1 Shakaran

Paret Cuban Fighter Essay Typer

N-I-G-G-E-R. I'll never forget the first time I accidentally used that word in mixed company. It was 20 years ago at the University of Missouri, and I was engaged in lighthearted chitchat with Kent, my white roommate, when I casually called him a "nigger."

For a second I'd forgotten that I was not among my black friends in my old neighborhood in Saint Louis, where calling a buddy "nigger" was synonymous with calling him "brother" or "man." It was just another way to talk cool, using a word that had become a part of our vocabulary long before we were aware of all its varied meanings and usages.

I was barely conscious of my accidental utterance, but there was nothing casual about Kent's reaction. His eyes widened, and his body flinched as though he'd just absorbed a boxer's jab. Then he snapped to an upright position on the edge of his bed, narrowed his eyes, and pointed an index finger at me. "I'm not a nigger," he said, his tone implying that he thought I was a nigger. He never actually called me a nigger, but the mere suggestion was enough to put me in a fighting mood.

"Do I look like a nigger to you?" I shouted.

"But you just called me a nigger," he replied.

"Well, that's different. You can't call me that. Not ever."

Fortunately, our dorm mates stopped this exchange before I could throw a punch at Kent, who probably thought I was nuts. Actually I was simply too angry to realize that I was the one at fault.

By calling Kent a nigger, I'd exposed him to what my old neighborhood friends called a "black thing" he didn't understand. The "thing" is the love/hate relationship many black people have with "nigger," one of the most complex, perplexing, and emotionally incendiary words in the American lexicon. And to be truthful, black people are hardly unified in their understanding or usage of this piece of slang.

There have been times in my life when I've felt very comfortable using the word, but I've also struggled with its usage. And now that I'm a parent I cringe at the notion that my two children will someday have to try to understand what these six letters mean to them, their friends and foes, and the larger society. While my wife and I are readying ourselves for questions like "Where do babies come from?" I know that none will be more vexing than the first innocent query about the N-word.

I could take the easy way out and tell our kids that "nigger" is a bad word that good boys and girls should never use. Or maybe I could recite the old "sticks and stones" adage and tell them it's a name that can never hurt them. But neither tactic is likely to work, especially the second, since I don't believe it myself.

If my kids are destined to be introduced to a word born of racial hatred, then their parents should be the ones to do it. But television, the Internet, the school playground, and other competitors for our kids' attention may get to them first. Or a dictionary.

Last February Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, Michigan, was asked by a little boy, "Am I a nigger because I'm black?" She told the naturally curious child that a nigger was any ignorant person, then advised him to look up the word in the dictionary for reassurance. The kid paged through the venerable Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, where he found that "nigger" is a term for "a black person--usu. taken to be offensive." With only minor revisions, this definition has existed for nearly half a century.

This was a shocking revelation for Williams, who started a petition drive to pressure Merriam-Webster to revise the definition. Her campaign gained momentum last September, when Emerge magazine ran a brief article about it. Since then, scores of people have joined her, many of them contending that the current definition inaccurately explains the meaning of the word. Some of them also believe the racial epithet is undeserving of inclusion in a dictionary and want it deleted altogether.

I know why Williams and others like her are upset. Being called "nigger" by a white person or a white-run institution is a slap in the face for many blacks. It evokes thoughts of the sorry legacy of slavery and the racism that haunts the nation. And it hurts. When I checked out the definition in my own copy of the Collegiate edition I felt stung--particularly since I knew that dictionaries are almost as ubiquitous as Gideon Bibles.

I don't believe the publishers of the collegiate edition meant to offend anyone. Most likely, they were simply reflecting the confusion that stems from the paradoxical usage of the word among Americans of all hues, cultures, and generations.

Since my dorm-room experience, several whites have told me of their own struggles to understand the term--and to understand why a word that was used for centuries by white people to disparage and dehumanize their black slaves and today is a chief element of hatespeak (witness the Nigger Joke Center on the World Wide Web) is cool for blacks to use but taboo for them. They ask, How can any self-respecting black person stand to use it? Why do black kids call each other "my nigga" in such endearing tones, privately as well as publicly? Is this a "self-hatred thing"?

I say no. It's what blacks have always done since we hit America's shores 400 years ago. We take what's given to us, or thrown at us, and we find a way to make it our own. Blacks melded African rhythms and European music to create jazz, this country's only original musical art form. We took the parts of livestock whites didn't care to eat--intestines, tongues, ears, and feet--mixed them with our native African dishes and conjured up soul food.

In the same manner, blacks took the loaded term "nigger" and disarmed it by making it a household word. In fact, we went on to embrace it by using it to spice up poetry, rap lyrics, and many a comedy stand-up routine. A case in point is Paul Mooney, a comedian and writer (Saturday Night Live, Good Times, and In Living Color). He doesn't just use "nigger" to accent his stand-up act. It's often the focal point of his jokes. In one bit he complains about the flak he catches from whites who sometimes object more vociferously to his liberal use of the word than do many blacks. "Make that nigger stop saying nigger. He's giving me a nigger headache," he jokes. "Well white folks, you shouldn't have ever made up the word. You fucked up. I say nigger 100 times every morning. It makes my teeth white."

Chris Rock, who currently hosts a weekly HBO talk show, is another funny man at peace with his use of "nigger." While my grandmother has never heard of him, she and Rock assign a similar meaning to the term. The hot comic told B.E.T. Weekend magazine he uses it to describe "a certain kind of black person who wallows in ignorance and likes being ignorant." During a recent HBO special, Rock expressed this point of view with these one-liners: "Niggers react to books the way vampires react to sunlight." "Niggers always want credit for something they should be doing. 'I take care of my kids.' You're supposed to take care of your kids!" "Black people don't give a damn about welfare reform. Niggers are shaking in their boots."

Rock, who used to lampoon CBS anchor Bryant Gumbel for "talking white," recently apologized publicly for using such a label. But he doesn't plan to cut "nigger" out of his act anytime soon. "I'll stop when niggas stop," he said. "Niggas robbed my house, robbed my mother's house. Black people didn't do that." He adds, "I would love to have no reason to use the word. I'd love for it to be obsolete."

Richard Pryor, one of Rock's role models, was at the height of his legendary career in 1982, when he vowed never again to use the word to refer to another black person. He said he'd had an epiphany during a visit to Africa. He didn't see any "niggers" in the motherland and realized that blacks there had no need to use the word. Pryor shared his pledge with the audience during a stand-up routine that was later released as a feature film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. The statement inspired lots of blacks to make the same vow.

I haven't made that pledge, but before I saw Pryor's film I never thought twice about why I used "nigger." I'm less comfortable using it now, but because of my lifelong cultural association with the word, I can't foresee total avoidance. Because my kids have a different culture, I've never used it around them, and I don't intend to.

Since my kids aren't going to grow up hearing "nigger" under our roof, the question still remains: How should I explain this word to them? There's only one way to do it--candidly and carefully. I'll tell them that the word is a national shame and at times a painful reminder of their ancestors' struggle for freedom. And I'll explain that the term has a history just as relevant as Jim Crow, the Revolutionary War, lynching, or Watergate, which is why forcing a dictionary to delete it would be a mistake, would be censorship.

Meanwhile the people at Merriam-Webster are busy mulling a revision of their definition of "nigger," according to spokesman Steve Perrault. He wrote me via E-mail that it's too early to pinpoint when or if a change will be made, but he assured me the issue will be resolved before the dictionary's next scheduled major update, in 2003. "The problem for us is that it's not simply a matter of changing one entry," Perrault said. "If we revise our treatment of the offensive word, we also have to revise our treatment of the many other offensive words in the dictionary. That makes it a fairly major undertaking, and our feeling is that we want to be sure we're getting it right."

Sounds like a good idea. But does this really require much deliberation? I don't think so. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language already has it figured out. Its definition of "nigger" begins with the words "offensive slang...used as a disparaging term for a black person." As an illustration, a quote from James Baldwin follows: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a Negro."

This interpretation seems fair and accurate to me. It's even suitable for the eyes of a child. And it may even enlighten a confused college kid or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Rebecca Jane Gleason.

When I learned of Emile Griffith’s death Tuesday morning at the age of seventy-five, my mind instantly went back to a night more than fifty years earlier, the cold, blustery Saturday evening of March 24, 1962, when I happened to be at Madison Square Garden. I was ten and a half years old, a fifth-grade student at a boarding school in Maryland, and I was attending the Griffith-Benny “Kid” Paret fight for the world welterweight championship with Hugo Harris, a former New York cop who would eventually become my stepfather. Also there, as it happens, was Angus Cameron, the legendary Knopf editor, though it would be thirteen more years before we actually met in person and he became my mentor. The notion that two people could be in the same place at the same time, two people who would later become important to each other, has always intrigued me, a kind of serendipitous coincidence that has underscored my deep belief in fate.

This was the first big prize fight I had ever seen in person, and I loved everything about it: the smell of cigar smoke, the palpable tension surrounding a big event, and the growing buzz of the crowd in anticipation of what was to come, as one fight after another on the undercard concluded, all leading to the main event. There was the dramatic ping-ping of flashbulbs popping, and the silence that befell the huge arena as everyone waited for the fighters to make their way down their respective aisles, toward the elevated ring and its plush ropes. All of it felt irrecoverably, deeply primal, though I feel pretty sure that, at the time, I didn’t know what “primal” meant. But I would soon find out.

Watching “Friday Night Fights” with my maternal grandfather, followed by “Make That Spare” (“Live from Paramus Lanes in Paramus, New Jersey, it’s ‘Make That Spare’!”), had become a kind of ritual for me. I would go over to my grandparents’ house for Sabbath dinner and to stay the night. The religiosity of the evening was then echoed by the devotion we attached to the gladiatorial struggle that awaited us. I had never yearned to box myself, as Angus had, nor did I have the benefit of a neighborhood “gym,” as he had had across the alley in Indianapolis. But I followed boxing with a passion, and had plenty of opinions about Sugar Ray Robinson and Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson and, though they had long retired before I had a chance to see them fight, the same fighters that had been such an integral part of Angus’s growing up: Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard.

What I didn’t know, nor could Angus, was that this would be the third—and last— fight between Griffith and Paret, but not for the usual reason, that three was often the greatest number of times that two fighters would meet each other in the ring when a championship was at stake. Griffith, born in the Virgin Islands and blessed with incredibly quick hands, had won the first bout in Miami Beach less than a year before, on April 1st. Then Paret narrowly reclaimed the title on September 30th. But Paret wasn’t satisfied with one crown, so he tried to add the middleweight one, held by Gene Fullmer, to his trophy case. It turned out to be a drastic overreach, and he wound up pummeled. Nonetheless, here he was, slightly more than three months later, ready to defend his welterweight crown. At the weigh-in, the sassy Cuban, in an attempt to gain a psychological edge, taunted Griffith, calling him a maricón (Spanish for “faggot”).

The fight was a slugfest, and Paret nearly ended things in the sixth round. But after six more rounds, things ended for Paret as Griffith punched him senseless against the ropes, sending him into a coma from which he never emerged. He died ten days later. Norman Mailer, who was also in attendance that night in a ringside seat, wrote, “As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. … As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy axe in the distance chopping into a wet log.” Mailer summed things up with the following words: “Paret died on his feet.”

Mailer was right. Some part of Benny Paret’s death did reach out to all of us. I had not witnessed death before, and what I remember most clearly was the hushed silence in the arena as Paret was moved, ever so carefully, from the floor of the ring onto the stretcher, beginning a procession down the aisle of the Garden where I was sitting and where, as it turned out, Angus was, too. (His seat, however, was closer to the ring; he always had ringside seats because, as he later explained, “I knew everybody.”) It might as well have been a funeral procession without a casket. When the stretcher approached where we were seated, I looked—not for long, but long enough to see Paret’s battered face and the blood on his white satin trunks. That image, that instant, bore itself permanently into my memory.

Benny Paret’s shocking death was followed, a year later, by the death of the featherweight Davey Moore, which inspired Bob Dylan to write a song:

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?
“Not us,” says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.”

After Moore’s death, boxing was banned from network television for another decade. As for Emile Griffith, he continued fighting, but he remained forever haunted by that Saturday night in March.

I can’t recall exactly when it was that Angus and I talked about that fight. It came up, of course, in the many discussions we would have about boxing, and his initial amazement at the coincidence quickly gave way to his clear pleasure that he and I shared an interest in the sport. Angus used to tell me about hanging around the Gramercy Gym and Stillman’s Gym (“The University of Eighth Avenue,” according to A. J. Liebling) in New York, spending time with Cus D’Amato, whom he had been hoping to persuade to write a book. Any fighter who was hoping to get a shot and become somebody trained at Stillman’s. Angus loved the raw simplicity of the sweat-stained place, loved hearing the sound of men grunting as they hit the heavy bag, loved the pungent smell of liniment that permeated every nook and cranny of the joint.

Of the many things he learned from Cus, who trained Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and, early on, Mike Tyson, among others, was this simple but unassailable fact: every fighter was afraid, every one was scared shitless. One time, when Cus was sixteen and living in a tough Italian section in New York, he was nominated by his friends to fight an Irish kid at nine o’clock one evening, an attempt to settle a dispute and prevent all-out gang warfare. Cus was scared, but apparently the Irish kid was even more so. He never showed. Then there was the time, Cus told Angus, about this fighter from Buffalo, who was going to have a big fight in Chicago, the biggest fight of his career up to that point, the shot he had presumably been waiting for. The boxer boarded the train, headed for the City of Big Shoulders, and never got there. The train didn’t derail; he did. He got off the train in Cleveland and went back to Buffalo. Angus loved that story, loved it so much he would tell it over and over—And you’ll never guess what happened next. The guy simply couldn’t go through with it—just to reinforce Cus’s point. And Cus’s point was particularly poignant in light of Benny Paret’s death, especially since Emile Griffith had that same fear—a fear of being hit, of being hit so hard and so many times that his pretty face would become unrecognizable, or worse.

When Angus left the Garden that night, he went, as he so often did after a prizefight, to Toots Shor’s for a nightcap, a cigar, and conversation, before heading across town to Grand Central, where he caught the last train to Westchester County, and home to his wife, Sheila. When I left with Hugo Harris, I went back with Hugo to my mother’s apartment on East Fifty-sixth Street, somehow sensing, perhaps even knowing, that I would forever carry with me what I had witnessed that night at such a young age. And instead of talking to many boys back at boarding school about the fight, or to anybody, really, I kept silent for quite some time, until Angus and I had the occasion—and, for me at least, the need—to speak of it years later.

Jonathan Coleman is the author of four books, the most recent of which is “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (which he co-wrote with Jerry West). This essay is adapted from his work in progress, “What He Stood For: The Many Worlds of Angus Cameron.”

Photograph by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive/Getty.

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