This is strictly one man's opinion – one white man's. Take it or leave it. But know from the start this opinion of an impossibly complex issue comes from the most real and raw depth of my being.
This is very personal, as you will see.
This is about the N-word.
To me, it is the most despicable word in the English language – verbal evil – and I cannot bring myself to speak it even when explaining to the editor of this column why I detest it. I have long wished the N-word could be eradicated, that it could die the death it deserves, and as a white man, I've never been able to quite get comfortable hearing the new-school use of the N-word, ending in "a," spoken with affection by black people to black people.
God help us if today's rampant use of the N-word – by rappers and athletes and movie-makers black and white – is subliminally signaling to white kids that it's somehow OK to view black people in remotely the same way many of this country's forefathers did: as subhumans mostly suited for enslaving and serving a superior race.
I was particularly outraged when Riley Cooper went virtually unpunished by the Eagles (undisclosed fine, no suspension, some sort of "sensitivity training," no public condemnation from black or white team leaders) in the preseason. An angry Cooper, who said he had been drinking, was caught on cellphone video at a country-music concert in Philadelphia using the N-word PLURAL, as in he'd fight all the N-words there.
My view: Cooper, perhaps fueled by the truth serum that alcohol can be, had spoken his heart. That's a line that cannot be uncrossed. I said on "First Take" the Eagles should cut Cooper to send the message that word – spoken by white players with a hard "er" – would not be tolerated. But …
… nothing. Cooper has started all 10 games and leads the Eagles in yards per catch at 19.8 and in touchdowns, tied at seven with DeSean Jackson. Only in America.
Now my outrage has turned to disillusioned shock over reports that black players in the Miami Dolphins locker room had no problem with white players calling them the N-word (presumably the one ending in "a" with intended affection). I suppose you can argue this is another sports-as-microcosm sign the races are melding – that we all CAN just get along. But please, not by letting white people lovingly call black people a derivation of a word for which black people were once castrated and raped and tortured and hanged. Surely there's another word that enlightened blacks and whites can embrace as a shared nickname.
History can't be made until it is understood.
The Dolphins' Richie Incognito, according to Miami Herald and ESPN reports, was viewed by some black players as "an honorary black guy"? I'm not sure Incognito should be an honorary anything, but he felt he was given the locker-room license to leave a voice mail calling Jonathan Martin the N-word in an insulting context.
Incognito indicated in a Fox interview this basically was just big-brother/little-brother kidding and motivating. Yet on a much deeper, more troubling level, are you sure this wasn't just verbal evil with a grin?
Her name was Katie Bell Henderson, and she was as tough and sweet a woman as I've ever known. Through my childhood in Oklahoma City, in the 1950s and '60s, she worked for my grandparents. They were not wealthy, but my grandmother traveled for her work and Katie Bell ran the household and was like a family member. Katie Bell was a black woman from the South Side of Chicago. My parents both worked, so I spent a lot of time with her. I watched her favorite shows with her, "Edge of Night" and "Gunsmoke." A couple of times I went with her to her church, an African Methodist Episcopal church. In the summers, when Katie Bell's granddaughter Audrey visited from Chicago – she was my age – I heard all about what it was like growing up on the South Side of a city where the Cubs AND White Sox played.
I learned so much of what I know about life, and people, from Katie Bell Henderson. I loved that woman.
One afternoon when I was 10, in the summer of '62, I was playing checkers at the kitchen table with a relative who was 8. Katie Bell was making dinner.
The 8-year-old got mad at me. He called me a name whose meaning he clearly did not know. I knew. I have never been more stunned and embarrassed.
Loudly, he said, "You're a ..."
He called me the N-word ending in a hard "er."
Katie Bell put down what she was doing, walked quickly to the 8-year-old, took hold of his shirt collar with both hands and pulled his face close to hers. That was the first and last time I saw Katie Bell angry. She often scolded me, but never angrily. Now her eyes were wet with years and years of pain and anger. Her family's roots were in Mississippi.
To the 8-year-old she said: "Don't you EVER use that word again as long as you live."
Understand, I never heard my parents or grandparents use that word. Not ever. The 8-year-old probably had heard it on an all-white playground, as I had. The Riley Cooper incident suggests that word, spoken with the hard "er," is still very much alive and hell
Hearing Katie Bell Henderson speak those words to that 8-year-old white boy changed me forever. From that moment sprang so much of what I've spoken on TV and written, especially this column.
John Wooten and I have discussed and debated race for 34 years. I got mad at him only once, over Riley Cooper.
Wooten, now 76, is black. Wooten made two Pro Bowls blocking for the great Jim Brown, and they remain close friends. In 1967, Wooten joined Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other prominent black athletes at a summit supporting Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
Wooten eventually served as personnel director for the Cowboys and Eagles. Now he's chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and helps oversee the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates when searching for a head coach or filling a senior football-operations position.
After Wooten watched me say on "First Take" that Riley Cooper should be cut, he texted me, asking what ever happened to forgiveness and second chances and saying he believed Cooper's apology and that "if he's not what he says he is, it will come out."
I angrily texted back: "It already came out … of his mouth."
Later, by phone, I told John I was speaking strictly from a white perspective. I told him I glance at my Twitter responses only after we discuss race issues on air, just to gauge reaction, and that I'd heard from an alarming number of white people who said something like, "What's the big deal? Black people use the N-word. Why shouldn't we?"
That made Wooten angry. Wooten surprised me with how much he despises the use of the N-word by black people. Wooten said: "People have given their lives to fight against that word."
Yet, on balance, I've had discussions with a man whose brilliance I envy who believes just the opposite. Michael Eric Dyson is one of the most respected voices in the black community, an author, a radio host and a professor of sociology at Georgetown University who has written books on subjects ranging from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye to Tupac Shakur.
Dyson says: "We hijacked, or word-jacked, that word that was used in a nefarious and horrible way … and drained it of its poison and turned it into a word of endearment."
Or, in this week's case involving Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers, the word can be used to criticize within a "we're all in this together" context. Barnes was the latest of several pro athletes who have used the N-word in tweets. Barnes tweeted his frustration from the locker room during Wednesday's night game about how he's tired of getting ejected and fined while taking the fall for his teammates.
"I'm DONE standing up for these n---as!" Barnes tweeted.
Some black people I know are fine with the use of the N-word ending in "a" among black people. Some are not.
Dyson says: "All of us [in the black community] do not agree about the use of that word [as a term of endearment]. But that is our right to disagree among ourselves."
Is it ever.
Dyson and Wooten, however, do agree on this: When can whites use the N-word in any form? Dyson: "NEVER."
Wooten called me when he read about black Dolphins players allowing white players to refer to them using the N-word. "This," he said, "just sickens me. These young men can have no idea of the history of that word."
My friend and debate partner Stephen A. Smith has said several times on air that, yes, he has used the N-word with black friends, but that he has decided to curtail it in hopes of eliminating it altogether.
Thank you, Stephen A.
I have told him many times on air that I am obviously not black and would never for a moment pretend to know what it's like to be black. I can speak only as a white guy.
I wish the N-word would die.
No matter what color or age you are, I wish you could have been there that day in 1962 when Katie Bell Henderson delivered that message to that 8-year-old white boy.
"Don't you EVER …"