David Bradley is very confident in his opinions. And he should be—his work confronting racism in America is bold, brilliant, and incomparable. He’s the award-winning author of two novels (South Street and The Chaneysville Incident), and a widely published essayist. His story “You Remember the Pin Mill” was recently selected for the 2014 O. Henry Prize Anthology. Bradley read to a packed house at the Chopin Theater in Chicago from his TQ essay “Eulogy for Nigger,” and afterward we sat down to talk about the N-word, systemic racism, and whether or not he has a responsibility to write about current events like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “I’m not a journalist, I don’t do journalism,” he says. “Journalism is always the story that emerges. I mean, that story changes. And the changes are what intrigue me . . . My job is to make people interested in that which they are not interested in, and to explain to them why they should pay attention.”
TQ: I sent you an email and asked if I should say the full title of “Eulogy for Nigger” out loud when I introduced you at the reading, because I wasn’t sure if I should. It seemed ridiculous that I wouldn’t—that would undermine the point of the piece. Still, I was hesitant. Are there situations when white people should or should not use the N-word?
DB: [Laughter] I love you people, I just love you people. Look, there are some white people who have absolutely no problem saying the word, and they are the problem. The people who want to talk about an issue, who want to be able to talk about it in reference to literature or in reference to behavior, are not the people who use it as an epithet. The real question is, am I allowed to use that word as an epithet? There has been this assumption that there is this word that can only be used as an epithet. Well, that’s ridiculous. If you were to announce the title, that’s the context, what else would you call it? The title is “Eulogy for Nigger.” You don’t say Joseph Conrad’s [title] “The N-Word of the ‘Narcissus.’” [Laughter] It’s ludicrous. It sounds like a bunch of two-year-olds who need to go potty but don’t want to say it. Can I go number one, number two, N-word. That’s why the piece has “N-word, my A-word.”
Linguistically it’s ridiculous because it’s a signifier. Well, signifiers only know what they signify, so I say N-word, well, I didn’t say it, but everyone knows what you meant, so you actually said it, so what’s the big deal?
TQ: What do you think about rappers and the use of the word there, is that a positive thing?
DB: It’s a neutral thing.
TQ: Why is it neutral?
DB: One of the most interesting things to come out of the shooting of Michael Brown is the way that story came into the consciousness of the public. The cops weren’t saying anything, everyone was withholding everything, pending whatever. But there was a cell phone video with audio, done by a guy, I think his name was Case Johnson, but anyway, you can hear people, the black people who live in that neighborhood, talking about it in the background, and there was more “niggers” and “motherfuckers” than anything: “he just killed that motherfucker”—okay, that’s the way we talk. The point of the video was how long Michael Brown’s body lay in the sun. His body is the focus of what’s being shot with the cell phone. So CNN gets it, and Wolf Blitzer says, we had to edit this because some of it is very disturbing, and usually that means there’s blood and guts, but what they edited out was the sound. They edited out the people who live there, building their narrative about the story. So because they won’t use those words on the air, they’re basically saying to those people, we’re not going to let people hear what you think happened. Because you use “motherfucker” and you use “nigger.”
TQ: What should they have done?
DB: Well, I mean, what should they have done? They should have done exactly what they did because they’re CNN. But thank God for YouTube, to be able to go on and watch the full footage, and to hear what people were saying and to hear that narrative gradually: “They said he had his hands up, did he have his hands up, yeah, the nigger had his hands up, he said please don’t shoot.”
TQ: Do you feel a responsibility to be a mouthpiece on some of these issues? I mean, I knew you would have thoughts about Ferguson, I knew you would be writing about Ferguson, but you write it at your own pace, like you don’t feel the pressure to—
DB: I’m not a journalist, I don’t do journalism. Journalism is always the story that emerges. I mean, that story changes. And the changes are what intrigue me.
TQ: But the way that you view these things, do you feel a responsibility? How many people know the video story? That’s not a mainstream story.
DB: You would find it if you were interested. My job is to make people interested in that which they are not interested in, and to explain to them why they should pay attention.
TQ: But do you feel a pressure to do that with immediacy?
DB: Pressure? [Laughter] I don’t have a contract with anybody, I’m not on TV.
TQ: But you have a lot of really important ideas—don’t you feel pressure to get your ideas out there?
TQ: To impact social change?
DB: I don’t believe in social change.
TQ: Is that true?
DB: I really don’t, no.
TQ: Why not? Then what’s the point of writing “Eulogy for Nigger” if you don’t believe in social change?
DB: Because I’m a writer, that’s what I do. Because I’m pissed off. I don’t expect people . . .
TQ: So you don’t expect people who heard you read it last night, people who described it as captivating, you don’t want people to leave that room with a new way of thinking?
DB: Of course I do. I would hope so.
TQ: Well, that’s social change on a small scale.
DB: Well, okay, fine.
TQ: That’s not important to you?
DB: I know what I want a reader to get out of a piece. I don’t have any control over who that reader is. I don’t know, I think you could drive yourself crazy as a writer trying to have . . . In the Ferguson piece I’m working on, one of the things I do is, I go back to, and I quote almost verbatim from, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In Invisible Man, there is a sequence where a young man named Tod Clifton gets shot by a cop. And when I was first hearing the reports, before I heard the video or anything like that, it struck me that all the things they were saying, that the newspaper was saying—we don’t know, we don’t know this—had been described perfectly by Ralph Ellison the year before I was born. So I go back, and I read it. And it’s absolutely perfect. And that’s why I don’t believe in social change. That was sixty years ago. Sixty-five years ago. They were shooting my people down on the street sixty-five years ago. I don’t believe in social change because Barack Obama says the problem is the community doesn’t trust the cops, and I’m saying, why the fuck should they trust the cops, haven’t we learned by now, you can’t trust the cops, guess what.
TQ: What does the future look like for racism and race relations in America?
DB: Same old, I don’t know. I think it’s what’s going to destroy the country.
TQ: You think racism is?
DB: Yeah. Why not? People will say, well, I’m very American. America is a nation built on an ideal: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Okay, all that stuff. That’s it. Then you say, but at that time, it was the most repressive country on earth with regard to certain people. All right, we’ll accept that, nobody’s perfect, we’ll accept that this is an ideal toward which we work. Are we working toward it? The reason for this nation’s existence was freedom for individuals. Well, guess what, some individuals have never been free; people are still arguing about whether or not black people should be able to live where they want to live. But the statistics are all about oppression. This is three hundred years. So you say, I believe in social change because society’s changed. But the truth of the matter is, in terms of attitude, in terms of meaning, no, this nation has not lived up to its ideals, and when you don’t live up to your ideals, I think bad things happen to you, naturally.
TQ: What’s the way out?
DB: Through our ideals.
TQ: So how do we do that? How does a regular person do that?
DB: Well, you live your life. Do you make decisions that are based on irrational fears? Many people do. Do you believe what politicians tell you when they are trying to manipulate you? Many people do. Do you go for the easy explanation of your own failure? If you are a white person and a black person is promoted over you, do you say, “Oh, it’s because of affirmative action”? Many people do. And sometimes maybe it is, I don’t know. Each situation is different. But we do not approach these things with honesty, we do not approach them, we talk about symbolism, we say, “Oh, I never use the N-word, I was taught never to use the N-word”—fat lot of good it’s done. We’d be better off with people running around calling a nigger a nigger. If everybody who actually had those feelings used those words, then we’d know who to look out for.
Back to Ferguson, the cop didn’t say anything, he said, “Boys, get out of the street.” That was one of the narratives, which came from a friend of Darren Wilson’s girlfriend, who is also a cop, but the friend is no cop, and she calls in and says all he said to Michael Brown was “Boys, get out of the street.” Well, what I would like to ask her, but you can’t ask her, is did he say “boys” or “boy.” What did they hear, did he say “boys” or “boy,” because that makes a world of difference. Now, “boy” is the same as “nigger.” All right, well, when you start talking about those things, then the inflection you put on the incident becomes slightly different. All I’m saying is that there’s so much time when we’re saying that we’re not going to say that word, how could we do that. Hey, it’s there. Every time I turn around, if I hear one more white person say to me, “Well, you’re playing the race card.” It’s already on the table, man.
Look, the definition of justifiable homicide, even for police officers, is that they are in fear for their lives. Okay, if you had in your head an assumption that says black people are more dangerous than white people, then you are going to be in fear for your life. Bang, that’s justifiable homicide. I didn’t shoot him because he was black, I shot him because I was in fear for my life. But in other circumstances, you wouldn’t have had to fear for your life. Well, yeah, but I had that fear. Okay, well, your fear is what rationalizes your behavior—how do we attack that fear?
TQ: What creates the fear?
DB: What creates the fear is history. And the fact that we never addressed the issue.