Monday, May 27, 2013

How the 'N' Word Reappeared in the Media

Watching D'Jango Unchained was a reminder of how the 'N' word went from forbidden to ubiquitous, and it began in the 1970s. It was likely inevitable, being the only truly forbidden word in the English language the inherent shock value was too much to resist from a comedy standpoint.

NBC banned the epithet from the airwaves in the 1950s, when radio was the dominant entertainment medium, although I can't find a single example of "nigger" being used on any radio or TV network program before that point. If a white person said it in a TV drama in the 1950s or '60s there had to be retribution, he would seriously renounce his racist ways or die at the end of the story.

Mark Nemeth of Greensboro, NC writes about a rare instance on TV: In the feature-length version of "Dragnet" (filmed in 1967, but airing in 1969 on the NBC Monday Night at The Movies) A thug calls a black detective the "N" word, which gives Jack Webb's Sgt. Friday an excuse to rip into him.
"If the department doesn't judge the color of his skin, you damn well see that you don't."

It was all too common to hear that word in 1960s and early-'70s westerns, you couldn't have a black person in a horse opera that didn't get called "nigger" at some point. It was, more often than not,  completely gratuitous. You could hear the word in racially-charged sixties' dramas like In the Heat of the Night and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! but television was another matter, networks wanted their programs to be G-rated fare for the entire family. That is, before the 1970s.

Just weeks after All In The Family debuted in 1971, Sammy Davis Jr. was the first to re-introduce the 'N' word to the mass media when he quipped, "If you were prejudiced, Archie, when I came into your home, you would have called me a coon or a nigger. But you didn't say that, I heard you clear as a bell. You came right out and called me colored."

Surprisingly, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) never used the "N" word, it was a bridge too far for a white guy, although antiquated colloquialisms like "coon," "colored," and "black beauties" fell out of his mouth in abundance.

The word "nigger" was heard next on NBC, in a first season Sanford & Son episode 'Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Bride' airing January 28, 1972. The storyline centered around Lamont (Demond Wilson) getting married when Fred (Redd Foxx), looking at the bride's family with contempt mutters "Buncha jive niggas" under his breath to scattered audience applause.

It was a January 4, 1974 broadcast of Sanford & Son ("Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe") that thrust the 'N' word back on to network TV in a big way when  'Big Money' Grip Murdoch confronted Aunt Ester (LaWanda Page) with his theory that he is Lamont's father. When Ester shouted her reply there was a huge audience response...

 Click over for more examples of the "N" word on network TV.