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Don’t underestimate the power of words

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Words can hurt if you let them. People say them and forget them.

— Carole King

Who knew it would be a 60-something white woman from the South who would get a large segment of this country — many who’d never considered it before — talking openly about race?

I know, I know, a lot of this “talk” is nothing more than the canned-and-passed-down-on-the-Internet variety: “Yeah, I said the n-word, are you going to sue me?” ... “If they’re going to stop carrying Paula’s products, they should remove every rap album.” (By the way, for those of you who look no deeper than Rush Limbaugh for your daily tidbits of wisdom, Walmart does not sell unedited versions of rap or other albums that use offensive language. Just so you know.) ... “Why is it so bad that we say it when they say it all the time?”

As I think about this madness that’s been circling around Paula Deen for the last several days because, it appears, a former employee is looking for a free ride on the gravy train, I think I can honestly say right here that at no time in my life have I ever said “the n-word.” I’ve written it a few times because my editor, who is the voice of reason around here, is very sensitive to the feelings of this newspaper’s readers. But I haven’t said the “n-word.”

I have, however, used the epithet that “n-word” represents. Quite a bit. (Hoping, here, for the sake of this column, that said editor will allow me to explain before he shakes his head and finds some of the inane ramblings of Michael Reagan — talk about offensive — to fill the space where this column was supposed to go.)

I was talking with a friend about this, and a point was made that I’ve heard a bunch in the last few days: “(A relative) said that word all the time when I was growing up and still does. But he is of that generation, and this is the South.”

I have been pretty much inclined to give a pass on the validity of that argument, but as use of the word has entered the national dialogue, it’s slowly dawned on me that I am almost of that generation. And I am definitely Southern through and through. So maybe my pass was a way I could justify my own use of the word.

And as I’ve looked a little deeper into my past, a few things have come back to me: Yes, I used the offensive epithet as a kid because I heard it used frequently and I didn’t know any better. But as I learned that the word was offensive and became a little more selective in my use, I found an out during my high school years that a few of my no-’count friends and I thought gave us immunity.

Richard Pryor.

No one is funny like Richard Pryor, and when this comedic genius made millions of dollars — and millions of fans — by releasing the albums “That N-----’s Crazy” and “Bicentennial N-----,” well certainly this was carte blanche for all the people who’d been familiar with the word from way-back.

But that all changed for me one night when I saw Pryor on “The Tonight Show,” talking with Johnny Carson. The comedian, who always killed when he sat down to talk with Johnny, was not funny that night. He was dead serious.

He told the talk-show great that he’d recently returned from a trip to Africa. (Those of us who bothered to learn more about Pryor’s life learned later that he’d taken the trip hoping it would help him battle some pretty significant demons in his personal life.)

As Carson leaned forward, listening intently to Pryor’s story — waiting for the punchline that he knew was coming — the great comedian said, “You know, Johnny, there I was in Africa, and there was nothing but black people. Black people were doing the same kind of work there that black people do here, but they were also the store owners and the rulers.

“Johnny, I saw all those black people, but I didn’t see one n-----.”

Carson was temporarily shellshocked, because Pryor had used that offensive word several times while on his show, only as a punchline to one of his hilarious jokes. Then the comedian dropped another bomb on Johnny and the TV audience.

“I’ve used that word a lot in my career, and I’m going to apologize tonight for doing so,” he said. “And I can promise you I’ll never use it again.”

I’m sure I wasn’t part of the main demographic Pryor was talking to that night, but I heard him loud and clear. And the word quit being funny. And I realized how deeply it could hurt so many of my close friends.

We may be from the South, and we may have heard that word used all our lives. But those of us who are grown-ups have to, at some point, take responsibility for our own lives. And if we’re still using words that have the capacity to hurt other human beings that deeply ... well, I’ll just say those old excuses no longer work for me.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.