This paper addresses the identity that is constructed of African-Americans through Rock’s language use of racial speech and taboo language. It also attempts to portray Rock’s function of the skit and the controversial attitudes that arose, including my own. 1. 0 Introduction ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you’. Unfortunately for Randall Kennedy this limerick held no connotation that he wished to acknowledge, as he recites his Mother’s words, he finds himself in war with a word, a word that for every African-American is at the core of inflicted pain; Nigger.
Kennedy narrates his Mother’s experience during the era of the Jim Crow segregation, ‘I have been called nigger to my face on a couple of occasions by people who sought to convey their racial hatred or contempt for all blacks including me. ’ (Kennedy, 2002) This word for Centuries, although has been at the centre of normalisation and empowerment in recent years, is the definition of prejudice assigned by white supremacists.
Racial discourse has changed over the years, the media has been at the frontline of these changes along with the law and democratic societies yet the word nigger still remains a temperamental taboo, its history foreshadows it and no matter what context the word may be used in, its cultural inheritance warrants its preservation. (Kennedy, 2000:3) A man that attempted to manipulate its detrimental meaning was the illustrious comedian Chris Rock. Rock is known for his politically incorrect humour and his fight to tackle racism and his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain performance is what give him his contentious status today.
‘Niggas vs. Black people’ is a twist on street culture vs. working class; it is a linguistically controversial skit that portrays how boorish behaviour feeds racial stereotypes while including his own personal assessment of the state of Black America. Rock empowers the word nigger and attempts to change its injurious meaning. The pain this word has caused the African-American community has been an expedient one, compromising the dignity, identity and representation of their race.
Rock intends to fight and abolish the pain and with this is calls his performance, ‘Bring the pain’. 2. 0 Laughing Matters The intrusion of laughter is an ideal that is sought after by many comedians; it is the notion of laughter that holds profound significance amongst its audience. It gives society and the individual access to the truth, truths which become identifiable from a different view point, ‘laughter serves as a means to understand both what is found in the world and what is found within the individual.
’ (Gray & Putnam, 2009:18). Without laughter fear would not be defeated and fears of the truth would not be overcome, with this society becomes reliant on laughter, it gives a sense of belonging, understanding and serves as a joint understanding and belief. (Clark, 1996) This idea of the truth is based upon Bahktin’s theoretical view on laughter, as Gray and Putnam (2009: 18) state, ‘Laughter is also a defence mechanism against external realities that contradict our inner truths.
’ These truths and fears are identified with concepts such as, racism, politics and feminism. 2. 1 Encapsulating the audience To capture Daniels’ (1989: 15) phrase when discussing the subjectivity of humour, ‘it’s funny because it makes me laugh’, highlights individual social ideologies, each individual has their own set of attitudes and beliefs and this therefore contributes to the success of an anecdote, whether or not it fits with ideological views is at the core of an audiences’ hilarity.
It would be deemed accurate to acknowledge that comedy is maintained and controlled with ideological boundaries in mind however at the same time, the genius of comedy derives down to comedians pushing these boundaries, this disrupts social order and it advocates change and ridicule’s power rather than reinforcing it, which relates back to this notion of identifying our inner truths.
According to Daniels (1989: 15), he states that comedy is not achieved through content alone, however when picking apart the history of African-American comedians on black comedy; it is in fact the content alone which becomes a pandemic with the characteristics of the comedians talk that sets off the entire performance. Dating back to the Minstrel era – the pioneers of comedy today, ‘Bert’ Austin Williams took stage to be the first black American to take a lead role on a Broadway stage, Williams first became noticed in Vaudeville as a successful double-act “Williams & Walker”.
Williams and Walker were a success for the black community, their acts were a representation of their race but they entertained white audiences by delivering acts that included content which demeaned their race: using words such as, ‘coon’. At the risk of criticising the African-American race, they still, at the expense of their careers performed for the white audience and their expectations.
This stereotype of African-Americans is one that became a collective ritual of rhetoric complaint and occurrence. In 1951, a TV show called ‘Amos ‘n Andy’ came to our screens but was cancelled in 1953 due to complaints from the NAACP (National association for the advancement of coloured people), who acknowledged the programme to be only one representation of black folks. ‘Stereotyping is a process of selective perception by which the complex character of experience is filtered and simplified into fixed categories.
’ (Daniels: 1989) Parallel to these representations of African-American figures in the media, notions cited from Daniels (1989:3) are those of Halls who profoundly highlights, ‘[t]he depiction of blacks in popular media is restricted to a repertoire of basic images – the slave, the native, the entertainer – as only certain traits and characteristics are selected for emphasis. ’ Black people were subjected to the notion that as a cohort they were portrayed to be the same as one another; having no original identity as an African-American as there were no other representations of the black cultural community.
Comedians such as Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy were just a few of many that fought against these racial negative stereotypes that were portrayed within the media. In 1984 the introduction to ‘The Cosby Show’ was set across our screens. ‘The idea of The Cosby Show which was rejected by ABC, they felt that America was not ready to accept the concept of an intact, black middle-class family. ’ (Crenshaw, A) The Cosby Show declared positive attributes to the black stereotype in opposed to the black sitcoms that came before it.
Although the success of The Cosby Show dispelled negative perceptions of the black community the initial idea was thrown, which contributes to racial segregation in American at that time during the 80’s. However, the typical black family perception did change as a result of ‘The Cosby Show’ and opened the doors for many comedians and sitcoms to come. ‘The fresh prince of bell air’ and comedians such as Chappelle and Chris Rock were the start of a new generation of insurgences. 3. 0 Rock’s linguistic segregation ‘Now we’ve got a lot of things, a lot of racism going on in the world right now. Who’s more racist?
Black people or white people; black people. You know why, cause we hate black people too! Everything white people don’t like about black people. Black people really don’t like about black people. ’(Rock, 1996) In 1996 Chris Rock took to the stage with his controversial stand-up skit ‘Niggaz vs. Black People’ at the HBO special Bring the pain performance. Like Bill Cosby, Rock too was in attempt to eradicate negative perceptions of the black community but a way in which engages with a diverse group of audiences, to do this he interplayed cultural and linguistic taboos to mock ideological perceptions of African-American identities.
Rock’s main aim of the debated skit was to diminish stereotypes that were apparent amongst the American public, this notion from white supremacists that African-American citizens are categorised to be ‘all the same’ was, in Rock’s eyes about to be obliterated. Rock proclaims ‘Nigga’s’ to be in clear detachment from working class African-Americans, whose bad behaviour is giving detrimental negative images towards other ‘black people’, his attempts to deliver vital messages in a comedic format is a portrayal of Rocks adamant intention to not allow a minority of troublesome individuals tarnish the image of the African-American.
‘Every time black people wanna have a good time, ignorant ass niggas fuck it up. ’ (Rock, 1996) His immediate intention is to of course eliminate racism not promote it, however from the view point from an audience member who are a collection of a variety of different races, the question to whether he reached out to all individual members is debatable due to ideological boundaries and beliefs, as discussed in (2. 1). Rock opens the show with Irony, it draws a ‘white’ audience in and takes members of the public by surprise; an African-American man is standing on stage telling his audience that black people are more racist.
He has now captured communities of different races, whether that being good or bad he has his audience seized. He identifies his own community and creates a separate identity to others within the ‘black’ community; he takes these remarks made by the media, ideas that are created amongst groups of people and verbally throws it back allowing the power of discourse to be retained within the African-American community.
Rock attempts to take on a social discourse, giving the ideology ‘Nigga’ a new contentious status, separating it from working class African-American citizens. In congruence to this, Gray and Putnam (2009:19) states, when referring to Chappelle’s ‘Exploring Niggerdom’, ‘[C]hapelle succeeds in appropriating a terminology that has previously been held in the hands of the whites. By using language for his own purpose, with his own nuances and intentions, Chappelle takes back the power that whites had originally given to that language.
’ The key notion that is represented here is power within language, although Rock attempts to capture this power as Chappelle (2003) successfully did, a small percentage of Rocks audience failed to connect to his language use decorously because of this Rock never performed that skit again. Some critics state that the ‘black’ community was offended while others felt they too had the public authority to say the ‘N’ word. 3. 1 The ‘N’ word; Nigger. ‘There’s black people and there’s niggas and nigga’s have got to go.
’ (Rock, 1996) The term ‘nigger’ is one many do not wish to publically celebrate, it is derived from the Latin word ‘Niger’ and has transformed over Centuries to hold different connotations; throughout history, the term ‘Nigger’ has been a frequent occurrence, its use is, ‘[e]mployed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race’(Kennedy, 2002:5) It has even been employed upon children with nursery rhymes, one that may be commonly known is, ‘Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a nigger by the toe, if he hollers; let him go, eeny-meeny-miney-mo.
’ Paradoxically, ‘Nigga’ is a phrase that is now used frequently amongst ‘black’ people, becoming a term of friendly salutation and even empowerment; it is comedians, rappers and hip hop entertainment that have created this discourse. However, what Rock does with the word is give the term a negative perception to emphasise distinctions between social groups regardless of their race.
Terms such as, ‘Nigger’, ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’, are commonly known to be censored words, taboo words, words that when used today in a western society become intertwined with concepts of face and politeness. (Goffman, 1967; Brown & Levinson, 1978) Face-saving views of politeness start from this idea that humans are rational agents who are conscious of their language choices.
(Brown & Levinson, 1987; Clark, 1996; Grice, 1975; Locher, 2004) Both interacting participants, for example H and S, would have an interest in maintaining each other’s face but often have to commit to face-threatening-acts. (Brown & Levinson, 1987) Face threatening acts can threaten the independence of ‘H’s’ face and the face needs of ‘S’s, (Locher, 2004: 66) in relation to this concept, when Rock uses racist speech and taboo language he puts his own face at risk, which knowingly as a comedian it is a risk that threatens the involvement of their face.
When Rock uses commonly heard taboo language, there is a higher chance, as it has been heard before, that the audiences’ face needs are not jeopardised, however when using racial speech, for instance when Rock makes reference to the ‘KKK’, there is a possibility that face needs are threatened, whether that be the African-American community or the white community; it seems Rock knew that his language use would threaten the face needs of some of his audience members as near the end of his performance he exclaims, ‘Man, why you got to say that? … It isn’t us, it’s the media. The media has distorted our image to make us look bad.
Why must you come down on us like that brother? It’s not us, it’s the media. ’ (Rock, 1996) Rock in this sense does not blame the media for the corrupt behaviour of what he calls ‘Niggas’, he blames the cohort minority that are giving African-Americans a bad reputation. However to oppose this analogy Van Dijk (1992: 513) brushes upon racism in the press and offers examples to emphasis the ideas that are represented within the ‘black’ community. ‘We have racism too – and that is what is behind the plot. It is not white racism. It is black racism… But who is there to protect the white majority?
… Our tolerance is our strength, but we will not allow anyone to turn it into our weaknesses. ’(Sun, 24 October) The black community do have an arguable point when feeling face-threatened by Rocks notion of Black people vs. Niggas, as clear evidence of discrimination is shown within Newspaper articles such as these, but Rock emphasises that it is the unruly, uneducated, minority of black people that are giving the community a bad name, he then puts himself in the shoes of a white person, comedic irony again, by being a part of the KKK and feeling threatened at night when drawing money out ‘at the money machine’.
What is so fundamental about the article above is the correlation in language use within Rocks opening performance and the beginning of the article, two very similar introductions with two very different intentions and it may be perceived potentially by some members of Rocks audience that it was interpreted in ways that are incongruence to articles such as these, articles which are in denial of racism.
The controversy caused by Rocks excessive use of the word ‘Nigga’ led him to remove the piece from his act; Jay Washington (2012) stated that in a 60 minute interview Rock said, ‘By the way, I’ve never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will. Cos some people that were racist thought they had license to say nigger. So, I’m done with that routine. ’ 4. 0 Cultural Impact The cultural impact made by Rock’s 1996 performance of Niggas vs.
Black people has been an pragmatic one, Barack Obama made reference to his skit in a Father’s Day speech in 2008, it also made television as ‘The office’ did a censored take on the monologue and audience members watching his 1996 performance still will laugh at his Ironic satire sketch. I certainly did, although Rock removed the piece from his act due to ‘overusing’ the word ‘N’ word, his hidden intention was genius. Rock was trying to give this word a new meaning, eradicating its history of contempt, he was trying to stop stereotypes of African-American people and push boundaries of the ideological perceptions within the audience.
Rock’s intention was to unveil a hidden truth, a truth that may be covered up by fear but must be defeated with laughter. (2. 0) Why should Rock not use this word and attempt to give it a different connotation, his ancestors were victims of slavery, his parents were victims of discrimination and ridicule why should he not poke fun at true racists by empowering the tern ‘Nigger’ and giving hardworking African-Americans the voice to be disassociated with the word?
A reference cited from Gray and Putnam (2009: 23), is a quote that correlates with my notion, Elizabeth Ludwig states, ‘[c]learly, if comedy is an expression of abjection, then it must be an expression of one’s own abjection. ’ I feel Rock exerts his right to use this word, despite its negative media responses. It is true racists that watched this sketch and felt that discrimination against black people was now acceptable, which is a shame because I feel what Rock intended to do was try to educate the thoughts of people who were of different ethnicities and it seems that the minority of these different racial groups let them down.
Rocks main purpose was to target minority groups and bring to their attention to antiquated notions of stereotyping. 5. 0 Conclusion Rock is a linguistic comedic prodigy; he faces racism head on and delivers his content in such a confident manner that he encapsulates the audience and brings cathartic laughter from a masochistic inheritance. He draws upon truths, pushes ideological boundaries and empowers racial speech; this language use constructs a distinctive identity of working class African-Americans which is separated from the minority of gang culture which is influenced by bad behavior.
Although the term nigger is used in a way that contradicts is ideological meaning and portrays positive perceptions of working class African American citizens, the term can be portrayed differently from different perspectives in the audience. ‘I think people who use the term nigger in their speech should bear the risk that listeners overhearing them will misunderstand their intentions.
’ (Kennedy, 2002:146) The truth about the ‘N’-word is that even as a euphemism the term should still be redundant due to historical context, the way in which the word has been empowered gains nothing but positive attributes however I feel its connotative history foreshadows its use and no matter who attempts to manipulate its meaning its history will always remain. References Brown, P, & Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P. Chung, J. (2002) The Burden of Laughter: Chris Rock fights ignorance his way.
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Vintage Books: USA. Locher, M, A. (2004) Power and Politeness in Action: Disagreements in Oral Communication. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG: Berlin. Van Dijk, T. (1992) Discourse and the denial of racism. Sage Publications Ltd. Washington, J. (2012) Comedian Chris Rock sparks controversy with Independence Day tweet. http://educatedinsanity. com/2012/07/06/comedian-chris-rock-sparks-controversy-with-independence-day-tweet/ Wisniewski, K. A. (2009) The comedy of Dave Chappelle: critical essays. McFarland; USA.