Posts Tagged ‘Rembert Browne’

Samuel L. Jackson, when promoting his latest movie, demanded that a white interviewer say the N-word, instead of saying “the N-word.”

The exchange went, in part, like this:

Hamilton: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the N-word, in this movie.
Jackson: No? Nobody? None … the word would be?
Hamilton: [Whispered.] I don’t want to say it.
. . .
: OK, forget it.
Hamilton: I’ll skip it. Sorry, guys. It was a good question.
Jackson: No it wasn’t.
Hamilton: It was a great question.
Jackson: It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.

I had neither heard nor heard about this interview until I read Rembert Browne’s recent Grantland article “Django, the N-Word, and How We Talk About Race in 2013.”  Browne writes about cultural ownership and “Django Moments,” building to the embedded video and full transcript of this exchange between Jackson and the film critic Jake Hamilton.

I have not yet seen Django Unchained, so I can’t and won’t comment on the movie itself.Sam-Jackson-Django-unchained-scowl  I have not yet seen because, dang, y’all, I’ve been busy.  The author and director Candace Allen has seen it, and writes well about the various controversies surrounding it.  The Guardian’s David Cox wonders if the movie has “defused the ‘n-bomb,'” and Tamara Ikenberg singles out Jackson’s performance for particular praise.

I know I should want to see it, since its director calls it a “Spaghetti Southern,” a Western set in the South.  That seems like a logical transfer to me, and I’m curious to see how Quentin Tarantino pulls it off.

I’m more curious, though, to see how Django Unchained depicts and deals with slavery.  I have to give Tarantino some credit for dealing with slavery at all, since it’s so much easier to make a historical epic or adventure movie that doesn’t deal with slavery, the way The Patriot didn’t.*

If you’re going to discuss – or even just think about – the history and culture of the South with any seriousness and honesty, you have to deal with the fact that the overwhelming majority of Southerners, from 1622 until at least 1865, countenanced, enabled, encouraged, praised, and/or fought and died for the enslavement of millions of fellow human beings.

And once you start dealing with that fact – with any seriousness and honesty – you have to recognize that the questions and the record are complex and thicketty, even though it all boils down to the simple moral certainty that no individual should consider another individual as property.

You also should recognize that slavery and its legacy isn’t just a problem for the South.  I have heard the theory that the South actually is ahead of the nation in racial reconciliation, since history has forced the South to confront the issues more directly than has the rest of the country.  I don’t know enough about the rest of the country to know if that theory has any merit.  I know that the late, great coach ‘Big House’ Gaines said once that New York City could be more dangerous than the South for a black man in the 1940s, since the South posted signs telling him where he wasn’t welcome, while in the North he had to figure it out himself, quickly.

I know that the South has come a long, long way just in my own lifetime, and that we are still a long, long way from good, if “good” means that we all size up each other based on the content of character, rather than the color of skin.

I know that when I was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, all my white male classmates and I watched The Dukes of Hazzard and wanted a General Lee of our own, complete with the Stars and Bars on the roof and “Dixie” on the horn, and we never thought twice about it.  We went on field trips to Civil War battlefields and bought gray field caps and Confederate flag bumper stickers and didn’t see a damn thing wrong with it.

Even we knew better, though, than ever to use the N-word.  We learned, often as soon as we learned the word itself, that it was as taboo as the profanities that rhyme with ‘Nothersmucker and Cheeses H. Riced.

Maybe even more so, since the prohibition on the N-word had less to do with moral probity or progressive sensitivity than with practical safety.  We attended public schools only a handful of years into bussed integration, and public use of the N-word would have multiplied our chances of getting the ever-living shit beaten out of us.

Even as an adult, writing fiction set in the South of the recent and distant past, knowing that the N-word is the word that would have been used, I have trouble writing it.  The reason isn’t “political correctness”; it’s simple decency.  What right do I have to use that word?  How would I feel about it, if I was on the other side of the South’s racial history?  How do I feel when Northerners throw around words like ‘redneck’ and ‘cracker,’ with a far less sensitive history behind them?

And if Samuel L. Jackson – who, before he was Jules Winnfield or Nick Fury in the movies, was an usher at Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s funeral – wanted me to say the word, what would I do?  I feel like any choice I made would feel wrong, but I think that I would and should say it, without undue embarrassment; it is, after all, only a word, no matter how loaded and heavy.  Allen, in the article linked to above, writes, “To those who fear that any usage of the word confers it legitimacy, I say that those wishing to join their vocabularies and destinies with the likes of Candie [the slaveowner played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django] are already far gone down the road to perdition and diagnostic tools to ferret them out are always helpful. Presently the word is in the closet, not the grave. Serious discussion and soul-searching demands saying the word.”

“And in the world we live in today,” Browne writes near the end of his piece, “where access to various modes of public expression is becoming increasingly accessible, the walls around ‘talking about race’ are rapidly crumbling. Finally. And, just as a heads-up, if this makes you uncomfortable, if the idea of potentially offending someone is your greatest fear, or if you’re content to discuss it like a simpleton, then 2013 might not be your year.”

If that’s the case, then the question becomes: Whose year will it be?

* According to The Patriot, in 1780, all of one South Carolinian owned all of one slave.  The slaveowner is roundly condemned; the one racist on the Patriot side has seen the error of his ways in time for the Battle of the Cowpens.  The black people seen working on the farm owned by Mel Gibson’s character explain to the British villain that they are free people, working for hire, which would have put their employer at a crippling economic disadvantage to his competitors; he’d have gone bankrupt if the war hadn’t come along.


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