Black Mischief

By Hitchens, Christopher | The Nation, March 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Black Mischief


Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation


On East Capitol Street a few years ago, I was in a taxi when a car pulled suddenly and dangerously across our bow. My driver was white, with a hunter's cap and earmuffs and an indefinable rosy hue about his neck. The offending motorist was black. Both vehicles had to stop sharply. My driver did not, to my relief, say what I thought he might have been about to say. I uttered a neutral expletive or two. The black man got out of his car, face alight with rage, and walked over. "I think," he said, "that you just said something." I thought I knew what it was that he fancied I had said. Again, the driver was a real trooper. "Hey man," he said, "he didn't say anything nasty." Unconvinced by this, our near-miss new acquaintance called me a "cracker" and a "honkie" and some other things, got back into his car and roared away.

If he had hoped to hurt my feelings by uttering these "slurs," he only succeeded in a fashion he didn't really intend (i.e., by challenging my antiracist credentials, of which he was pardonably unaware). And he seemed to sense the inadequacy of the repertoire at his disposal, whereas all three of us knew that there was a word, available only to two of us, that could have completely spoiled the other's day. I don't know and can't really imagine what it is like to be in such an unequal position.

Perhaps it is partly this inequality, and the history that underlies and reinforces it, that makes Randall Kennedy want to detoxify the word. In his new book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, he takes encouragement from the fact that many black people flaunt the term among themselves, and he seeks to extend the repeal of the taboo. Kennedy, a distinguished African-American teacher of law (and a Nation editorial board member), studies the many cases where the word has ended up in the dock, so to speak, and been adjudicated as an act of violence or incitement. "How should nigger be defined?" he inquires. "Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook?"

Well, in answer to the second question, yes it is. It is not just a term of hatred (whereas all or most of the others are terms of mere dislike or contempt) but a grim, sneering reminder and an attempt to put certain people "in their place." As to the rather oddly phrased question, I don't know whether it "warrants preservation," but it is certainly "a part of the American cultural inheritance" that doesn't deserve to be airbrushed or prettified.

Dick Gregory wrote a book with the same name some years ago, telling his mother that every time she heard the word from now on, she could tell herself that people were advertising her son's work. But that's a different type of detoxification. Many words now in uncontroversial use--such as "Tory," "Impressionist"and "suffragette"--were originally coined as terms of abuse and then adopted "ironically" by their targets. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Black Mischief
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.