My wife and I went last night to a farewell gathering for one of her cousins, who is moving with her husband to California. We were at Bar 13 in Manhattan, a place I havent been to since I gave a couple of readings there about five or six years ago in the series that maybe they still hold on the first Monday of the month. Originally, the gathering was supposed to be in a different place, where my wife’s cousin had booked a private room, but through a series of misunderstandings that room turned out not to be available, so what was supposed to be a small, intimate and emotional goodbye gathering, turned into the packed rooftop space at Bar 13, where were wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder with people almost all of whom looked to be at least twenty-five-years younger than I am. We spent most of the time standing near the bar talking to relatives, getting jostled as people walked back and forth, and while it was a little bit disappointing, it was also interesting to watch the goings on. I have not been out in a place where college-age and under thirty people go to party in a long time and so, during the lulls in conversation, I put on what a friend and I used to call our “anthropologist’s hat,” and just observed what was going on.
Mostly, of course, things havent changed all that much since I was in college. People who go out to drink and dance are people who go out to drink and dance, but one thing caught my eye, and I really had to force myself not to stare: two young men at the end of the bar were nuzzling each other’s necks and then tentatively kissing and then deep into a fully passionate make-out session, and nobody was paying any special attention to them, not even the people who stepped up to the bar next to them to order drinks. The guys were so into each other that it was beautiful to watch, but what really astonished me, in a giddy, happy way, was that everyone around them was responding as if it were a normal thing to see, no differently than if a heterosexual couple had been doing the same thing. Even five years ago I don’t think that would’ve been the case, and I think I can say pretty safely that ten years ago it would never have happened – at least not in a place with as mixed a crowd as Bar 13’s rooftop had last night
So this got me thinking about how times have changed, about the kinds of progress that have been made in terms of gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights and so on, and I remembered how happy I was after the conversation my freshman composition class had about the speech on race that Barack Obama gave in March 2008 in response to the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. What made me happy was not their analytical responses to the speech itself, but the way the conversation proceeded, specifically the way the white students in the class did not get at all defensive about the idea that, as white people, they simply did not have to worry about race and racism the way the Black students in the class had to. Ten years ago that defensiveness would have been a huge stumbling block. Now, it’s entirely possible that the luck of the draw just happened to hand me a class filled with more or less progressive (in terms of race at least) white students, and I am certainly not going to argue that this one anecdote indicates a sea change in how we deal with race in this country, but it was hard for me not to notice that this conversation was markedly different from the ones I used to have and, at least to myself, celebrate it just a little bit.
The conversation took an especially interesting turn, at least to me, when one of the white students in class asked what has become one of the most predictable questions in these discussions, Why is it okay for Black people to call each other the n-word, but it’s not okay for white people to do the same thing?” At this point, I inserted myself into the discussion – which had been moving along quite well without me – and suggested that we ought not to be afraid, in a context like this, where no one was calling anyone names, where someone asked an honest question and deserved an honest answer, to say the word nigger out loud. To be afraid to say the word, I suggested to the class, would be to give it a kind of power it ought not to have. The Black students in the class, all of whom I would say are younger than twenty-five, especially the African-Americans (a couple are from other countries) nodded their heads when I said that, and some of the white students did as well, and then the Black students started to tell stories about their experience with the word, from being called a nigger by white racists to their parents and grandparents responses to the word to the one African-American woman who talked about how she uses the expression “my nigga” to refer to both her Black and white friends.
None of the Black students had a problem saying the word out loud, while some of the white students continued to say the n-word. I found this fascinating as an example of language politics in action – and I’m not going to say more about it than that since I didn’t ask people to talk about why they did or did not use the word – but what really moved me about the conversation was watching this mixed-race group of relative strangers talk about racism not as if it were no big deal, but as if the fact of its being a big deal were so obvious that it hardly merited comment (if that makes sense) and so the discussion was one of the most honest, least contentious and constructive discussions of race I have ever witnessed. This too, I think, would not have happened ten or even five years ago, though, as I said above, whether this experience in this class is suggestive of anything larger than this experience in this class is a question I am not qualified to answer.
And of course this question of what words are and are not appropriate makes me think of the official silencing of Michigan Representative Lisa Brown for her use of the word vagina on the House floor in Michigan about a week or so ago. Here’s the video of her remarks, which I think provides all the context you need:
I’m not going to go into detail about the whole story, since you can read plenty about it elsewhere, and I am not so sure I have much to add to what has already (more or less predictably) been very well said, though to read what I think is a brilliant response from a slightly different perspective, check out this blog post on The Dirty Normal. But it strikes me that Brown’s statement is a perfect example of what it means to make the personal political. Or, perhaps more accurately, to refuse to avoid dealing with the fact that the political is also always personal, that there are real people, with real bodies, whose lives are really at stake in the laws we make concerning reproductive rights; and that to expect a woman-with-a-vagina to discuss a law that involves her body, without making her body – and I mean here her own body, not some abstract body-with-a-vagina that she shares with all women like her all over the world – part of the discourse, is to impose on her a kind of self-alienation that ought to have no place in a democracy.
The words we use to talk about ourselves and about each other are also the words we use to give meaning to our bodies, to what it means that we exist physically in the world. In this sense, the issues surrounding the word nigger are not so different from the ones raised by Lisa Browns statement, or at least the responses of the Republican men in the house to that statement — even though nigger and vagina are in so many ways universes apart – and I would venture to say that if you examined how easily the people at Bar 13 were able to accept the gay couple making out at the bar you would find that it was in part rooted in a change in the language through which they understand the meaning of the homosexual body. And that is a very, very good thing.