On Paul Mooney and Black IDGAF

And What Black People Should Do If Someone Calls Them The N-Word

Paul MFin Mooney

    One thing I loved about Paul Mooney, one of the greatest comedians of all time, was he was full of a particularly Black sense of I Don’t Give A Fuck aka IDGAF. That’s that unapologetic, unrepentant sort of Blackness that isn’t moved by whiteness, doesn’t see things through the white gaze, and doesn’t care what white people think. I love Black IDGAF. It means you’re liberated deep in your soul. Paul was truly liberated deep in his soul. He had this acidic tone and this devilish smile and he talked about racism in a way that made it clear that he knew that it was nonsense. He told this joke about a Black man who moved into a white neighborhood and burned a cross on his own lawn and then yelled at his neighbors, “I’m better than all you white people because I don’t live next to niggers!”

Paul got it from his grandmother. I interviewed him once, well after midnight, in a little dressing room backstage at Caroline’s after a show. We talked for my book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? 

He said that when he was about six or seven and living in Mississippi or Louisiana, he couldn’t recall which, he had once drank out of a white water fountain. He knew he wasn’t supposed to but he didn’t care. But someone tried to put him in his place—a white girl who was 13 and much bigger and stronger than him. She beat him up and called him nigger. But if you know anything about Paul, you know you can’t put him in his place. Paul said what happened next is, “My grandmother beat her ass.”

         At that point in the story I grew scared for his grandmother beating up a white child in the deep South in the 1940s. What happened to her? Did she get beaten up? Did she have to leave town? This sounded dangerous. “Nothing happened,” Paul said. “My grandmother took care of white kids and she whooped ass. That’s what she was known for. When they wanted their kids to get their ass whooped they’d get my grandmother. They would tell their kids if you don’t do this or that, we gonna get Mama Ealy to beat your ass! They used her to scare their kids.” She was a woman with a special role in the community—the designated spanker and bogeywoman whose presence allowed white parents to keep kids in line while avoiding the messy business of corporal punishment. That special position allowed Mama Ealy to get away with this rogue, unsanctioned beating of a white girl who was trying to enforce order. And in that way Mama Ealy was able to protect Paul and subvert the racial hierarchy and teach him to not fear white people and raise him to be the incisive truth teller he became. This woman who was able to get away with beating white children—and probably quietly enjoying it—was able to build Paul into the Brer Rabbit he became. Paul said, “There was a parakeet that lived next to us that said nigger. One day she told me it won’t be saying nigger no more. I said why grandma? She said, I poisoned it.”  

         Nigger is the most triggering word in the English language. There’s nothing like it. There is no word that can be said to white people about whiteness that’s equivalent to what nigger means to Black people. Cracker isn’t even close to nigger. The word’s place at so many lynchings and murders, it’s hand in oppressing gives it a special power even to this day. To say it now, to call a Black person that word, is to be verbally violent and demand they accept the degradation and inhumanity that goes along with being called that. So what should Black people do when called nigger? 

         A few weeks ago in Tampa, Florida, a white man in the drive-thru at Dunkin Donuts was unhappy with his service so he parked and walked inside the store and told the minimum wage workers inside about themselves. Things got heated and he called one of them a nigger. 27 year-old Corey Pujols dared the man to say the word again. Corey gave him a warning, gave him a chance to stop his verbal assault. But the man called him nigger a second time. Can you imagine the arrogance and the sense of superiority in this man thinking he could say that? So what did Corey do? Corey punched the man in his face. That is the correct response. Black people should not be asked to be non-violent in the face of racism. White people should not be allowed to say that word without fear of consequences. There’s several videos floating around Instagram set in convenience stores where white men call Black men niggers and those Black men knock them out cold. This is correct response. 

That old white man disrespected himself and Corey. He thought he was living in a different time. He thought he could come to Corey’s job and dehumanize him. He thought he would just pull out his white supremacy card and humiliate Corey with the worst word he could think of. Well, Corey pulled out his IDGAF card. That old man fell back and hit his head on the floor and died. Corey is now in jail awaiting trial on a charge of manslaughter. This is tragic only because if the law in this country was just it would say that if you call a Black person nigger in anger whatever happens to you after that is on you. If you reach into your vocabulary and pull out that word, a word that evokes slavery, lynchings, oppression, superiority, and Black dehumanization, well then the law should not protect you from whatever violence befalls you. 

Some people think the real issue here is violence—they say Corey shouldn’t have been violent toward this man, violence is never the answer. But that’s silly—society is full of violence from the police, the military, and occasionally from citizens. So much of the order that exists in society is because of the threat of violence—rational people refrain from doing certain things because they fear getting their ass whupped.

Violence in and of itself is not the problem. The problem is violence that’s not in service of justice. The problem is violence that protects oppression. (Or violence that interrupts capitalism, but that’s another conversation.) Violence for those reasons is unacceptable but violence that attacks oppression, racism, and injustice is righteous and should be applauded. Violence that seeks to make society better is of value. If you are truly against racism you can’t say you’re against racism except when violence is used to attack racism. If you do, then you’re not truly against racism. If today was a day in 1840 when slavery was still legal would you be against a violent attack on a plantation meant to free slaves? Would you say Nat Turner was wrong for killing scores of white slave masters and their families? In attacking oppression and racism we are fighting for a more just society and sometimes that fight will involve violence. 

We should not demand people be peaceful in protecting someone from oppression. Corey Pujols was protecting himself from oppression, racism, and degradation. He was responding to the verbal violence of being called a nigger in his workplace. He was standing his ground. He was defending himself. I salute him. I’m not saying I would’ve done it, but I understand. I hope the legal system understands the situation he was put in, but I doubt it will—it does not care about truly protecting Black people. And I hope that white people take away from his story that no matter how much time Corey gets, the man he punched is still dead. Corey didn’t mean to kill him, but he’s still gone. If he had just complained about the service without saying nigger twice he’d be home relaxing right now. But he felt so superior that he called Corey a nigger twice. There’s lots of white people who would never say nigger, but there’s some who get mad and say it. I want those people to never forget—any time a white person calls a Black person a nigger, that could possibly be that white person’s last moment on Earth.