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The Headline That Ignited a Controversy

Boston Magazine Is Plunged Into a Nasty Fight About Race Because of Four Certain Words

April 12, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — The 12,000-word profile of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in this month's Boston magazine was harmless enough. But in a city where racial sensitivities run high, the headline on the story about this country's leading scholar of African American studies has set off a dispute about race and the use of language.

"Head Negro in Charge" is "part of the vernacular of black writers and intellectuals," insisted Boston magazine Editor Craig Unger, who liked the phrase so much that he placed it not only above freelance writer Cheryl Bentsen's story, but also on the magazine's April edition cover.

Within days of its appearance, Mayor Thomas Menino was asking the magazine to apologize. The Rev. Charles Stith, a prominent Boston minister and the Clinton administration's ambassador-designate to Tanzania, went further. Accompanied by delegates from the Massachusetts Urban League and the NAACP, Stith demanded a meeting with Unger.

But when he showed up at the magazine's headquarters, he was met by another well-known African American minister, the Rev. Gene Rivers, who called out, "Why are we playing the race card today?" The encounter soon degenerated into a sidewalk shouting match. Local television crews were only too happy to capture the entire scene.

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Gates, for his part, has issued no response. Peter Glenshaw, his colleague at Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute, said Wednesday that Gates was out of town, judging the Pulitzer Prizes. But Glenshaw did describe the entire fracas as "an embarrassment to the city."

Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, herself a Pulitzer Prize winner, on Wednesday agreed. When Stith stood on the sidewalk, "all but suggesting that Rivers is an Uncle Tom," and Rivers retaliated by urging Stith to hurry up and move to Tanzania, their much-publicized squabble "did more to damage the image of black leadership than any headline in a glossy magazine pitched to affluent, white suburbanites preoccupied with their kitchen renovations," McNamara wrote.

By Wednesday, nearly a week after the controversy broke out, Unger was issuing a carefully worded declaration of regret. Far from being a racist statement, "HNIC," as the stark, inch-plus headline in question was now being described, has legitimate historical roots, Unger maintained. "It denotes the phenomenon of the white establishment selecting one African American to speak for the race," Unger contended.

But Stith, among others, said the term traces back to the era of slavery and referred to a slave placed in charge of other slaves on a plantation. Because the traditional historical expression was a familiar racial epithet, he branded the magazine's terminology "arrogant disregard for black people in this city."

Stith added that he had met this week with a management official from Macy's, which advertises in Boston magazine, to convey his concerns.

Rivers, however, defended the magazine for taking on "an issue of race--very courageous positions which challenged the obsolete paradigm of racial discourse in this city."

An African American journalist in Boston, Robin Washington of the Boston Herald, noted that "HNIC" may, in fact, be "common parlance" among black Americans. But, said Washington, "as with other uses of America's most notorious pejorative, it means something quite different when it is self-applied than when hurled by someone outside the community."

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At UC Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff said a phrase such as "HNIC" is "certainly very different, first of all, when self-applied." He noted that the name of a rap group, Niggaz With Attitude, or N.W.A., was perfectly acceptable because its members are themselves African American.

But Lakoff said the use of the word "Negro" to describe Gates was in itself suspect.

"My guess is that it's a deprecatory description," said Lakoff, who studies the cultural uses of language. African Americans long ago began avoiding the word "Negro," Lakoff pointed out, "because blacks didn't like the connotation, which was sucking up to whites." As a consequence, said Lakoff, describing Gates as the "Head Negro in Charge" is "like calling him an Oreo cookie."

Glenshaw, Gates' associate at Harvard, suggested that the fact that the headline has stirred such controversy serves to prove its inappropriateness.

"I always feel that if you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny," Glenshaw said. He added that the contentiousness could have been derailed early on "had somebody [at Boston magazine] done the small but important thing and said, 'Sorry.' "

Unger said he was proud of the story, the longest profile of Gates ever published, which examines his career and his stature as an academic. As for the "HNIC" headline, he said, "our use of the expression . . . has obviously upset some people, and I sincerely regret that."

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