I was 8 years old when I first head the word "nigger." On that day, Jimmy, an elementary school classmate of Irish descent, spat the slur at Amy, a pretty girl whose light brown skin had previously seemed inconsequential, during a dispute over whose turn it was to be milk monitor, or clap erasers, or some equally important responsibility.
Our social studies teacher grabbed Jimmy's arm so fiercely I thought it would snap off at the shoulder. "Don't ever use that word again!" she screamed. "We don't call Jewish people 'kikes,' we don't call Mexican people 'spics,' and we don't call black people 'niggers'! Ever!"
That episode left an indelible stamp on my psyche. It makes me nervous just to type "nigger" right now. Even when I'm in a roomful of people grooving to a hip-hop jam that uses one of the acceptable variations of "the N word" bandied about freely on M2 and urban radio, I feel self-conscious and a little guilty.
Yet, I'm appalled when I read about schools trying to ban Huckleberry Finn for its use of the word, because I despise censorship equally. Regardless, "nigger" is still the only word that regularly makes me hesitate before playing particular cuts in my DJ sets. Every time I drop Patti Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," I brace myself for the imminent attack from some overenthusiastic Evergreen student. But I usually play the song anyway, because it's too powerful to deny.
But there is one song that features that dreaded word prominently that I have never played in public, and although it's among my favorites, probably never will: "Rednecks," from Randy Newman's 1974 masterpiece Good Old Boys.
In his liner notes to Rhino Records' new, expanded reissue of the disc, David Wild describes the album as "a conceptual song cycle that explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American South, with all the racial and social politics that such volatile subject matter involves." My introduction to the record was the track "Louisiana 1927," which I first heard in high school. Although I was too young then to appreciate the song's historical context, I was immediately taken in by the chromatic twists of Newman's theatrical melodies, his laconic drawl, and telling lyrical details.
A couple years ago, I finally decided to investigate the rest of Good Old Boys and bought a used copy. It's a captivating listen, from the beer-soaked ballad "Marie" and the jaunty "Birmingham," to the closing "Rollin'," the most beautiful ditty about booze since "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)." But I kept coming back to "Rednecks." With its cunning blend of Dixieland, ragtime, honky-tonk, and hints of Southern rock, the song's melody was soon imbedded in my noggin.
But the chorus, though catchy as hell, made me uncomfortable: "We're rednecks, rednecks/And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/We're rednecks, rednecks/And we're keeping the niggers down." Never mind that the number is written from the point of view of a Southerner pissed off after watching Georgia Gov. Lester P. Maddox being attacked on The Dick Cavett Show. Or that the lyric slyly points out the pervasive nature of racism nationwide. In a world where most people still haven't figured out that Newman's hit "Short People" was a joke, "Rednecks" was not something I wanted to be caught singing under my breath at the QFC.
But the discomfort that song sparked also made me scrutinize the album's contents more thoroughly than 99 percent of my other LPs. I researched the lives of Maddox and Huey P. Long and their roles in the civil rights movement. I learned how the flood Newman sang about in "Louisiana 1927" wiped out the cotton fields, leaving thousands of blacks unemployed. Ultimately, hearing Newman sing "niggers" in "Rednecks" made me do just what I pray the word does when students read it in Huckleberry Finn: think about thorny issues and unpleasant history. About how people let external forces shape their actions and ideas.
After 16 Academy Award nominations over the past 20 years, Randy Newman finally won one this year for "If I Didn't Have You" from Disney's Monsters, Inc. While I admit he deserved the belated acknowledgement, it's depressing that Newman is now best known for his work with the same entertainment giant that would like to pretend that Song of the South never happened. If I had my druthers, Randy would still be pushing people's buttons with songs like "Rednecks" instead of penning tunes that help sell stuffed animals. Because, despite the fear drummed into me that unforgettable afternoon in third grade, thanks to Good Old Boys I can now appreciate that sometimes, when handled with wit and care, saying a word like "nigger" does more good than pretending it never existed.