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'White people can't say the N-word and it drives them crazy'

WRITER: David Bradley collects his 2015 Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize

SO I found myself in a bit of a quandary.

How do you interview someone – in public – and discuss a word that fits so uncomfortably in your mouth you can barely bring yourself to say it? And then, when you force your lips over its hostile syllables, you look around fearfully to see who has heard you?

Oh the irony of writing a piece about an author who has penned an essay on the futility of circumventing the N-word in which it appears unapologetically nearly 100 times!

It is difficult, I assure you – an avalanche of the asterisk variety.

At some point, this dance of euphemism and hushed tones will make you so dizzy you start to wonder: wouldn’t it just be easier if you could just say the blasted word without fear of politically correct reprisal?

For American writer, David Bradley, that’s precisely the point.

Society’s refusal to say the word only serves to give it power it doesn’t deserve while doing little to address the racism that gave birth to it in the first place.

Bradley also argues further that it limits a debate that could shift America, particularly, to a better place.

His humorous but direct Eulogy For N****r won Bradley the biennial Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize on Saturday, October 3, during London’s Literary Weekend.

The independent publisher awards £20,000 every two years in a bid to restore the often-unsung essay – or creative non-fiction – in literary and commercial form.

Praised for its “highly controversial, bold and original” approach, Bradley’s offering was the judge’s standout of the six finalists.

Not bad considering that Bradley, a self-confessed compulsive editor, submitted it five minutes before the deadline.

The work was inspired by the symbolic 2007 “burial” of the N-word led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

It provoked Bradley to launch a vigorous defence in which he argued the term’s importance as a historical reference and concept.

As the debate rages on – hit songs like Jay Z and Kanye West’s N****z in Paris and the recent furore caused by US President Barack Obama’s use of the word – Bradley tells The Voice why he has continued to revisit the piece.

“It is the issue that keeps going,” says Bradley when we meet at the west London hotel chosen because he spent time in the area in 1972 as a student on placement abroad. “It was one thing in 2007 and came up again when people started dumping on Obama when he used the N-word. All I’m saying is: say the word – like we don’t what you mean.”

When I tell him that The Voice’s editorial policy bans publication of the word, the 65-year-old chuckles: “Well, this will be interesting.”


CONTROVERSY: Jay Z (right) and Kanye West performing their hit song N*****s in Paris

And he can’t resist responding with a hearty “Good!” when I tell him that the British press watchdog recently ruled in the Guardian’s favour in a dispute with a reader who took the newspaper to task when they published it uncensored within a quote.

“The word doesn’t have a ‘horrible history’,” Bradley hits back when I ask why anyone would defend its existence considering its context – a verbal bullet that sought to degrade and dehumanise enslaved Africans amid the physical brutality of the transatlantic slave trade.

“History is horrible. What amazes me is the people who are most against it are the people who invented it.”

Bradley recalls a time when he lived in Philadelphia as a correspondent for a national magazine headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

He filed some copy about the Philadelphia Mummers, who once paraded in the city’s streets in blackface. One of their toasts referenced the word so, to be historically accurate, he left it in.

Adopting a charming Southern twang mid-flow, Bradley continues: “I got a call from the editor saying ‘you know we can’t use that word’. I was like, y’all invented it! It’s a quote!”

Then the English professor gets serious. “What do you think will happen if you ban the word?

Michael Brown is still dead. And I am sure the officer who shot him did not call him a n****r. I’m certain of it. I’m pretty sure he called him ‘sir’ and still shot him dead.”


FAREWELL: The NAACP ‘buried’ the N-word in 2007

Holding up his arms in surrender: “Call me a n****r but let me live!” before adding: “The kid who walked into the church in North Carolina [Dylan Roof] said ‘I don’t like black people’ and then shot those people dead. He didn’t use the N-word.”

One thing that Bradley is resolute about is his discomfort in giving people outside of the community a pass to use it.

“I support its use in a quote or a piece of literature. Black people say it all the time. They use it for humour, for endearment, or as an insult but not in the way it was originally used. It’s the one thing we can do that [white people] can’t and it drives them crazy.”

This last comment comes with a hearty laugh as he mimics those whose white privilege renders them unable to accept the existence of a party they’re not invited to.

Jokes aside, his essay has a real purpose. “I want the emphasis to fall on the actions that people take. I don’t want the emphasis to be if you eradicate the word, you solve the problem. You do not. The other stuff is more of a problem.

“One of the things I wanted to deal with in the essay is history. It’s hard to write about history because, one, it’s boring and, two, it’s cumulative. If you don’t know one, you can’t talk about four because you’ll never get there.”

Bradley says he finds it far more uncomfortable as an African American walking around Washington DC.

“Everywhere you turn there’s a monument to slave owners. You’re not triggered? Well, I’m triggered.

“I’d like people to understand that n****r is more than a word. It’s actions and an attitude. If you take away the label, you don’t take away the attitude that’s encoded in very complex language such as the complex language of law. When you add that up, that’s when I’m like, ‘wait, what did you just call me?’”


WORDS OVER ACTIONS: ‘The N-word didn’t kill Michael Brown’

Bradley is the son of a preacher and – inspired by the educationalist Booker T Washington – a lifelong Republican.

The only child was born and raised in “the mountains of western Pennsylvania…but I got out of there eventually” and now resides in San Diego, California.

His work includes South Street and The Chaneysville Incident, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1982.

Inspired in part by the real-life discovery of the graves of a group of runaway slaves on a farm near Chaneysville, in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, it also earned him an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Bradley also confesses that during a short stint as a Hollywood screenwriter he wrote a script for Malcolm X which ended up on the cutting room floor. Director Spike Lee went on to use a version penned by American novelist James Baldwin.

Hollywood made him want to “come home and have a shower everyday” so he took a job as a lecturer at the University of Oregon which was both fulfilling and paid the bills.

“You have to be realistic – no one is going to pay you to write,” says Bradley citing Mark Twain and Shakespeare as two of his influences. “Now I’m lucky I can get up in the morning have a coffee and a bowl of oatmeal and write all day because I quit teaching.”

We get talking about race in the UK and I share with Bradley David Cameron’s recent comments that Jamaica needs to “move on” from slavery.

Shaking his head, Bradley, who sports a marvellous full-face beard that is definitely more Santa Claus than hipster, laughs knowingly: “They always want to move on!”

He says it’s the same with those who want to ‘move on’ from the N-word. “They’re still [racially discriminating against] us. If they would stop doing the things that meant the word had no power, sure, let’s move on. I’m happy to do so and move on from the past when they’re ready to deal with the present.”

He points to Virginia’s personal property tax laws – a levy introduced to financially oppress the state’s slaves.

“People are still paying for it! Let’s move on but you can’t do so in denial.”

And, with that, his argument suddenly seems so simple.

A Eulogy for N****r and other essays is an anthology of the six winning entries of the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99). Available from www.nottinghilleditions.com and all good bookstores.

Enter Promo Code EULOGY01 at www.nottinghilleditions.com to receive £3 discount.

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