All hell broke loose when Bill Maher used the n-word on "Real Time" two weeks ago. People wanted him tarred, feathered, fired and Lord knows what else.
He wasn't doing it meanly or cruelly or insultingly, though; he was referring to himself and using Malcolm X's famous distinction between "field negro" and "house negro" in the slave era. (Malcolm, famously, used the formal word "negro" instead of Maher's toxic colloquialism.)
Maher was merely being hopelessly anachronistic. He was speaking on television the way he might have in a comedy club parking lot in 1985. Back then, the most progressive young white people felt they could use the racial epithet as a metaphor – as a synonym for slavery which could apply equally to white feelings of discrimination and servility and the horrifying institutionalized brutality of slavery.
Black comics from the '60s on, like Richard Pryor, used the word all the time. They used the word in book titles (Dick Gregory), best-selling comedy records (Pryor). White comics, progressive and "edgy" types of all sorts wanted to use it in a similar way for solidarity's sake.
Small problem: Black comics and "edgy" types started to rethink it. Pryor has said that when he went to Kenya in 1979 and encountered black doctors, lawyers, judges, policemen and politicians, he realized he had no business continuing the life of one of the most demeaning words in the American vocabulary.
So he stopped. So, eventually, did his fellow comic professionals. Maher was just caught in the act of jokingly using a casual leftover 1985 notion – that the word could be used metaphorically, rather than with gross specificity. And he caught holy hell for it.
People who hadn't heard the way he actually used it assumed that in all its vileness it was an everyday part of Maher's vocabulary, which it most definitely isn't.
What resulted from a typical 21st century controversy about overheated rhetoric was that Maher, on last Friday's show, wound up giving America what may be the definitive formulation on the use of the word in our time.
The big trouble, of course, is that we simply can't expunge the word from our history. For all its commonplace condescension and verbal violence, it's not eradicable from American consciousness.
Whether it should be, it's integral to great literature. It belongs in Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for the elementary reason that Twain's masterpiece – where the slave Jim is the most sympathetic character – is narrated by a semi-literate poor motherless white teenager in Missouri. Honoring his vocabulary as Twain did so skillfully was part of his genius.
You find the word in book titles by Joseph Conrad and Ronald Firbank. In Firbank's case in the 1920s, it wasn't even the original title but was taken from the book's dialogue in dialect by its American editor Carl Van Vechten because it would sell more books (which it did). The whole case gets messier than that; Van Vechten was among those who used the word all the time freely. And yet he was also one of the first American writers, critics and editors to insist that black artistic expression be taken seriously in racist America.
No matter how much we have a right to loathe the word, we have to recognize that, in history, it wasn't always used to demean and denigrate in the same way. The word's frequent use by Wallace Stevens was rather plainly racism. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop Stevens from being one of the great American poets of the 20th century.
It's an ancient problem. What on earth are we to do about the vile, inhuman anti-Semitism of Wagner? Or the painter Degas? The music and paintings will always be beautiful, no matter what.
What Maher then did brilliantly after apologizing was to prove why his is one of the most rewarding political shows in all of television. He arranged for black guests, including rapper/actor Ice Cube, to have at him and speak their piece uninterrupted. It was there that Ice Cube uttered what I think is the simplest and truest formulation of how decent people should perceive the word in the 21st century.
What Ice Cube said about black and white America was "It's our word now. You can't have it back."
It was Lenny Bruce who proposed that when the world could somehow make the word commonplace, it's ability to wound would vanish. Black/white relations in our time won't let that happen. The word was just scribbled on Lebron James' walls. But Black America can wrench the word completely out of white hands and redefine it as it will.
It's by no means common but one thing one sometimes encounters on social media is that the trial of Bill Cosby is mostly the humbling of a powerful black man in racist America.
Unfortunately, it's one of those cases where newer ideas of heroism and propriety supersede older ones. Cosby was a Titanic American figure from the civil rights era – a virtual illustration of what America could and should be racially.
He was, in show business, a kind of stalking horse for Barack Obama.
Except that, as the American public eventually learned, there was another Cosby widely known within showbiz. And that was the Cosby whose treatment of women was allegedly so abusive and weird that it could scarcely be believed from America's beloved proponent of Pudding Pops.
Until, that is, the number of his accusers began to approach the entire freshman class of some of America's smaller colleges.
It is possible that the current Pennsylvania case that finally brought him into the legal system may lead to acquittal for legal or evidentiary reasons. It is, after all, about events that happened long ago.
But even if that's the legal upshot, what is undeniable is that he is, in a tragic and total way, OVER as a cultural hero in America. As he approaches his 80th birthday in July, he is blind, his career has vanished and his reputation is all but destroyed.
It's horrifying to watch a reputation collapse as precipitously as Cosby's did.
But whatever they say in a Pennsylvania courtroom, it's almost impossible to find Americans now who don't think that collapse was entirely just.