Who Gets to Say It?

The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).

My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.

My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.

The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”

I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?

Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?

The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.

Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!

The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!

Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”

This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?

The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.

Jesus’ Health-Care Legislation

Jesus' Health-Care Legislation for Urban FaithOur culture’s current brand of political strife is nothing compared to the division and hostility that prevailed in the first century. Yet, despite opposition, the Great Physician boldly demonstrated what it means to welcome and care for “the least of these.”

Last month the United State House of Representatives voted to pass health-care reform, thus affording millions of medically uninsured Americans the opportunity to secure basic health-care as a civil right. This historic legislative act is an attempt for America to become a more civil society (with regard to “the sick and poor among us”) — similar to most other first world (and some third world nations) like Canada and parts of Western Europe. During my four-year stint in England to work on my doctorate at the University of Manchester, my family and I were under the National Health Care system (NHS) whereby every citizen and resident was assigned a general practitioner in the area. Quite a paradigm shift from what we’d known in the United States.

Despite the significance of such a major legislative passage in our nation, a partisan dispute continues. The reform measures were largely supported by Democrats, the uninsured, and sympathetic others. But Republicans and some among the privileged class argue that the legislation will bankrupt America in various ways. They also resent the fact that their tax dollars will be used to help pay for the coverage of less-privileged individuals in our society.

Contention over this legislative act has sparked volatile tension and a curious rash of narcissism: seemingly ordinary citizens (protesters) have reacted with a sense of barbarism, hurling racial slurs and other derogatory epithets at members of Congress. Reports of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri being spat upon by angry protesters are now well known. Likewise, Congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and James Clyburn of South Carolina were heckled and called “nigger” as they passed protesters outside the House chambers.

It’s enough to make one recall the violent emotion and political chaos that set the scene for Jesus’ arrest and subsequent trial before Pilate:

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matthew 27:20-30, NRSV)

Similar to modern America, the late Second Temple Judaic period (the period in which Jesus lived and ministered) was as diverse, volatile, and politically charged as our world today. Under Roman rule, heterogeneity with regard to philosophical thought and religious sentiments set the backdrop of first century Palestine. In Palestine, the Israelites maintained a sense of religious Judaic tradition. As an imperial province, new ideas were viewed with suspicion, especially if they challenged traditional thought and the status quo.

Although Judaism by no means was a unified monolith, certain fundamentals were foundational (the function of the Temple, observance of the Mosaic Law or Torah, embracing monotheism, and the expectation of a prophesied Messiah). As a result of tradition and the law, many in the society, especially the sick, were prohibited full inclusion in social-civil-religious life; this led to legal disenfranchisement and marginalization.

As recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus both lived and functioned in this type society. Throughout the Gospels, he went about engaging and healing many who were sick. Jewish purification laws first outlined in the Pentateuch set social-civil-religious policy against persons considered impure: the leper, those with bodily discharge, the lame, and even the Gentiles. The acts of Jesus were contrary to the current policy. In Mark 5, Jesus interacted with a demon possessed man (who dwelled among corpses), was touched by a woman considered impure with bodily discharge, and touched the corpse of a young boy. In all three cases, Jesus enacted legislative health care (healing that went contrary to current policy), thus restoring these individuals back to full participation in the society.

As a result of his universal health-care plan, as well as his controversial declaration that he was the incarnate Son of God, Jesus was persecuted, spat upon, and mocked. James 5:14-16 sums up the kind of health-care plan that Jesus enacted:

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (NRSV).

Our newly passed health-care legislation is a good start and will likely help many who are in need. Nevertheless, it’s still an imperfect plan, the patchwork result of much political squabbling and strife. But the health-care plan of Jesus is something altogether different. It is comprehensive, unfailing, and truly universal.