Art Attack – Sticks and stones
Jimmy Hendrix was a N-word. Jesus Christ and grandma, too. Jackson Pollock was a N–word N- Word, N–word, N– word, N–word, N-word, N-word.
PATTI SMITH’S UPDATED 1978 SONG “ROCK N ROLL N–WORD”
“Nigger.” It’s a hateful, offensive, oppressive word still used by racists, who for whatever reasons need to subjugate their fellow man.
And while this white man can’t possibly know how it feels to be hated based on skin color, I do know what oppression and a fist to the head feels like for simply being gay.
Somehow it’s acceptable for a black man to call another black man nigger, or a gay man to call another gay man faggot. Comic Chris Rock practically owes his career to the word – Seinfeld star Michael Richards, not so lucky. It’s complicated, confusing and problematic because this abhorrent word has permeated mainstream culture through hip-hop, movies and cable TV.
In the ‘80s I created a series of in-your-face “queer” t-shirts designed to disarm homophobes. The message: your words can’t hurt me because I’m proudly and defiantly wearing them on my chest. I took back the offensive words and eliminated their power.
I was unaware of Paula Deen and her empire until her recent, very public meltdown after acknowledging using a racial slur 30 years ago. That’s one powerful word! While I don’t condone bigotry in any form, there must be more to this story.
Most newspaper and broadcast organizations now replace “nigger” with “the N –word” no matter what the context. Can we even start a serious dialogue about racism when the media – so terrified of offending and being politically correct – can’t even utter a word so integral to the whole discussion?
In the Deen case, watching television pundits skirt around the word she obviously used would have been comical if not for the importance of the issue. Shielding the viewers’ ears as if they are kindergarten students unable to handle the truth serves no one.
When the Godmother of punk, Patti Smith, spat out the words to her 1978 “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” the song about people living “outside society” had a powerful impact on this impressionable “little faggot” who, at 22, was not yet totally comfortable in his sexuality.
Attempting to replace “nigger” with something less offensive in media and literature is ludicrous. Imagine Huck Finn calling his buddy N-Word Jim and you start to see the absurdity. The word has a history, and you can’t erase, or whitewash, history.
Norman Rockwell’s masterwork, “The Problem We All Live With,” displayed recently at Crystal Bridges depicts Ruby Bridges, the six year-old African American girl being escorted by four US Marshals to an all white public school. Scribbled on the wall behind her is the word nigger. It was a powerful and brave piece, for both artist and Look magazine, which originally published it in the magazine’s two-page centerfold in 1964. How less powerful the painting would have been had the offensive word been removed.
It is hoped that eventually “nigger” and “faggot” will become archaic, but until then their existence in our language should be acknowledged and their power diffused. These words are like bullets on a table, with zero power until loaded, aimed and fired.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.