News your connection to The Boston Globe

Epithet stung, even for Pryor

RICHARD PRYOR'S DEATH puts into painful relief hip-hop's exploitation of the N-word. In 1993, Snoop Dogg said he used the word because ''it's me." In 1996, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons said, ''When we say 'nigger' now, it's very positive. Now all white kids who buy into hip-hop culture call each other 'nigger' because they have no history with the word other than something positive. . . . When black kids call each other 'a real nigger' or 'my nigger,' it means you walk a certain way . . . have your own culture that you invent so you don't have to buy into the US culture that you're not really a part of. It means we're special. We have our own language."

In a documentary last year on the N-word, actor and rapper Ice Cube claimed the word was a defiant ''badge of honor." Last month, in an interview on NBC's ''Today" show, rapper 50 Cent said of his massive use of the N-word: ''I'm not using it as a racial slur. . . . It's just slang."

Talk about reinventing the N-wheel. All these things were precisely what the comedian Pryor claimed at the beginning of the 1970s when he made a conscious decision to splatter his routine with the word. In his autobiography, ''Pryor Convictions," he said, ''Nigger. And so this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah."

Pryor claimed, ''Saying it changed me, yes it did. It gave me strength, let me rise above . . ."

Pryor rose to commercial stardom. Like many African-Americans, I bought his albums in my teens and early 20s, and no one was more brilliant on a dazzling variety of political and social topics. At a more immature time, he seemed to me a rugged complement to my Bill Cosby family-life albums.

As the 1970s wound down, it was spectacularly evident that embracing the N-word did not give Pryor the strength to rise above demons. His dismal childhood among whorehouses and barroom violence in Peoria, Ill., mushroomed into Hollywood drug binges and threats to wives at gunpoint. My black friends, particularly women, grew weary of his persona and his equally offensive use of ''bitch." I stopped buying his albums.

Amazingly, Pryor matured on this issue, making me sing hallelujah. In 1979, he flew to Kenya. It was a trip recommended to him by his psychiatrist after his wife Jennifer hauled him out of a house full of hookers and drugs. After touring Kenya's national museum, Pryor sat in a hotel lobby full of what he described as ''gorgeous black people, like everyplace else we'd been. The only people you saw were black. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere."

That caused Pryor to say: ''Jennifer. You know what? There are no niggers here. . . . There are no niggers here. The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride."

In ''Pryor Convictions," Pryor said that he left Africa ''regretting ever having uttered the word 'nigger' on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren't funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I'd never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn't get what I was talking about. Neither did I. . . . So I vowed never to say it again."

It took Pryor about 10 years to come to his conclusions. It has been 16 years since the group ''N.W.A.," short for ''Ns With Attitude," zoomed to the top of the charts. Leader Ice Cube said, ''Words like bitch and nigger may be shocking for somebody who is white, but that's not why we use them. It's everyday language of people around my neighborhood." Ice Cube said that when he was 19, the age I most intently listened to Pryor.

Today Ice Cube is 36. Nothing about the N-word or B-word has helped black people to rise above achievement gaps in schools or helped black males to be respectful to women and responsible to babies they father out of wedlock. Russell Simmons said the use of the N-word makes black people ''special." Pryor decided 25 years ago that it was stupid.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search