CRAWFORD | Andrew Harrison, Maya Angelou, Dave Chappelle, and th - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Andrew Harrison, Maya Angelou, Dave Chappelle, and the meaning of words

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It's been a couple of days, and I've had more than a few people ask me why I haven't written about University of Kentucky sophomore Andrew Harrison's muttered comment about Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky after the Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin on Saturday.

The answer to that is that I'm not sure it's my place. But I've thought on it, and it finally came to me that while my particular perspective on that statement, the words Harrison used, and the motivation behind them, may not be what is needed, I can share a perspective that is needed.

I can't tell you how many people I have referred to a program titled “Iconoclast,” that brought together comedian Dave Chappelle and the poet Maya Angelou. If you know Chappelle, you know the program features some rough language, so be forewarned if you go there.

Chappelle is a frequent user of the N-word in his comedy bits. Angelou, during her life, spoke out against its use. And during this particular program, she and Chappelle started discussing it.

She told Chappelle: “I believe that a word is a thing. It is nonviable and audible only for the time it's there. It hangs in the air. But I believe it is a thing. I believe it goes into the upholstery and then to the rugs and into my hair, into my clothes and finally even into my body. I believe that words are things, and I live on them.”

As a writer, she's preaching from my favorite book when she talks about words as objects, like stones or bricks, with different textures and feels and meanings. But then she gets to her point with Chappelle.

“I look at the word, the N-word, which I really feel obliged to call it that, because it was created to divest people of their humanity,” she told him. “Now, when I see a bottle, come from the pharmacy, it says, P-O-I-S-O-N, and then there's skull and bones, then I know that the content of that thing — the bottle is nothing, but the content — is poison. If I pour that content into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison. I'm just saying, I'm just saying, mind you, it's just an idea, that words are things.”

Chappelle gave his defense: “There's a particular rapper that's a good friend of mine, his name is Mos Def, we were having a discussion about that word in particular. What was initially used to dehumanize us, we adopted and speak of camaraderie with it, as a mutual struggle. And he said, and I know you're going to just crush me — “

Then this exchange followed:

Angelou: “No, my darling, how? You're my grandson, how can I not listen to you and be elevated by you and be taught something?”

Chappelle: “This is the hot button stuff here.”

Angelou: “I don't care, do you? I think I need to talk to you. And I need you to talk to me.”

Chappelle: “I need to talk I need to listen. I'm scared of you right now. He said something to effect that it used to be an exclusive word, when they spoke that word about you, it excluded you, and what's interesting now is that it has shifted so far the other way, that it's cool to be black, that it's exclusive the other way.”

I know that's how it's used now. Particularly among people Harrison's age, it is used almost interchangeably with “dude.” That Harrison's particular statement was cast with the inappropriate F-word, “F that N,” makes it more troublesome, but the racial context is maybe less sinister given how it is used today.

Regardless, you'll find people of all opinions on this. I tend to align with the late Dr. Angelou, who said, “If it was poison when it was created, it is poison.”

You can pour it into another container — innocent intention, humor, even make it a term of affection — it remains poison.

Rather than blast someone like Harrison for using it, I suppose I'd rather it spur some thought among people about words, and what they mean, and how they should be used.

We are, all of us, better off building others up with our words than tearing them down.

That's about all I have to say about it.

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