Barry Saunders

Here’s who shouldn’t say the N-word: Bill Maher, Ice Cube, ANYONE

Bill Maher, left, appears with actor-rapper Ice Cube during Friday night’s taping of ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ in Los Angeles. The show airs on HBO.
Bill Maher, left, appears with actor-rapper Ice Cube during Friday night’s taping of ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ in Los Angeles. The show airs on HBO. AP

Speak for yourself, homes.

Watching Ice Cube, the rapper-turned-actor, try to school TV gabber Bill Maher last week on who can and can’t use the dreaded N-word was like watching theater of the absurdly ironic. Maher, among some, has become public enemy – not to be confused with Public Enemy – No. 1 after referring to himself as that word on his show.

You can’t do that, Mr. Cube scolded him.

Cube, remember, rose to prominence as a member of the rap group N.W.A. – and the “N” didn’t stand for Neighbors.

He sought – with a straight, scowling face – to lecture Maher on its inappropriateness.

Inappropriate for Maher, that is.

“It’s our word now and you can’t have it back,” Cube proclaimed.

Our word?

Why in the world would we want to claim ownership of a word that was created solely for the purpose of negating our humanity?

Other ethnic groups have faced discrimination and slurs, although none to the uninterrupted extent that we have. Yet, no other group revels in the slurs and claims to have removed the venom by “co-opting” it as some of us do.

Co-opt this.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Unlike me – I think the word should be buried, dug up and buried again, just to make sure it’s dead – Neal said, “There are times when it has cultural and artistic value, even in music.” He cited as powerful examples the works of Public Enemy and the Last Poets and playwrights of the 1960s, among others.

Jews don’t go around calling each other by whatever slurs others invented for them, nor do Chinese and Japanese people merrily call themselves by those.”

We alone seem to have bought into some boneheaded belief that if you wrap yourself in the shawl of hatred that others knitted for you, then you’ll be empowered and somehow insulated from the coldness of their hate.

Buffalo chips. You’re merely exchanging hate for self-hate.

I had my derriere handed to me regarding that word when my friend Tony and I ran away to Atlanta seeking fame and fortune or just to get away from a Rockingham cop who had seemingly made putting me behind bars his life’s work.

Question: Is it running away when you’re already 18 and nobody notices you’re gone?

Regardless of the answer, we were sleeping in flophouses or taking turns dozing in doorways when we buddied up with a homeless cat from Atlanta who knew the streets better than we did. He taught us important stuff, such as which buildings had the cleanest, warmest restrooms and the laxest security guards checking them.

I let the dreaded word fly during a conversation one night and thought I noticed a pained look on the man’s face. The second time I said it, he set me straight.

“We don’t use that word down here,” he said in a manner that let me know that he was two seconds from going upside my head with the bottle of “Shake ’em Up” – Thunderbird wine and grapefruit juice – we were passing back and forth.

That was four decades ago, yet I am still impressed that even a tipsy homeless man had sense enough to know that that word was no term of endearment. Now, if someone could just convince all of these millionaire athletes and entertainers who gleefully use it as a subject, verb and pronoun.

One comedian who professes a love for it – I’m not naming him because he can be vicious and has been known to leave hecklers prostrate in a puddle of tears and other bodily fluids – said he will continue using it because saying the word “makes my teeth white.”


Don’t get it twisted, now. We have waaaaay more important things to be concerned about than whether Bill Maher or anyone else uses that word publicly. As Neal said “Maher’s Islamaphobia is so much more problematic” than his use of that word.

Some whites who want to use the word – and probably do in in private settings – proclaim “Well, how come they can call each other that but we can’t?”

“Why would you want to?” Neal asked. “There has never been a historical moment when white people could use that word,” he said.

Not that one or two didn’t, mind you.

When white readers ask me why they can’t use it, I say, “For the same reason you can call your significant other Sweet Thang, Honey Bunch, Boo, Puddin’ or – after you’ve returned from your annual weeklong trip to the beach – ‘my little caramel-colored kumquat.’”

You can call your boo “Boo,” but let some dude standing in line at Hardee’s try it and it could precipitate WW III.

There are some things that can only be said in-house – among family.

Then there are some things, as in the case of that word, that shouldn’t be said at all.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9