His choices for the first round of cabinet appointments were not only mostly White, but mostly male and gay. His second round hardly raised (or lowered) the bar. And in the midst of this, he came out sounding like massa', saying he cared less about race and ethnicity than about competence. I've heard too many White folks tell me that they could not find qualified Black folks to interpret Williams benignly. This is a case where imagery isn't everything, it's the only thing -- especially when the mayor's office has been transformed from mostly Black to mostly White and the mayor's aides are tossing around words like "niggardly."

Imagery is everything. Williams introduced his coterie of White folks and expected that Black folks wouldn't have anything to say. Then he introduced another set of them, and appeared wounded when the folks asked if he was "Black enough." I don't like those conversations that wonder whether melanin trumps, but I do hark back to the question about whether folks are "race men and women," those who took it upon themselves to protect and promote African Americans.

This is the crux of the Williams story: Do you believe Black folks need to be protected and promoted? Or do you think the playing field is so level that you, a Black man, can talk about "competence" with the same insensitivity that so many White men do? And can you really, as someone who can be even slightly perceived to be sensitive, suggest that Black folks need more dictionaries instead of suggesting that White folks need more sense?

I have a bunch of dictionaries in my house. I got one nearly three decades ago, when I graduated from high school. I got another when I wrote a piece and a reader thought I needed a big old two-volume dictionary. There's a funky little paperback here, something I bought at Kinko's two decades ago rather than be "uncovered" in debate. I have a bunch of dictionaries, and I understand that "niggardly" and "niggling" are not the same as the n-word.

But I am still annoyed, amazed, outdone that a White, male, restaurateur-turned-constituent-services-director, would be so empowered to be offensive that the nation's White press would build firewalls around him and offer Black folks dictionaries like some folks offer candy. David Howard has turned into a poster child for reverse discrimination and I don't like it. He is affable, assuasive, mellow, and malleable. He supports Mayor Williams and he understands that perhaps there are other ways to indicate a tightness in a budget -- that one might say "parsimonious," "frugal," or "miserly. …

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