Growing up in the South decades ago I never imagined that the so-called "N" word would ever re-enter the vernacular. I suppose it was inevitable in some way. It was the only truly forbidden word in the English language and the inherent shock value was too much to resist.
NBC was the first broadcast network to officially ban the "N" word from the airwaves back in the 1950s when radio was the dominant entertainment medium. Although, in all fairness, I can't find a single example of "nigger" being used on any radio or TV network program, other than an historical drama (I'm guessing?), before that point.
The word had turned up very, very infrequently in dramas on television but, if a white person said it, he had to seriously renounce his racist ways or die at the end of the storyline.
It was, however, entirely common to hear the word in movies of the time - particularly in westerns where it was often used gratuitously, and in racially themed dramas like They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!. But it was not used with any frequency on television before the 1970s.
Just weeks after All In The Family debuted in 1971, Sammy Davis Jr. used the word - tossed it off really - when he quipped, "If you were prejudiced, Archie, when I came into your home, you would have called me a coon or a nigger. But you didn't say that, I heard you clear as a bell. You came right out and called me colored."
Believe it or not, Archie Bunker never used the "N" word although more antiquated colloquialisms like "coon," "colored," and "black beauties" were heard in abundance.
The word "nigger" was re-introduced in a first season Sanford & Son episode 'Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Bride' airing January 28, 1972. In it, Lamont is getting married and Fred, looking at the bride's family with contempt, mutters "Buncha jive niggas" under his breath. It gets applause.
(See for yourself, it occurs at 4:51)
It was a January 4, 1974 broadcast of NBC's Sanford & Son ("Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe") that thrust the "N" word on to network TV in a big way. On that show, 'Big Money' Grip Murdoch confronts Aunt Ester with his theory that he is Lamont's father.
That word came up again on the very next episode, "Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle," when Fred (Redd Foxx) lets it fly - twice. I'm not certain if the phrase came up again on the program but it was the beginning of the reemergence of a once forbidden term.
It was just a month later, on the episode of All In The Family where The Jeffersons spinoff was previewed, when George Jefferson used the word for comic effect after meeting a mixed race couple, "Listen to them Louise. That's what's happens when you mix black and white...."
After being featured as a big laugh getter on the two top-rated sitcoms in the nation, the "N" word became somewhat safe for television comedy after that - so long as a black person said it.
It was a natural jump from primetime to young musicians who also recognized the power of the forbidden. In the nineties it became a problem for blacks to use the word "nigger" in songs about a life lived without laugh tracks; okay for TV sitcoms but not for the radio or for record albums that now had to be labeled as 'mature.' Funny thing that. Myself, I'd rather the word had disappeared altogether but here we are.
THE "N" WORD ON TV
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