Last week, Samuel L. Jackson made news with the circulation of a video (the interview with Jackson starts at 13:56 — and warning! NSFW) of him goading film critic Jake Hamilton into saying “nigger” after asking Jackson about the abundant (gratuitous to some) use of the word in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. After Hamilton refused to say it and skipped over the question – still maintaining that “it was a great question”, though – Jackson responded with, “It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.”
First, let me say that I am loving the multiple dialogues that Django has started. We’re talking about black heroes! A black female playing the part of a damsel in distress! She doesn’t have to be strong because someone stronger is coming to rescue her! Does Tarantino have a white savior complex?! Is the movie a white savior complex in a nutshell?! But is The Bad Guy really the institution of slavery and not simply Leo DiCaprio with those wretched, wretched teeth?! All of these are great discussions we should be having.
It is nearly impossible, however, to talk about Django without talking about the word “nigger,” which was said with contempt, disdain, anger, and fear, and often rolled off the tongue with fleeting casualness by both blacks and whites alike over 100 times in the film. Some movie-goers believed that the use of the word was too much – that we could get it without having to hear it over and over again. Others believed that it was an accurate reflection of the time. Having seen Django, the word as it was used in the movie was barely a focus for me. There was so much more going on, so much more worth talking about, that I worried that we would forget to have those bigger conversations because we were so focused on this, what I perceived to be, minutia of a detail. The word itself, however, and the world that cultivated how we use it – and Jake Hamilton’s refusal to do so – is worth talking about.
Who it is acceptable for to say “nigger” and when is not a new conversation. The easy answer is: Black people – Yes. Everyone else – No. The school of thought in terms of if there is an appropriate time for a non-black person to say it varies and I, obviously, am not the authority on this, but am going to pretend that I am for the remainder of this article.
Context is important and I’m going to be a trailblazer here and not make the distinction between the “-a” ending and the “-er” ending because when it comes to non-blacks saying it, it really doesn’t matter. There is a difference between yelling it aggressively at someone or using it to describe a black person as you’re commenting in a reddit thread, and using it in thoughtful conversations in which the word itself is being discussed, that should be obvious. One is a pejorative meant to be demeaning and has been used for years to put black people in their place, the other takes on a more academic form rooted in culture and language.
Personally, so long as the word continues to be used as the former, I want us to say it when we’re engaging in the latter. I understand Hamilton’s hesitation and his uncomfortableness with saying it in terms of his question to Jackson, but I will say that I have wondered if he would be as uncomfortable using the word in addressing the question to any of the white actors in the movie – or talking about this very incident with his friends. That aside, we should be uncomfortable with this word. How uncomfortable we get when we hear it is a reminder of how much weight it carries. It’s not “just a word” to so many of us. It’s the idea of becoming complacent – when we don’t have any reaction to the word – that makes a lot of us nervous. Like that time you guys got punked by Jay-Z and Kanye West with Niggas In Paris. That song, and the accompanying Watch The Throne tour, was essentially a brilliant social experiment proving that, if given what they perceive to be permission, white people will say the ish out of “nigger.” That type of ease and comfortableness with the word by non-blacks is far more worrisome, and lends itself to much more useful discussions, than the many times that it was used in Django.
This isn’t to say that I, like Samuel L. Jackson, want to bully you into saying “nigger,” but I want us to be able to get past the utterance of the word itself so that we can engage one another in productive and intelligent discourse about the historical and cultural significance of it. Hamilton wasn’t able to have this conversation with Jackson because he wouldn’t say the word. That could have been a great conversation! Let’s ask great questions. Let’s say the words. Let’s get uncomfortable. And let’s have great conversations about all of it.
Featured image via Vibe