Who ‘Owns’ the N-Word?

I find the idea of a community “owning” a word ludicrous, which is why I oppose the double standard regarding the acceptable use of the N-word.

Before I go on, I want to assure readers that the actual word will not appear anywhere in this essay, even for reference purposes. The N-word is an awful slur, a venomous and emotionally laden epithet that has no place in our social vernacular.

I wish that word could be phased out of the Black community, like the purging of some virus ravaging the body of its host. Perhaps, then we can begin to heal.

Maybe you are already aware of the double standard: the N-word belongs to the Black community. It’s like some unspoken code. Black people can utter it without repercussion. We can say it in barber shop-type settings and in self-deprecating comedy routines and in certain genres of music.

However, the same latitude is not granted to those outside our community. When someone who is not from our community says it, he/she has just crossed the line, even if their intentions were anything but to offend. That word is our word. We own it.

I’d like to dispel that notion. Scratch that. I’d like to beat it over the head with a shovel and bury it in the backyard.

As a black man, I don’t claim ownership of that word. I don’t want ownership. That word has no positive meaning, value, or place in my life. I certainly don’t find it empowering to reclaim a racial slur that connotes generations of pain and prejudice.

There is no double standard. The N-word is not some privileged term that we own. In fact, I wish the Black hip-hop artists and comedians so endeared to the term would relinquish ownership of it, too.

I understand but disagree with the effort by marginalized communities to repurpose, refurbish, or otherwise reclaim disparaging terms. The aim largely is to neutralize the virus: to take this awful word and its awful history and lessen its destructive power by making it exclusively ours. The problem is that instead of letting the virus die, they would prefer to incubate it and create social rules around it, as if hugging the virus closer to our hearts will make it any less dangerous.

I’m also not so naive as to believe that if Black people stopped using the N-word it would suddenly disappear. We, as Black people, cannot control how the word is used by others to denigrate and disparage us, but we are taking control when we choose not to use it. We empower ourselves when we bust to pieces this double standard.

Genuine bigots considering using the term can no longer point to this so-called double standard to legitimize their use of the term. No longer will we have to suffer the tired excuse: “If Black people can say it, then White people should be able to do the same.”

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The Broken Things

Editor’s Note: This selected work is from my new chapbook, The Groundwork of Realization, available on Amazon ($0.99).

The Broken Things
By Thorne McFarlane

Angels fall from the perch they were graced,
Oversized crowns fall from the heads of kings,
The world is a junkyard for the misplaced.
All things lead to a valley of broken things.

High hopes, lofty dreams, inflated egos,
All come crashing down on those below.
Heavy-handed disputes, frivolous pursuits,
Turning men into brutes,
Turning friends into foes,
Sinking the world we know.

So many broken things,
All things are broken.
So many broken things,
All things are broken.

So many broken things,
All things are broken.
So many broken things,
All things are broken.

Broken hearts and broken dreams…
So many broken things,
Greener pastures where angels sing,
Men try to fly with paper wings,
So many people are using broken things.

A vast puddle of broken things…
Success comes at a hefty cost,
For every battle won is a battle lost,
Empty wells, carpets of eggshells,
Personal dungeons are eager jail cells.

Broken things lead to more broken things…
Human beings break other living matter,
Victims battered, innocence shattered,
Now more broken things are scattered.
So many people create broken things.

So many broken things,
All things are broken.
So many broken things,
All things are broken.

So many broken things,
All things are broken.
So many broken things,
All things are broken.

Broken things and empty rattles…
Faceless ground becomes flesh,
Old wounds become fresh,
Winless battles, heavy saddles,
Men try to swim with broken paddles.
So many people are using broken things.

It seems people don’t care about broken things…
A junkyard for the misplaced and the forgotten,
Eyed with suspicion, criticized with no contrition,
Idealistic pursuits, youthful fruits become rotten,
People no longer tend to these broken ambitions.

High hopes, lofty dreams, inflated egos,
All come crashing down on those below.
Heavy-handed disputes, frivolous pursuits,
Turning men into brutes,
Turning friends into foes,
Sinking the world we know.

Angels fall from the perch they were graced,
Oversized crowns fall from the heads of kings,
The world is a junkyard for the misplaced.
All things lead to a valley of broken things.

Life Lives On Lives

Life lives on lives.
We exist to see the world through another’s eyes.

One man does not an island make.
It is with each other we must affiliate.

We co-exist in this world of ours,
Although goodness and hope seems to be devoured…

And until this world goes empty and dries—
You must never forget that life lives on lives.

“I’ll be there.”

The only saving devices.
In the event of a raving crisis,
Only unity can conquer the violence.

The money we hold is only stone-cold.
Bastardized, pocketed, then given away and sold.
Life is more precious than any amount of gold.

As the anger grew, so did troubles brew…
So many human lives it took—
Written from the sun into a lonely book,
The spoils and the casualties of war,
How many did it take to settle a score?
Shallow men guided by the heat of their own tempers,
Wholly consumed and swallowed,
They wallow in the burning passion of their own embers.

For all the innocent blood smudged between the fog and the smoke,
The fed-up peoples stood up and spoke. They piloted a new generation.
Using this occasion, these same men and women rose to fill a rift in the nation.

For every solid shoulder to carry the feeble,
This became the chance to combat a cycle of evil.
Cutting the loop, they took the forgotten names from the lonely book.
Every forgotten voice,
Each misplaced letter was now made to shine. Vivid and vibrant.
America—a mosaic that was once a pool of islands.
We co-exist in this world of ours,
We make precious our very hours.

Never alone, we walk through the land of the misplaced and forgotten.
We place a shoulder of support for the dejected and downtrodden.

Don’t let the fiery haze guide us to our final slumber.
Life is golden; and age is merely a number.

And though goodness would appear to be devoured,
The voice of reason is forever empowered.

And until this world goes empty and dries,
We must never forget,
Life lives on lives.

This poem is inspired by the wisdom of the great Joseph Campbell who, through his writings, taught me that “life lives on life.” Innately, we are all fumbling for meaning, but perhaps it was never there. We must strive and will, chasing our rightful passion, bringing meaning into our lives and thus enriching the world around us.

Essays on the Common Man (Part II)

Food for the Machine

Don’t feed the system, fight it.

Hear the screams?
The voracious fiend,
When it sets its sights on you,
You become food for the machine.

Don’t feed the system, fight it.

The American Dream, the illustrious pie in the sky,
Satellites, the all-seeing eye in the sky,
Supervision, celestial superstition,
Meanwhile, on Earth, there’s terrestrial schism:
Domestic racism, exacerbated, aggravated,
And elevated by increased terrorism overseas,
Distractions from the dismal fiscal rotaries,
Treading over rough waters, like the economy,
Like teeter-tottery,
Homelessness and poverty,
Declining values of property,
Foreclosure forces some into welfare,
And many fall sick on rising costs of health care,
While every other week presents another health scare,
A perfect storm mixing the right cocktail of conditions,
The exotic recipe appeases the system.

The experts rile feathers, push the right buttons,
Politicians, pundits, say things like it’s all redundant,
Party loyalty, constituents don’t seem to matter,
Just another rung on the political ladder,
Cut budgets while their pockets get fatter.
I’m getting tired of these screaming voices,
Outside noises, media personalities trying to influence choices,
The more you watch, the more you step inside the box,
And you might find it too much to handle, constant scandal,
“If it bleeds it leads,”
Tragedy, corruption, greed,
Murders, robberies, rape,
Sound bites, audio, video tape,
And you might find yourself in far too deep to escape,
Far too deep, in the complex of this prison,
You might find yourself in far too deep, in the bowels of the system.

Hear the screams?
The voracious fiend,
When it sets its sights on you,
You become food for the machine.

Hear the screams?
The voracious fiend,
When it sets its sights on you,
You become food for the machine.

Don’t feed the system.

It is said that no wealth equals knowledge,
And no poverty rivals ignorance.
But education is under-funded,
Teacher salaries slashed, resources hashed,
Under-performing schools leaves communities trashed,
Rising costs of books and supplies, student debt,
Tuition, dormitory and rent, all of it spent,
Trying to stay afloat,
Feel those hands around your throat?
It devours everything it touches,
The system has you in its hungry clutches.

Chasing the cheese, dodging obstacles in the maze,
A rat race, the cheese is overrated but every rat wants a taste,
9–5, 24–7 in the work economy, fast-paced, haste,
But it beats unemployment, or it seems,
Dead-end pay, too many blues, not enough green,
Don’t feed the machine.

Hear the screams?
The voracious fiend,
When it sets its sights on you,
You become food for the machine.

Essays on the Common Man (Part I)

I Am the Common Man

I am what you would call the common man, and in hard times you could call me the invisible man.

I struggle to make ends meet, but pressure amounts and the problems never seem to diminish. When it rains, it pours, until I find myself trying to keep afloat in this lake of misery and mediocrity. And if, for the brief moment, I ever forget how to swim, I will surely drown.

It seems that my dire concerns become mainstream only when there is an election to be won; my personal hurdles become another match point, political prostitution and mockery, a blood sport prize.

I am the common man. I am a simple man, so my concerns are not otherwise fashionable. They are rather ordinary, unadorned, like the faded T-shirt and the weathered pair of jeans I wear on the weekends. Or, better yet, like the long-sleeved pin-striped collared shirts and gray pants I wear to work each day. Not at all like the confident cardigan sweaters that I wear on casual Fridays.

My struggles are not to be exploited, worn and shelved and worn again as the situation demands. They are not a pair of shoes to be polished only to then be retired and collect falling dust in the closet. I live with this back-breaking burden every day, like the daily tax for living. My struggles are a plea for relief, a cry to ease the burden that may one day cripple me.

I am the common man, driven by unwavering faith and untarnished optimism, despite these harsh trials. My driving faith keeps others moving. As long as my feet are planted firmly on this earth, I don’t have the option to lift my arms to the unmoving heavens in pitiful surrender. If my children see me weep and bellow in sorrow, they will lose faith in their own futures. If I fail to lift my weary head, they, too, will ignore the opportunities before them. Yes, I am the common man, but to my babies, to my darling wife and aging parents, I am an extraordinary man indeed.

Until the time when my travails become more than a footnote in modern political discourse, I will work tirelessly to ensure a more prosperous lifetime for the next generation. And though I may stub my toe, I will continue to trot onwards, toward fulfillment and happiness, because my uncolored commonness is my dazzling uniqueness. I am strong because I am in the company and fellowship of many other common men and women. I am the overworked, underpaid, overburdened, underrepresented man.

You may otherwise refer to me as the common man.

Why ‘Vote Your Conscience’ Is Flawed Advice

“Vote your conscience.”

I have heard this adage repeated with great regularity in political discourse. It is most often issued as advice to young and undecided voters – those who are “on the fence,” so to speak. And while I do not doubt that those who issue this advice may be doing so benignly, I strongly encourage them to reconsider just the shallowness of those words.

Imagine being given a question on a standard multiple-choice exam with four possible answers. However, by processes of your own reasoning, you were able to eliminate two of the four options. Imagine, then, that you were offered a “lifeline,” which allows you to consult with your teacher only once for advice on selecting the best answer of the two viable options. Would you not be offended if this teacher’s only advice to you is to “select with your conscience”?

Many may take objection to my analogy, and rightfully so. It is, in a sense, incongruous to compare the voting process to responding to a multiple-choice question. After all, in a true multiple-choice question it is understood that each choice is equally plausible. The same cannot be said about the voting process. If I were to use this analogy, I would first have to assume that elections are fair playgrounds.

I sadly cannot hold this assumption to be true. In any election, there will be clear outsiders who have much lower chances of winning. It is simply pretension that some names are placed on the ballot for the sake of appearances only. Whether those outsiders are disadvantaged because they lack the political resource to be true contenders or because they hold unpopular views, the truth of the matter still remains: They are outsiders and not equal players on the playground.

Another factor leading to this imbalance is the ‘flocking’ that usually occurs during elections. In life, people prefer to associate with (or flock to) winners. The larger the flock, the more likely the candidate is to attract followers. These followers may even be outsiders who were once contenders.

In theory, voting is a declaration of individualism and self-expression. In reality, it is a deliberate act that is best described as placing one’s penny in the right jar. In theory, voting is conscience-driven. In practice, it is very much group-driven. This glaring discrepancy between what voting should be and the reality is the source of much voter frustration and cynicism.

My first quarrel with telling people to vote their conscience is that it seems so detached from reality that it appears almost nonsensical. In fact, I’m tempted to believe that those giving this lackluster advice are doing so evasively. It is a nice, easy answer that shifts the full burden of responsibility to the one receiving the advice. This is the case in the example I provided above, in which the teacher, in a very subtle, devious way, tasks the test-taker with finding the answer. This response from the teacher chides and befuddles the test-taker more than it helps. If such is the case, one is better off not seeking the advice in the first place.

Finally, I take offense with the assertion implicit in the phrase “vote your conscience.” I find it quite condescending, actually. Never is the question asked “what if your conscience is wrong?” In real life, people make informed decisions based on the facts available and the options presented to them. Many of us are misled in good faith. Plenty of us have regretted occasions when we have acted purely on our gut instincts. Human beings are Homo sapiens, “wise men,” beings of sapience and sentience that act not just in good conscience but with good reason.

I completely understand why some people are quick to tell others to vote their conscience. It is, in less-offensive terms, another way of saying “make up your own mind.” It upholds the delusion that voting is the only decision one makes in which reason is subsidiary to conscience. It is in keeping with the false notion that elections are fair playgrounds where each player is equal in stature and each vote is equal in measure, while at the same time renouncing the unpleasant pennies-in-a-jar view of the voting process.

I find this advice particularly appalling when used to discolor the attitudes of our young voters who may already be estranged from the voting process. Young people are not unreasonable or foolish, they just need informed advice. And if we want to give our young citizens good advice, let’s not talk in abstractions by telling them offhandedly to “vote their conscience.”

All Things Desired

Strive for love, virtue and placidity in a world of hatred, blindness and drudgery. This is the resonating message from Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem, Desiderata, which helped shape my personal philosophy on love and desire. The poem underlines that we all desire certain things – be it fame, success or admiration. Yet we are kept in bounds by what I believe is a very conflicted and cynical world. Why are we so critical of dreamers? Why must we dilute hope? Why must we tell our children to dream freely only to then assert that dreams, wishes and wants are nothing more than mere flights of fancy?

Desiderata warns of a harsh world awash with pain, disenchantment and unfulfilled desires. We are encouraged to separate our wants from our needs. We are encouraged to find our place in this universe and fulfill that place obediently. We are encouraged to live a life without regrets, far removed from earthly vexations and tribulations. Although I came to know Desiderata’s words, I quickly realized that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. The attitude of resignation, a sort of passive resistance against the crushing pressures of the world, contained in Desiderata was quite radical to me at the time.

I know that what exists within this world is a cycle of wanton suffering; a system that is indescribable, indefinable and inevitable. No one desires suffering, but perhaps Desiderata is trying to explain that pain is necessary, and that only by the support of each other can we grow to overcome our personal troubles. Most have heard the common metaphor of walking in another’s shoes, that it is impossible to truly understand a person until you know his or her struggles. Growing up, I had my share of struggles and detested others for not understanding my pain. After hearing that expression, I opened up to the painful experiences of others: poverty, divorce, sickness, loss. I learned in time that I wasn’t the only person living in a world of pain. That realization, prompted by Desiderata’s words, strengthened my resolve, and I sought to understand others more deeply and overcome my own pain in the process.

It is very difficult to leave our personal prisons, but when we do we see that we are not alone. The idea that we bear sole responsibility for our successes and failings is a dangerous proposition. I uphold the belief that no man is alone in his struggles. “All men know something of poverty,” W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote. He went on to state that the true tragedy is that “men know so little of men.” I want those who are depressed and lonely and even those contemplating suicide to genuinely consider this truth: You are not alone. What you are experiencing is not unusual or atypical. You are alive not to suffer alone but to find comfort and acceptance by joining in the universal expression of suffering. As expressed beautifully by Ehrmann, “you have a right to be here.”

We desire to be accepted and be loved – human nature defines it. But it’s hard to see love’s true image and easy to seek fake companionship, false acceptance and selfish lust masquerading as love. We are quick in taking illusions, painting them in our image, and labeling them as love. But that fake love is exclusive, and I only was to see those confined to the cold gloom of hospitals, prisons and slums. The unloved. Our desire to experience true love may ultimately be the sum of all desires. Love is the lifelong hankering which the other desires cannot placate or can only satisfy for brief stretches of time. Success, fame, beauty, admiration and the myriad of other desires serve their purpose in attempting to bring us closer to the true image of love.

One of my favorite biblical passages describes how love is patient and kind. Love is not envious and keeps no record of wrongs. One summer camp experience reinforced my faith in the tremendous human capacity for love and compassion. As a teen, I spent one summer at a lakeside camp in New York with adolescents who, like me, have been diagnosed since birth with mortal illnesses. The camp’s counselors and other supervisors were caring to say the least. I saw them talk to terminal young people – not about the pain that society says they are cursed to be born with, but about their hopes and dreams for the future. These counselors were just ordinary men and women with problems of their own, but who brought light to the blind and hope to the desperate. It is not enough to just be there for the one you love but to be there with them. I am sure that every child who left that camp felt blessed to experience love in its truest sense – not the disillusioned world of false love.

I find it difficult to keep peace in the noisy confusion of life. I still get anxious and weary in the face of adversity, but Desiderata’s words continue to be a source of inspiration and guidance. The world is at times hostile to dreamers, leaving them disarmed, disenchanted, disheartened and discouraged. The coming of age brings with it pain, doubt and the “sham” of lost love as we know it. I desire to dream even when I am rudely awakened by life’s unpredictable turmoil. I desire to learn from past mistakes while continuing the precarious undertaking of balancing my desires and needs.