The Taboo Larry Wilmore Broke

The comedian's n-bomb at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights a generational shift in black culture.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.

Miss Georgia certainly would not have enjoyed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where comedian Larry Wilmore ended his performance by blowing past her taboo in the most public of places to the most revered of people. “You did it, my nigga,” he said, and then looked at the president, who returned his gesture of affection with a chest thump. He had just called the most powerful man in the world a nigga to his face.

Obama himself was not offended, and clearly has a long history with using the word in this light, so I feel no obligation to be offended on his behalf, or to revisit the tedium of the annual “who can say it” debate. I began breaking Miss Georgia’s taboo years ago around the time of Jay Z’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and have no real measure of internal conflict or reflexive defensiveness when I refer to my friends as “my niggas” or rap along to it in my favorite songs, or use it on social media, or write it in essays. Contrary to popular belief, Wilmore’s usage did not originate with my generation or with hip-hop; Miss Georgia’s 70-year taboo wouldn’t have made much sense if it had.

But the moment itself does have something to do with hip-hop, and it also has everything to do with inter-generational change in the culture, institutions, and philosophies of black communities. It has everything to do with black families like mine, where taboos like Miss Georgia’s are now met with defiance as often as compliance. Conflicted emotions from black people on social media showcased this dynamic. Some, like CNN commentator Van Jones, took offense to the phrase in no uncertain terms—especially that it was used in public to refer to a sitting president—while others celebrated “my nigga” as a final moment of candor for which many had been waiting.

From my vantage point, the divide largely broke down along the lines of age, with civil-rights legend Al Sharpton on one side and younger black activists on the other. Many black Millennials see Obama as the very first president who actually represented them, and turnout figures from the past two presidential elections show that sentiment reflected in votes. If Obama was Larry Wilmore’s “nigga” in the affectionate, very possessive sense implied Sunday night, it’s a sentiment he shares with many black Millennials.

This level of candor is certainly unprecedented. Part of the shocked reaction on both sides of the argument has been that Wilmore took a debate that has played out in black public spaces, churches, campuses, and dining rooms across the country and injected it into the fullness of American mainstream cultural debates. Instantly, every person with even a passing interest in politics has to form an opinion on whether the word should be allowed and in what context, even if its usage is conspicuously absent in some analyses of Wilmore’s remarks. This is immediately the highest-profile and most uncomfortable debate about the dreaded N-word, and likely the one that will become memorialized in history.

The existing history is somewhat inadequate in providing similar examples of the word, especially when levied to or by a figure as significant as Obama. Although even Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly used “little nigger” as a term of endearment in private, it’s still difficult to imagine King or any other widely-known black political figure of his generation using or responding to “nigga” in a very public way. Code-switching has long been taught as a central tenet of respectability politics and safety, and taboos have always been in place, whether they applied only to events in public or to those at home, as well. With the advent of a certain kind of revolutionary culture and music near the end of the civil-rights movement, however, “nigga” became more of a mass statement, a provocation daring to upend the idea of respectability politics and also consciously inviting the angst and envy of white consumers with the coolness created by its exclusivity. Curtis Mayfield was “that nigga in the alley.” That usage was cemented with the birth of hip-hop, itself the foundation of much of black Millennial culture.

Black Millennials and the culture that they carry exist in a symbiotic relationship with the president. His presence in the White House is not only an inspirational talisman of their era, but provides real social currency and opportunity in the idea of diversity. For his part, Obama benefits from the organizing, voting, and media presence of young black people, often his staunchest allies on the new-media channels his team has leaned on so heavily. The communion between young black people and the president hasn’t always been roses, but he's influenced them more deeply than any other demographic.

That’s contributed to the success of Wilmore and shows like his The Nightly Show. Black culture has enjoyed a new wealth of influence in media over the past decade, and I suspect the relationship with Obama’s presidency is a bit more than mere correlation. Wilmore’s show and a slate of other projects by black creators inherit the interests of this developing culture, and his show in particular is branded as an explicit rejection of double-consciousness and code switching, and its public use of the word “nigga” reflects that. He stands at the end of a long line of performers who’ve similarly rejected code switching. Dave Chappelle’s show, a predecessor of sorts to Wilmore’s show, was famous for its shocking and uncensored constant usage of “nigga,” an element that drew both praise and criticism from black viewers. That show sparked Serious Conversations about Race, ceaseless intra-racial debates about ownership of the word, and hand-wringing about its public usage by Millennial figures. But it also set the stage for inter-generational conflict between the enforcers of taboos and those who would break them.

Wilmore and Obama sit squarely at the center of that inter-generational clash. Both men who grew up during Mayfield’s transitional time. The primary taboo in their case, and in the case of many black people—and even myself for long after I’d broken Miss Georgia’s first one—exists in an iron curtain of code-switching in and out of public, of which “nigga” is the ultimate marker. It’s no longer that these things can’t be said in public; it’s that they’re not said in front of racially mixed audiences. By ignoring that taboo, the two men turned the Correspondents’ Dinner—an often banal exercise in bad jokes—into a surprisingly political statement. And that statement resounded loudest as a validation of the young generation of black people who had made such a moment possible and palatable for public taste.

Wilmore’s invocation of “nigga” at the Correspondents’ Dinner completed that epithet’s long journey. For decades, it had been repurposed largely in private. Wilmore's public use of the word revealed the fullness of a long-running shift in black politics that has been part of both his and Obama's career. After generations, the taboo has finally been broken.