Days after his stunning, deeply offensive n-word drop at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — the last event of its kind during the two terms of the nation’s first African American president — comes this blind flash of the obvious from Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore: his “tone didn’t fit the room.”
He was referring, of course, to his entire poorly-received routine at the annual Washington roast, but it was his closer, “Yo, Barry, you did it my n – – – – ,” spoken directly to President Obama, that most displayed his utter lack of respect, not only for the president, but for the journalists — particularly black journalists — in attendance. He should have known better and we surely deserved better.
I took that particular n-word as a very personal insult. Not because I’m overly sensitive, too “politically correct” or have never heard the word used as a term of endearment. Hardly. I took exception to it as the lead Washington reporter for American Urban Radio Networks, an African American outlet that has fought hard for its place in the White House briefing room and, frankly, at the annual correspondents’ dinner. I compete daily with colleagues, for whom I have tremendous respect, who in many cases have more resources and reporting advantages than I do, in order to ensure that black issues and concerns are raised in White House briefings. In the White House Correspondents’ Association’s 102-year history, I am one of only three African Americans ever to serve on its board. And knowing how hard black journalists have worked for inclusion in that room, Wilmore’s line offended me to the core.
He was afforded the honor of performing at Obama’s final correspondents’ dinner, and the fact that the last line in his routine contained the n-word, tossed toward our first black president, demonstrated a lack of respect for Obama and the office he holds. The line didn’t even have the benefit of being funny. The n-word, indeed, sadly, is still used among black folks in private moments, but as The Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote this week, the correspondents’ dinner clearly isn’t the “safe cultural confines of the barbershop, beauty shop” or “backyard barbecue” where the word can sometimes be heard.
And while I understand Wilmore’s defense, that he used a five-letter word ending in “a” and not a six-letter word ending in “er,” I can’t give it any credence. I also can’t agree with the argument, no matter how eloquently expressed by the Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk, that “Wilmore’s invocation of [‘n – – – – ’] at the Correspondents’ Dinner completed that epithet’s long journey” of reclamation by younger African Americans. Yes, different generations look at this differently. And yes, the word can be deployed to convey solidarity.
But in the banquet hall, as a black woman who has chronicled the uphill struggle of a black man to lead the nation, sitting with colleagues of all different races and backgrounds, what we heard — what we felt — was a capitulation by a black comedian to the crass culture of disrespect that has followed Obama throughout his presidency, and an utter disregard for the work that we do as journalists.
I’ve had the honor of attending quite a few of these dinners. My pride comes from seeing ever more diverse groups of my colleagues attend every year. At one time, the lack of racial and gender diversity hung like an albatross around the organization’s neck. There’s still progress to be made, but, no doubt, we have made progress.
During the Kennedy years, women had to fight to be included in the event. Eventually, the women who covered the White House enlisted President John F. Kennedy’s help to be invited. For black journalists, even being present at a presidential press conference was once considered a problem. More than 70 years ago, Harry McAlpin, a black journalist, was told he could not participate in the presidential press briefing because of fear he would cause a riot if he inadvertently stepped on a white male reporter’s foot. This is the history that informs my outrage.
In 2011, I was elected to the association’s board. During my tenure, there was one instance where my outlet, a relatively small, black network, was supposed to be seated near the front of the banquet hall for the annual dinner — a traditional courtesy for organizations with members on the board — before we were unceremoniously reassigned further back in the room prior to the event, in favor of a larger outlet. In the scheme of things, most black journalists have endured worse, but it was an unmistakable sign of professional disrespect. So was Wilmore’s ‘joke.’
Whether he said “n – – – – ” or “n – – – – – ” doesn’t matter. Neither does the fact that the White House’s official response was to brush it off. I know President Obama, and if anything, it’s an indicator of his class and grace that he didn’t throw Wilmore under the bus. What matters is that the word remains an ugly throwback to the worst of our nation’s past, and saying it to the president’s face left those of us sitting there at the dinner, who cover the president every day, aghast and angry. This isn’t about party affiliation or what anyone thinks of Obama’s job performance. Whatever your politics, he deserves respect.
My next book, “At Momma’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White” has a whole chapter on the n-word. As I compile my thoughts, I can’t help but think about what my late mother would say about this latest n-word debate. She’d probably remind me that “It’s not what they call you but what you answer to.” I didn’t, and don’t, answer to it, but Saturday night at the correspondents’ dinner, it felt like I was being called a n – – – – – , right alongside President Obama.
Friends and colleagues of the president, both in the room and in the days after the dinner, have told me they believe that no matter how close someone is to the president, or how well-known they might be for their humor, Obama has duly earned being called “Mr. President” — at all times. And if he’s honest with himself, Mr. Wilmore knows it, too.