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TV wrestles with a taboo term

TV wrestles with a taboo term
Mark-Paul Gosselaar, left, and Tone Bell in the new NBC series "Truth Be Told." It's one of the primetime comedies that is stepping into the discussion on use of the n-word. (Ben Cohen/NBC / Handout)

From an elementary school student on the ABC sitcom "Black-ish," to Whoopi Goldberg on "The View," the n-word has been getting a workout on TV this fall. And there's more prime-time use of it to come in the weeks ahead on sitcoms like the new NBC entry "Truth Be Told," debuting Oct. 16.

It is one of the most contested and culturally packed words in the English language — with the ability to instantly cut to the core of racial tensions depending on the context. In the demographically changing America of 2015, it can instantly set off a fierce debate when uttered on television.

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Remember last April when Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes used it in a heated exchange with Erin Burnett? The CNN host had used the term "thugs" to describe students who battled police downtown after the funeral of Freddie Gray. An angry Stokes, who is African-American, asked Burnett, who is white, why she didn't just call them the n-word, because that's what he believed she was doing by labeling them thugs.

It took a full day of social-media-mob comment about Stokes' use of the word before some journalists and political leaders came to see his larger point about the damage done to teens and young adults when they are branded as thugs. And then an important conversation about race, language and stereotypes ensued — one that came to include Baltimore's mayor and the U.S. president, who had both called teen lawbreakers in Baltimore thugs.

But the realm of cable news is one thing, while the territory of prime-time sitcoms is another. The latter is generally thought of as lighter entertainment, even escapist fare.

Not on the season opener of "Black-ish," though, when Jack Johnson (Miles Brown) performed a rap-dance version of the Kanye West song "Gold Digger" at the school talent show. The refrain uses the n-word repeatedly.

The fallout from the boy's performance is the dominant story line, with discussions about the word taking place at the office where Jack's father, Andre "Dre" Johnson (Anthony Anderson), works, the living room of the Johnson home and Jack's school. Despite the comedic edge, there is nothing sitcom-lite about any of the conversations.

The seriousness and substance of the discourse is best suggested by Dre's remarks at a hearing on Jack's expulsion.

"This whole country has been schizophrenic about what to call black people for two centuries," Dre says. "And the last person who should be held accountable for it is an 8-year-old boy who doesn't have an ounce of hate in his heart."

The episode sparked a conversation that continues, with analysts praising showrunner Kenya Barris for the risks he and his creative team took.

"The n-word episode was done in a way that was funny, intentional, thoughtful and provocative, but not for the sake of being provocative," Nsenga Burton, associate professor of media studies at Goucher College, said last week. "Kenya Barris did a great job of exploring complex issues around a precarious word."

(In the interest of full disclosure, Burton and I teach in the same department at Goucher.)

Burton praised the episode for its keen and nuanced cultural commentary within the confines of the 30-minute sitcom format.

"It showed how not even all black people are on the same page as to when it should be used, if it should be used, how it should be used," she added.

The disagreement extends into the world of prime-time TV itself.

While Terrence Howard, who plays record mogul Lucious Lyon on the Fox series "Empire," was very public over the summer about wanting his hit series to use the word for the sake of realism, co-creator Lee Daniels said that it will not be used. Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie Lyon in the series, agrees with Daniels that the n-word should not be used.

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"The fact that Lee Daniels doesn't use the word and Kenya Barris wants to explore it shows the complexity of black America," Burton said. "Even in the entertainment industry, people can't agree on the use of it."

Jack's story line in "Black-ish" ends with Dre tucking his son into bed for the night after news arrives that the expulsion has been reduced to a three-day suspension.

"I know I've been telling you it's OK to use the n-word," Dre says. "And I'm not saying you shouldn't use it. But maybe you should hold off until you know the history of it and can make your own decision."

In the 65-year history of family sitcoms, such scenes with parents tucking their kids into bed have always been the moment when the moral of the story is delivered. I am impressed with the seamless way in which Barris took that ancient formula and used it for such a contemporary and complicated discussion.

The sitcom's final scene shows Dre telling his teenage daughter's friends who can and cannot use the n-word The scene is played for laughs, but the topic is profound.

The same discussion will be had again later this month on the new NBC sitcom "Truth Be Told" between two of the four leading characters, played by Tone Bell and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. As they are driving, Gosselaar's character starts rapping along to Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind."

Just as he comes to the point where Jay Z says the n-word, Bell's character, who is black, shouts, "no, no, no, no, no" to his friend, who is white.

"I get it, I can't say that word," Gosselaar says. "But now I can't sing it?"

"You can't," he is told in no uncertain terms. "It's just not a word you have access to."

"You should hear me do it, because I don't pronounce the 'r.'"

"You better not pronounce the 'r.'"

"What if I hum it?"

"No, no, no, no, no."

The entire episode is about ethnicity, race and religion with the leading characters trying to negotiate their way in a more multicultural America. The laughs grow out of that tension, with the talk about the n-word between these two characters at the heart of it.

The word is not new to prime-time sitcoms. Sammy Davis Jr. used it in 1971 when he came to visit Archie Bunker on the landmark CBS sitcom, "All in the Family." The next year, it was used on NBC's "Sanford and Son," with Redd Foxx.

But then, it mostly disappeared from prime-time network TV in the 1980s and '90s, as TV series like "The Cosby Show" reassured the mass audience that the racial upheaval of the 1960s was a thing of the past.

But after Ferguson and Baltimore, we should certainly know that was never true. The racial divide is still deep and wide.

There are a number of reasons for all the talk about the n-word on TV this fall, according to Craig Seymour, an associate professor of media studies at Northern Illinois University.

"The move this fall to try and show more realistic portrayals of race relations on TV is connected to demographic shifts," Seymour said. "People of color like myself want to see this stuff realistically portrayed on TV. There are more of us demanding it, and there are more people of color behind the scenes working in the industry trying to respond to that."

Conversations like the ones on "Black-ish" about the n-word "are like the conversations I've had with my friends in my life," Seymour said.

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"Any black person with white friends who grew up in the hip-hop era has had them, and now we're finally seeing and hearing them onscreen," he added.

Beyond that, I believe we are in a period of cultural upheaval that is much like that of the late 1960s, which we saw reflected in those Norman Lear sitcoms of the early '70s. It is a period of contested identity, anger, conflict, uncertainty and change.

The discussions about the n-word and who can or cannot use it on TV are in part about the shift in power as we move away from a majority-white society.

"Taking this word and reimagining it and then dictating the terms of its use is an act of power for some of those once oppressed by it," Burton said. "Talking about the n-word on TV is a conversation about the kind of complicated issues black people have to deal with in their lives. It's nice to see a show like 'Black-ish' reflecting that."

Twitter.com/davidzurawik

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