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Obama’s last White House Correspondents’ Dinner ends with the n-word

Obama’s last White House Correspondents’ Dinner ends with the n-word

Comedian Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore was supposed to give the political and media elite a friendly but light-hearted roasting at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

But the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show went off plan.

As he finished by thanking Barack Obama for his tenure as president and the mark he has made in the world, Wilmore dropped the n-word. Unsurprisingly you heard audible gasps and saw visible grimaces of shock, pain and embarrassment.

‘When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback,’ Wilmore said. ‘Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team – and now, to live in your time, Mr President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n–. You did it.’

Twitter blew up. And the debate will continue to rage on whether Wimore went too far.

Does the American public need this word associated with Obama’s last months in office? Especially given the racial rollercoaster the entire country has been on since he was sworn in.

How the n-word is used means everything.

For example, last year when news broke President Obama used it during the podcast interview, WFT with Marc Maron, about America’s racial history, it caused shock waves. We asked if there is ever an appropriate context?

On CNN, legal analyst Sunny Hostin said Obama’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office, and given the history of the word itself. New York Times columnist Charles Blow argued Obama used the word correctly: as a teaching moment.

Many African-Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, say reclaiming the n-word is a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it. In other words, only they have a license to use it.

However, the notion that African-Americans can use the n-word with each other but others can’t sets up a double standard. Language is a public enterprise, after all. And the fact African-Americans have appropriated the n-word does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The controversy erupts regularly.

In July 2008, the Rev Jesse Jackson used the n-word to refer to Obama. Although Jackson and a cadre of African-American leaders conducted a mock funeral in 2007 for the word at the NAACP convention in Detroit, the fact it slipped so approvingly from his mouth illustrates its lingering power.

While it’s use by Mark Twain in his 1885 classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn emerged again in January 2011. In the original book, the word is used 219 times. In the NewSouth Books edition of 2011, publishers tried to rekindle interest in Twain’s novel and damp down the fury the word creates by replacing it with ‘slave’.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language. Our culture’s neorevisionist use of it makes it even harder to purge its sting from the American psyche.

Why?

Because language represents culture. Language perpetuates assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation. It puts those presumptions into our everyday conversations.

Too many of us keep the n-word alive. That numbs Americans to the abuse of power it represents. It thwarts those of us who struggle daily to ameliorate race relations.

The last thing we need is for Obama’s final year as president to become associated with the n-word – even as an act of thanks and brotherly love.