Nobody (other than some alert Tweeters I just found) seems to have paid much attention to a particular word President Obama spoke during his recent interview by comedian Marc Maron for the latter’s WTF podcast, a podcast that was the subject, shortly afterwards, of this Fresh Air interview of Maron by Terri Gross:
That word—actually, a name--- that Obama spoke, in passing, that nobody seemed to notice, was the first word out of his mouth after Maron asked him a spontaneous question at 1:02:53, right before the end of the podcast:
Maron: You like comedy?
Obama: I love comedy.
Maron: Who are your guys?
Obama: Pryor was one.
The President was referring, of course, to the late Richard Pryor, and he then went on to name Dick Gregory and Jerry Seinfeld as other favorites, before the subject quickly changed and the interview ended.
Now here’s the funny (as in funny-strange) thing about that collective not-noticing. There was another word that the President spoke during an earlier portion of that interview (beginning at 45:32) that was noticed by everyone who heard it. Indeed, that word became the subject of a media furor that brought it to the attention of countless millions of people in the US and around the world:
Obama: I always tell young people in particular: 'Do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America ----- unless you've lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or '60s, or '70s.’ It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it.
Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it.
Obama: And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.
So what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave, commemorating the march there, was, again, a notion that progress is real, and we have to take hope from that progress. But what is also real is that the march isn't over, and the work is not yet completed. And then our job is to try in very concrete ways to figure out, what more can we do?"
I am sure that I don’t need to tell you that the word everyone noticed in that segment of the interview is the N Word. And the furor, as anyone reading this probably also already knows, was about whether the President ought to have spoken it publicly.
Now, it will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that I found that furor to be only the latest in a series of increasingly desperate attempts by the Far Right to characterize the President (as Marc Maron aptly put it) as Satan incarnate. I am of the camp who applaud the President for so shrewdly and thoughtfully using the N Word publicly as he did in that instance, in order to make an important point very tellingly---using his bully pulpit to do what he can to keep race relations improving during the remainder of his Presidency. And it is the amazing grace and tact that he has always shown in all his public utterances which makes his using that loaded word so particularly powerful.
His unspoken, yet powerfully delivered point, as I understand it, is that white racists no longer being able to use that ugly word in a hateful way, with impunity, is a good thing, of course. However, let’s be real, he’s saying, this is only one step in the long, painful, uncertain path toward true racial conciliation and justice in America.
And consider this. Barack Obama has endured being called N-- countless times: verbally, in print, and on the Internet. In fact, due to his historically unique position, he probably merits an entry in the Guinness Book of Records---he has been called that name more than any black person before has ever been called that name. The name-callers constitute a legion of benighted cowardly bigots who still cannot accept the fact, 6 ½ years into his Presidency, he sits in the White House as the first black President—and as of this very moment, his popularity ratings are higher than they’ve been since shortly after his reelection—and little wonder. And so, what a grotesque irony it would be, if he of all people did not have the moral standing to use that awful word in the careful, righteous way he did, in the context of a powerful statement about the path toward ending racism, and taking us closer to the still-distant finish line.
And speaking of lines, here’s my punch line, which perhaps some of you have already guessed. If you had to pick one word that defined Richard Pryor’s extraordinary career as comedian and social commentator, and especially the twenty years from the mid 60’s to the mid 80’s during which he reigned supreme in that field, it would have to be….the N Word—as in the title of his first smash hit album—“That N--‘s Crazy!”. And so, the rest of this post springs from the fact that my favorite comedian of all time is….also Richard Pryor, and has been for over 30 years!
I find it extraordinarily interesting, and no coincidence at all, that the President used the N Word during the WTF interview, and then, a scant 15 minutes later, referred to Richard Pryor as his favorite comedian. For those who are familiar with Pryor’s complicated genius and legacy, the President’s comedic taste for his particular brand of comedy speaks volumes.
First, then, for those who are not familiar, but are interested to know more, I have three YouTube videos to recommend to you, the definitive crash course in Richard Pryor:
First, there is the excellent 2013 documentary, Richard Pryor, Omit the Logic, which I only heard about and then watched, mesmerized, the other day, as it was clearly a labor of love produced by those who loved and understood his talent, and it presents his life in a rich and empathic way:
Second, the 1982 stand-up performance by Richard Pryor that defined his career (and was my first real exposure to his comedy, especially given that I saw it in a theater in South Florida surrounded by a mostly black audience, whose enjoyment of his magic was, to say the least, contagious!), displaying his mature comedic genius at its peak, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip:
And third is the eerily prescient, absurdist segment from Richard Pryor’s short-lived 1977 TV show, in which he played the role of the 40th President of the United States giving a press conference you’ll never forget, and making you wonder if he had a crystal ball then which had allowed him to see 30+ years into the future:
You don’t need to have seen any of those videos to follow what I now have to say. What I find most revealing in the President’s offhand reference to Richard Pryor as his favorite comedian, is the intersection of the N Word between their two extraordinary careers.
Unlike the case with the President’s public utterances, even 30 seconds of Live on The Sunset Strip will reveal to those of you unfamiliar with Richard Pryor, that he used the N Word thousands of times during his career, and almost none of those usages were of the careful, polite variety that included the President’s. I will not attempt the impossible task of explaining why Pryor used the word so much, and what it meant to the extraordinary power and humor of his performances. Just watch the above YouTube videos and you’ll begin to understand, if not immediately, then over time.
What I want to address before I close is the most poignant use of that supercharged word that Richard Pryor made, the day he renounced the use of the N Word for the rest of his career. Here is what he said, and you’ll find it to be the emotional center of Live on the Sunset Strip:
“Racism is a bitch. White people, you gotta know. It fucks you up-but what it does to black people is a bitch. Because no matter what it—it is hard enough being a human being. It's really fucking hard enough just to be that. Right, just to go through everyday life without murdering a motherfucker. It's hard enough just to walk through life decent as a person. But here's another element added when you're black... It's enough to make you crazy. If you're in an argument with another man he may be white but it's man on man for a minute and the shit gets rough and he ends up calling you a nigger... You gotta go "Oh, shit...fuck...now I ain't no man no more, 'nigger' now I gotta argue with that shit. Fuck throw my balance all off now." ... But it's an ugly thing and someday I hope they give it up.”
And then, after describing his transformative trip to Africa, Richard Pryor no doubt shocked a lot of people by announcing that he would never use the N Word again, “Because there aren’t any..We never was no niggers. That’s the word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness.”
As in “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”?
Amen, Richard Pryor and President Obama. You both done us all proud.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter