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COMMENTARY: The past is never dead with the n-word

In a supposedly post-racial society one would think that the n-word was buried and long gone with it troubled eras of race relations in this country.

But as American novelist William Faulkner wrote in "Requiem For A Nun," his 1951 novel, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

As we all try to move from America’s ugly racial past, there are still rock solid vestiges of it.

At the entrance of a secluded 1,072-acre property in the West Texas town of Paint Creek is a rock painted in block letters with the word "N*****head."

For decades Rick Perry’s hunting camp hosted fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters.

Already in a declining bid for the GOP presidency, former front-runner Gov. Rick Perry and his father once leased a Texas hunting camp known by a racist term.

When Perry ran for re-election in 2010 for the governorship, no one knew of the rock. And as one observer of the rock glibly told Real Clear Politics, "Honestly, it wouldn’t have hurt him in a Texas primary."

If Perry, however, doesn’t decline into oblivion in this GOP bid, he’ll face off with President Barack Obama and will also have a lot of explaining to do to African-American voters -- Republicans and Democrats.

Can Perry recover from this?

And can talk show host Barbara Walters of "The View"?

In discussing the offensive racial moniker of Perry’s property, Walters used the n-word, sparking a debate with her co-host Sherri Shepherd.

"I’m saying when you say the word, I don’t like it," said Shepherd, who added that she has used it among African-American family and friends. "When white people say it, it brings up feelings in me."

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word and how many of us African-Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let’s do a walk down memory lane:

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld," for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African-Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ended her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the n-word 11 times.

In January of this year, the kerfuffle concerning the n-word focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, in his New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, proposed the idea that the n-word be replaced with the word "slave."

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African-Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

The notion that it is acceptable for African-Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the community unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African-Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the "er" ending and replacing it with either an "a" or "ah" ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the "a" ending, and in the 1920s, many African- Americans used the "a" ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Too many of us keep the n-word alive. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still wields, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who appears in SDGLN, The Huffington Post and other media. She was chosen in October 2009 by MSNBC as one of "10 black women you should know." Monroe has been profiled in O, The Oprah Magazine and in the Gay Pride episode of “In the Life" TV, a segment that was nominated for an educational Emmy. Several times she has received the Harvard University certificate of distinction in teaching. She is in the film, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and is profiled in "CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America." Visit her website here .