"Fifty-four lynchings occurred in the United States during the year 1914, six more than during the preceding year. Only 49 of the 54 being colored, showing conclusively that a grievous error was made somewhere. Think of it. Five white men lynched! It seems that we can have nothing exclusive. Lynching was a form of punishment, especially prepared for us. At least that is what we have been led to believe" – acerbic publisher Robert S. Abbott writing in his Chicago Defender in 1915, from the documentary "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords."
Alas, it seems not much has changed.
More than a century later, upstanding African Americans must feel the same sense of victimization at the theft of another cultural touchstone we thought was rightfully ours.
When an Amherst man wanted to express the depth of his displeasure with a romantic rival, he reportedly reached back for the most vile racial slur he could think of, employing the N-word repeatedly during a phone conversation between the two.
And the victim isn’t even black.
Really? Again it seems that we can have nothing exclusive – not even this word.
Of course, whites have borrowed the N-word for decades, much to the consternation of those blacks who jealously guarded their prerogative, not recognizing that imitation can be the sincerest form of demeanment.
But in those contexts, the word was typically used as a term of endearment – as strange as that seems – adopted by whites imitating blacks who foolishly thought they could strip the slur of its power by genially applying it to one another.
The Amherst case, however, takes the word back to its original meaning, as if the rhetorical assailant could think of nothing else in the English language to so effectively put down his adversary.
Of course, this kind of cultural theft is nothing new.
Think rock 'n' roll.
Think hip-hop clothing.
Even George Carlin riffed on the penchant for whites to beg, borrow and steal in the effort to express themselves.
"You take five white guys and you take five black guys and put 'em together for a week and what you won’t have is five black guys talking like, ‘Golly gee, we really won that big basketball game,’ " the late comedian and social critic observed. "But you will have five white guys talking like ‘Yo slick, whuzzup ... we be shootin hoops and mad playin, slammed those mofos."
But the Amherst word thief has taken it too far.
Accused of harassing a Jewish victim who began dating his ex-girlfriend, he allegedly used the N-word three times in a phone call between the two. The suspect’s lawyer insists that "does not constitute a hate crime because the victim is not black."
If I were a prosecutor, I’d argue it is even more of a hate crime because he had to really reach to come up with something he considered more derogatory than the typical white or anti-Semitic slur. Only America’s extra heavy duty slur would do.
And it’s not just for blacks anymore.
Some African Americans will be appalled, calling for a cease-and-desist order against this inappropriate expropriation of the N-word, which they jealously protect like a crazy uncle.
I, on the other hand, am ready to bequeath it to white people to use on one another.
We have gotten all we can out of it and no longer need to claim it as ours alone.
We’ll come up with some other way to denigrate ourselves.
After all, we’re so creative.