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Obama Learned The Truth From Lenny Bruce About The N-Word

Many people reacted negatively to President Obama’s recent use of the “n-word” in an interview. But Lenny Bruce would have been proud.


CNN reported that President Barack Obama “used the n-word” on a Monday podcast that references the f-word — “WTF with Marc Maron”:

“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

Even more than the president’s overarching message, his use of the word sparked major media coverage — and some serious negative pushback. The story above described the president’s quote as “jarring.” A lengthy second story at CNN by Stephen Collinson and Nia-Malika Henderson headlined “Why Obama’s N-word was shocking,” analyzed the use of the word from all angles:

“Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, told CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” that although he agreed with the president’s broader point on race, he would have preferred Obama to be less explicit.

“I wish he had chosen to say, quote, the ‘N’ word as opposed to saying the word, because I have been long on record that coarse language used in any context in the pubic square is not the best way to talk about these types of issues. The ‘N’ word has never had a positive meaning,” Morial said.”

Lenny Bruce is not afraid.

I couldn’t have been the only person to think of Lenny Bruce. Bruce was the stage name of Leonard Schneider, a comedian and social critic. His vulgar style earned him an obscenity conviction in 1964. He was pardoned of it in 2003 by Republican New York Gov. George Pataki.

He had a well known bit that is riddled with the n-word. It’s also riddled with too many derogatory ethnic slurs to count. I mean, riddled. Top to bottom. You can check it out here:

The text is here.

He says if President Kennedy would just go on television and say the word a bunch, ’til the word didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make a six-year-old black kid cry because he was called that name at school.

A few months ago, feminist Wendy Kaminer wrote in the Washington Post about what happened in the aftermath of a panel discussion she was part of:

A recent panel for Smith College alumnae aimed at “challenging the ideological echo chamber” elicited this ominous “trigger/content warning” when a transcript appeared in the campus newspaper: “Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.”

The president of the college had joked “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?” and “crazy” was changed to “ableist slur” in the transcript. Another panelist had mentioned that the State Department had, for a time, banned the use of the words “jihad,” “Islamist” and “caliphate” and the transcript described those words as “anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language.” They’re not!

She goes on:

I described the case of a Brandeis professor disciplined for saying “wetback” while explaining its use as a pejorative. The word was replaced in the transcript by “[anti-Latin@/anti-immigrant slur].” Discussing the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn,” I questioned the use of euphemisms such as “the n-word” and, in doing so, uttered that forbidden word. I described what I thought was the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.

Two of the panelists challenged me. The audience of 300 to 400 people listened to our spirited, friendly debate — and didn’t appear angry or shocked. But back on campus, I was quickly branded a racist, and I was charged in the Huffington Post with committing “an explicit act of racial violence.” [Smith President Kathleen] McCartney subsequently apologized that “some students and faculty were hurt” and made to “feel unsafe” by my remarks.

At a time when formerly liberal institutions such as universities are banning various words, including the n-word, no matter the context, President Obama’s use of the word helps take away the oppressive power of the speech-controllers on campus and in other institutions.

And in his own way, President Obama was making a small step toward Bruce’s vision of a world where we don’t let racist words have an inordinate amount of power. That’s a good and welcome use of his bully pulpit.