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It’s the episode we’ve been wanting to make for years. In our season premiere, we’re talking about the N-word.
It’s a word both unspeakable and ubiquitous. A weapon of hate and a badge of belonging. After centuries of evolution, it’s everywhere — art, politics, everyday banter — and it can’t be ignored.
Today, we’re finally going there.
This episode contains strong language.
On today’s episode
Toni Morrison on racism as a distraction
A recent workplace incident involving the N-word got Jenna thinking about a Toni Morrison quote that’s popular on social media:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
“Ms. Morrison is cautioning us: Do not fall into the trap,” Jenna said. “We were spending more time on the phone digging into this incident than we were talking about our book projects, talking about this show, talking about our love lives, talking about what we were cooking for dinner.” She added, “At the end of every workday, I was just completely depleted.”
The ‘Strange Career’ of the N-Word
Jenna and Wesley mentioned a book they’re both reading: “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” In it, the author and law professor Randall Kennedy explores the many jobs the N-word does. Having “career” in the title is befitting, Jenna said, because the N-word is “performing labor, and that labor is divisive. The labor is: As long as there’s someone below me, I’m OK.”
“Even when we can’t directly see it sweating,” Jenna continued, “it is working, honey.” She added, “Like it is working in the same way that it worked since it came into existence.”
Chris Rock and Richard Pryor
Wesley recalled watching Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special “Bring the Pain” over and over on VHS. In one routine, Chris uses the N-word to draw a line between two types of Black people: those who are called the N-word, and those who are not.
“He’s using the word, and he is letting it sit in his mouth like a really delicious sip of red wine that is still oxidizing,” Jenna said. “He’s holding it in his mouth, just getting all the flavor out of it, like he’s chewing it like a piece of meat.”
And we see another job of the word — drawing no line at all — when the comedian Richard Pryor uses it in his 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy.” “Richard Pryor is the greatest practitioner of the N-word in the history of its usage,” Wesley said. “Nobody has done more to simultaneously problematize that word, but also to normalize it as a way of being in the world.”
A Very Black Uno Deck
In August 2020, Kylie Jenner put out an Uno deck. “It makes me angry to think about it,” Jenna said, referring to the phenomenon of non-Black people co-opting Black culture. “You get so many points by inhabiting Blackness, but not actually being Black yourself.”
Instead, Jenna bought the “very Black Uno deck” put out by the artist Nina Chanel Abney. “I bought ten of them, just in defiance to the Jenner deck.”
Solange Says, ‘This Shit Is for Us’
Solange uses the N-word unapologetically in her 2016 song “F.U.B.U.”
“The song is basically about Black culture belonging to Black people,” Wesley said. “And it’s just so clear that she’s drawing a line around a kind of cultural space.”
In an interview with The Fader, Solange expressed how her songwriting had been influenced by her experiences with law enforcement officers and her immersion in “Citizen: An American Lyric” by the poet Claudia Rankine.
Solange isn’t just talking about the N-word in “F.U.B.U.,” Jenna clarified: “She’s talking about cornrows. She’s talking about affectations of speech. You can put these things on all you want. You can layer on all these accouterments of Blackness, but you will never be Black.”
The song — from Solange’s fourth album “A Seat at the Table” — ultimately became “this anthem of pride and ownership,” Jenna said.
Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Produced by: Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow
Edited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss
Engineered by: Marion Lozano
Executive Producer, NYT Audio: Wendy Dorr
Assistant Managing Editor, NYT: Sam Dolnick
Special thanks: Lisa Tobin, Sydney Harper, Monica Drake, Nikita Stewart, Jazmine Hughes, Rogene Jacquette, Cliff Levy, Sam Dolnick, Dean Baquet, Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe.