Ethnicity and Linguistic Tyranny in America:
The Use of "Nigger" in American History XPasquale Palumbo
Derek then uses the word in both an injurious and identifying manner when his car is being broken into. In a situation fueled with adrenaline and rage, enough to move Derek to murder the assailant, named Lawrence in the script, one would surmise that the dialogue would be loaded with the term. Strangely, McKenna only allows Derek to use it as a substitute for the man's name:Derek Vinyard: Nigger, you just fucked with the wrong bull. You should've learned your lesson on the fuckin' basketball court. But you fuckin' monkey's never get the message. My father gave me that truck motherfucker! You ever shoot at a fireman? You come here and shoot at my family? I'm gonna teach you a real lesson now motherfucker. Put your fuckin' mouth on the curb.
Lawrence: Come on man.
Derek Vinyard: I said: Put your mouth on the curb!
[Lawrence bites onto the curb]
Danny Vinyard: Derek, no!
Derek Vinyard: That's it! Now say good night.
[Derek stomps Lawrence's head into the curb]
Derek unleashes four epithets in this scene: two are racial (nigger and monkey) and two are, for lack of a better word, egalitarian (motherfucker). One senses that Derek's rage is not so much racial in this case as it is a personal affront because his property and his home are being threatened. While there is no doubt that Derek is able to commit such a heinous assault (the curb-stomping) due to the racially fueled rage, the decision by McKenna to temper his speech is interesting. Nevertheless, it is clear that the race of Derek's target is on his mind as the epithet is the first word that is used when addressing the character.
There are two instances where the word is reflected back on to Derek, and both have very different functions. The first time we see the word hurled at Derek it is uttered by Lamont, the black man who works in the prison laundry with Derek. Derek is initially cold to Lamont, for the obvious reasons. As Lamont tries to break the ice with Derek and eventually does, he throws Derek's racism right back in his face by telling him: "Just remember, in here, you the nigga. Not me." Here Lamont subconsciously shares his own experiences with Derek; he has been marginalized by society, and in prison, Derek is the marginalized, hence, the "nigger." Though Lamont uses the "nigga" form of the word, which is generally a term of affection in the African American community, he is clearly addressing Derek as the pejorative "nigger." Derek is stunned by the appellation, as "nigger takes on a completely different complexion when uttered by someone who is black in contrast to someone who is white" (Kennedy "Who Can Say..." 91). Here Derek feels just how powerful the word is, and how belittling it can be. He is ostensibly alone, a minority within the prison walls. When Lamont utters the phrase to prove his point that Derek is utterly powerless, Lamont also inevitably shows us that "blacks' use of nigger is indicative of an anti-black, self-hating animus" (Kennedy "Who Can Say..." 90). While we have no evidence that Lamont is a self-hating black man, his use of the word recalls the angry black police officer in John Singleton's Boyz 'N Da Hood. The officer is so filled with the self-hating animus that he almost relishes using the word.
The other moment when the word is directed at Derek is when he turns his back on Cameron, Seth, his girlfriend Stacey (played by Fairuza Balk), and the entire D.O.C. At the same time the audience is aware that Derek is on the path to improvement, the rest of his former gang thinks that they can shame him into returning to his previous ways. Stacey does it most vocally by calling him a nigger; in her mind and in the minds of the rest of the skinheads "being treated like a nigger (i.e. discrimination, in housing, employment, education, redlining* and the criminal justice system) is worse than to be called one" (Jones 13). By calling him a nigger, she is treating him as one. Coincidentally, this recalls the moment when Dennis Vinyard laments the fact that two white men were denied jobs so that the Fire Department could satisfy the Affirmative Action quotas by hiring two unqualified black men. Both instances are reversals where white men are ostensibly treated like "niggers" and therefore, at least on the surface feel the scourge of racism. For Derek, he has become what he has spent the better part of his early adulthood hating.
American History X is a potent film by any measure. With that power we understand the devastating nature of the most controversial ethnic slur in society. Tony Kaye and David McKenna have shown us that while they only use the word nigger once every five to ten minutes, it is so viciously charged that even in its absence, it is present. Arguably, it is this same charge that makes the word so potentially explosive in everyday life in America.
* Refuse a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk.
Pasquale Palumbo is a graduate student at the City University of New York Lehman College.