The other day, movie critic Roger Ebert, who’s a prolific user of Twitter, longtime husband to a black woman, and pretty socially aware guy generally speaking, posted this tweet:
I’d rather be called a Nigger than a Slave. http://bit.ly/hr7Ti8
The link, as you might guess, being to a story about the upcoming edits to make Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn more politically correct by changing every instance of the word “nigger” in the book to “slave.”
Apparently, he experienced some negative fallout from that tweet, as one can see by a tweet he made the next day that said this:
You know, this is very true. I’ll never be called a Nigger *or* a Slave, so I should have shut the **** up. http://bit.ly/gVRLu0
The link in that tweet links to a post at the “Oh No They Didn’t” site, which likes to break celebrity gossip and take the famous down a peg when they deserve it (and also when they don’t). The ONTD post seemed to have a bit more venom than I think was deserved, in part because it was posted pretty soon after Ebert’s first tweet and accuses him of making no response or apology to the outrage. (Really? You know how much outraged response he got? And you know that he was ignoring it when he probably barely had had the time to process it?)
As I type this, that post still hasn’t been updated to note the he has, in fact, now done exactly that (apologize, that is, and he did that early in the day…and I’m typing this as 5 p.m.). I know that the author of the ONTD post is aware of the fact Ebert posted an apologetic tweet promptly, because the author has responded to comments that pointed out Ebert must read ONTD, since he responded with a retraction of his words. So I guess making him look bad is more fun that updating the post to be accurate and give him credit where it’s due.
But my little rant about fairness aside, what I really want to talk about is the point that seems to have been missed. People visiting the ONTD site made comments like Ebert has no right to use the word “nigger” and he won’t ever be called one so he should shut the fuck up about the issue. Some even suggested he had no right to comment on the deletion of the N-word from Twain’s book (which makes no sense) and many pointed out (rightly so) that being married to a black woman doesn’t make him a black man or entitle him to throw around the N-word.
Thing is, he didn’t “throw it around.” His use of the word had a context.
Moreover, the outrage misses a very important point: That Roger Ebert is right.
I’m sorry if this loses me some readers (quite a lot of whom are black, in fact). But in addition to making a legitimate comment on the stupidity of removing the N-word to sanitize a book for modern political correctness and dilute its positive message about treating people as people (Twain was a pretty racially aware and socially minded guy, especially for his times)…well…wouldn’t most black people indeed (granted, Ebert isn’t one and never will be) rather be a nigger than a slave?
It seems to me that such a sentiment is sort of implicit in Ebert’s tweet. To be called a slave means you probably are a slave, and that’s a life that is horrific and demeaning in its entirety. To be called a nigger is demeaning, to be sure, but it is an insult, not a lifestyle that is forced on you. To have the N-word flung at you is a sign of hatred but it also is often a sign of fear. That’s not healthy, but I think most black people would rather be insulted for being seen as scary (as screwed up as that mindset of many non-blacks is) than to be enslaved.
In fact, I daresay that if Samuel L. Jackson had tweeted “I’d rather be called a nigger than a slave” people would be saying “Hell yeah!”
Yes, Ebert took a risk making that tweet, and he regrets it. And it’s true that he doesn’t know what it feels like to be a black man. But I’ll tell you this much: He’s a lot closer to knowing than most of the annoying white “I’m liberal so I can’t be racist” people slamming him right now. I, too, am married to a black woman and while this doesn’t make me black either, nor allow me to totally understand the black experience, I know a lot about how racism affects black people. I’ve seen its effects on my wife and Son of Blue, and one day I will see it affect Little Girl Blue.
Tell me, honestly, if you’re black and read my blog: Would you rather be a slave or be considered a [insert the N-word here because if I use it again I might be labeled a racist by an ONTD fan or Huffington Post devotee]?
And if your answer is the same as Roger Ebert’s, does his tweet diminish the value of that thought simply because he is white?
It’s going to be really hard to have racial discussions if we jump down a man’s throat for trying to say something meaningful and perhaps coming off wrong because he only had 140 characters in which to express himself.