Roundtable: Baghdad Attacks, Controversial Clothing Guests discuss recent bombings in Baghdad, and an actor who wants to trademark the "n word" for his clothing line. Host Ed Gordon is joined by Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.
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Roundtable: Baghdad Attacks, Controversial Clothing

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Roundtable: Baghdad Attacks, Controversial Clothing

Roundtable: Baghdad Attacks, Controversial Clothing

Roundtable: Baghdad Attacks, Controversial Clothing

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Guests discuss recent bombings in Baghdad, and an actor who wants to trademark the "n word" for his clothing line. Host Ed Gordon is joined by Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable, Baghdad blows up, and actor Damon Wayans wants a controversial trademark. Joining us to discuss these topics and more: from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael Meyers. He's executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He's in our New York bureau. And from our Chicago bureau, Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.

All right, folks, thanks very much. We want to talk a little bit about what we're seeing going on, quite frankly, all over Iraq. Baghdad again ablaze with bombings and the like. Mary Frances Berry, we are seeing this insurgency not stepping back but stepping forward in the face of what many believe is a growing quagmire for the Bush administration. Again, the word Vietnam is evoked constantly now.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, it is a quagmire. It has been for quite awhile, and the problem, also, is getting good information. First, we were told that while this was bad, the death toll was very low. Then today we get some new figures that quite a number, 1300 or more, Iraqis have been killed in just in the last week. You wonder why the interior ministry and the military don't know that, when the press can find that out, but in any case, whether Iraq is going to be divided up into Kurdish areas, and Sunni areas, and Shiite areas--the jury is out.

Also, our hopes of getting the troops, or at least, my hope and of some other people, of getting the troops, American troops, to come home sometimes soon--I even bet that they would start coming home this year and still hopeful of that--are some of what in question now with what's going on there. So matters are worse.

The government there doesn't seem to be getting organized. The Shiites control it, of course. They have the greatest number, but that doesn't answer the problem, and I don't know who, in particular, is responsible for particular violence, but I do think it's becoming more and more a quote, "quagmire."

GORDON: Roland Martin, when you see this kind of instability in a growing way, one has to--in spite of it being an election year and talk of needing to pull the troops out for political reasons, if nothing else--one has to believe this is harder and harder to do as Mary suggests. The government's not stable. The streets aren't stable. How do you do that?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it is harder to do, but let's just simply be honest: American's don't give a flip about 1,300 Iraqis being killed in the last week. I mean, let's just be honest about it. 2,292 U.S. military troops have died since March 2003. Clearly--and you see, you have 1,300 Iraqis die in the last week--we don't care about the Iraqis dying, and so that has no, that is not going to move the poll numbers anyway. The only way you're going to see the poll numbers move in America if you see the number of American troops go up.

But certainly, we are now in a difficult position. We can't leave. We cannot make that kind of decision because--you talk about now being destabilized. Simply imagine if you don't have those U.S. troops there, doing whatever it is that they're doing, but now have no choice but to stay where we are, and that is the problem. We do not have any exit plan. We have not brought the Iraqi military up to snuff, and so, look, we're just going to continue spending billions and billions of dollars, and we're going to be there for a long, long period of time.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, we saw, historically, Lyndon Johnson start to understand, keep quiet, and then eventually it cost him his presidency--but admitting that there was no easy way out of Vietnam and, in many people's minds, no way to win that war. Can you liken any of what you see today to what you saw then.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, that was the begin-, back then with L.B.J., we went from a democracy to an idiocracy, and I think that's what we have today. We have an American public that is mostly based on people who don't know what's going on, and it's difficult to know what's going on because the people who are in the known don't know.

I think Mary Frances Berry said, you know: Is it insurgency? Is it terrorism? Is it civil war? Who knows? What we know it's a little bit of all of that and probably all of that. So yeah, 1,300 Iraqis having been killed since the shrine attack is a large number. And then you have the U.S. Ambassador of Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said, the crisis is over, saying in effect, the civil war that they thought was going to happen had been averted. Well, he might as well have been standing on the U.S. aircraft carrier saying hostilities have ended. Nobody believes that, so the situation is out of our hands. It's out of control, and I don't know how many U.S. troops are going to have to be there or to die or to intervene or to intercede between the different forces for this thing to be over. It's not going to be over, so we might as well pull out.

Mr. MARTIN: But, Ed...

Prof. BERRY: Well, but, Ed, you know...

Mr. MARTIN: But, Ed, here's...

Prof. BERRY: But, Ed - Roland - I want to discuss -

Mr. MARTIN: Go ahead.

Prof. BERRY: Roland made an excellent point and so do Michael. Michael, your points are excellent too, but Roland made an excellent point about the troops, American troops, and as long as we avoid casualties. One of the reasons why I believe the American troops have not tried to intervene between the Shiites and the Sunnis and whoever else is creating the violence is because they don't want to risk--the higher ups don't want to risk more American casualties. But the American--because they know what Roland said, that if the numbers go up of Americans, then you've got the more of a political problem, but if this violence continues, there's going to be some point at which Americans aren't going to be able to just stand by and see it happen, and then there will be even greater political risk, so it is becoming a very risky quagmire.

Mr. MARTIN: Ed, the reason you don't have such a comparison to Vietnam is that Vietnam was not cloaked in the umbrella of terrorism. Last week, when it came to the port issue with Dubai, the president told Americans: don't you worry about security. In essence: we got this. You don't worry about it, just go on back to doing what you're doing. And so, when you cloak everything in terrorism, that is the safety net for Americans that, just take it easy; it's terrorism; that's why were doing this; it's okay. With Vietnam, it was this, you know, interest of the U.S. kind of talk. You don't have the same type of emotion on the U.S. side that you had with Vietnam that you have with Iraq.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, except that the people who, except that the people are he receiving end of U.S. bombs felt they were terrorized.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, I understand the receiving end, but I'm speaking in terms of Americans are responding the way they do, and we have not put the public pressure on the government to remove the troops.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I think American troops--I think...

GORDON: Well, one of the things - let me move us forward because one of the things we've seen through the Bush administration--and quite frankly, every presidential administration during war times--is a sanitized version of war, and that leads us to our next story and that is whether or not you sanitize history for young children.

It's a debate going on, based on a 20-minute interactive film that's being played in the children's wing at the Rosa Parks library and museum that's being overseen by Troy University, a Detroit-based institution. Let's talk a little bit about the idea of whether or not you should sanitize what has happened. We should note: In this 20-minute interactive film, some of the characters speak in post-antebellum slave dialect. There's a jumping Jim Crow scene that shows a white man in black face to tell the minstrel stories and how it purported stereotypes of African-Americans. There was an objection over the use of the N word in a script, and it was, therefore, changed, sanitized a bit to slightly change it, and taken out in one instance. Roland Martin, what do you do when you talk about historical context and young people?

Mr. MARTIN: As a child growing up, I never watched a sanitized Holocaust film. As a child growing up, thank God, I did not get to see sanitized versions of those news reels of black kids being hosed down in the Civil Rights movement, and thank God, I actually saw people actually using the N word and speaking about African-Americans. I think it is wrong when you sanitize it. I disagree with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. I think we do a disservice when we don't put history in its proper context, and so, I don't think we have to sanitize our kids. One of the reasons why kids today--and now you have adults today, who don't think a lot of these things happened--is because they never saw it. They didn't experience it, they never saw it, they never read it. And so, we do a huge disservice when we take it to these lengths.

Prof. BERRY: I agree with Roland. Absolutely. And I think that we wouldn't have so much ignorance...

Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely.

Prof. BERRY: ...about things like the N word, which is another topic, if people were actually to see the context in which all these things happened. The children who lived during the Civil Rights Movement and who lived during Jim Crow had to experience, and they saw all these things. Children experience it. They saw it. They felt it. They knew it. And so, if children are going to get any understanding of history--and the best way to teach history is to make the images as vivid as possible and so that people can really feel that they connect, and then they can apply that understanding to their own lives.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, we...

GORDON: What of the argument, Michael Meyers, that there's a certain age that you should start to kick in reality--that for very young kids, that perhaps a more sanitized version is better?

Mr. MEYERS: I don't how you do a sanitized version. I think you have unanimity on the panel. The only sanitized version you can have is parents not taking their kids to the museum, or parents not turning on the TV and allowing their children to watch Roots, or any real documentary as opposed to a fictionalized story. The irony is that, as suggested, that children, children were a pivotal part of the civil rights protests, and movement, and demonstrations. You had children who faced down these water hoses. You had children who integrated the school amidst racial epithets and threats of violence and spitting and the ugliest of signs. These are the children who marched and who were the part of the civil rights movement. This was not just history, this was a reality. So the question is: what is truth? And you have to have a rigorous pursuit of the truth and you cannot shield children from the truth.

Mr. MEYERS: But you've got to have dialogue as well. And so one of the things, I have nine nieces and two nephews and so when we sit down with them, and we watch these videos and we've got a ton of them and we watch these documentaries the actual conversation because they will say, well, Uncle Rho Rho, or Mommy, or Daddy, why did this happen?

And we'll say, because this is how they viewed us. This is what was said. We have actually walked them through that so that they can understand that. So if you don't do that, you are sending your kids out in a world where the people who are opposing them or who are speaking ill of them, they know the history and they are using certain words.

And now you have kids coming home saying, well, Mommy, a kid at school called me the N word. What's that?

I mean, you have kids who are wholly ignorant of what's going on, so now they are confused about how people are perceiving them.

GORDON: Children--Mary Frances Berry, that's the real key, Mary Frances Berry, the idea that often we are not teaching our kids history, sanitized or otherwise.

Prof. BERRY: Yes, you've got, yes, you've got a couple of problems. One is, it's true that parents who know their children better than anyone else can decide whether their child is too young to go to the museum. That's their decision. But it's also true that parents, in the African-American community especially, I have found--that in the post-civil rights generation, most of them, their parents haven't told them anything or they haven't understood anything about what is happening, and have no context.

There's a (Unintelligible) proverb which says that if you do not know the path from which you came, you do not know where to go. And people have said that in many different ways and that's true. And so we've got this generation that doesn't know very much, and if they would go to the museum, they might understand something.

GORDON: To reply, let me say this in the fine means of sanitizing. I am going to warn people that just for a moment we are going to say a word that may be offensive, so get ready to turn your radio down if you find the N word offensive because I have to use a version of it. The actor, Damon Wayans has been engaged in a 14-month trademark fight to use the term nigga, N-I-G-G-A, for a clothing line in a retail store that he wants to bring about. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has, at this point, has turned him down, suggesting that there is a law that prohibits marking moral and scandalous kinds of language to use as trademarks. Uncle Rho Rho, what do you think about this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I would tell... I ain't got a problem with that. I would tell Damon Wayans that he is being a... That's what he is being. If you want to trademark See, Damon Wayans, let's use some sense. If you want to trademark the word, so you own the rights to it which means so you can take it out of circulation being printed on other stuff, that's different.

But to sit here and suggest that you want to launch a clothing line in a retail store celebrating these kinds of words, shows me the high level of ignorance that comes emanating from Damon Wayans. This is ridiculous. And clearly he didn't watch any videos or didn't watch any kind of historical perspectives on what has happened to our people. This is nonsense.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, there are those who make the argument that, what they have done, is taken the power away from the word for being offensive. We've heard that argument for years now.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, look, Damon Wayans is not the first one to try to trademark the word Nigga. I mean, 2001, a fella named Keon Rodon(ph) tried to get the Trademark Office to okay his application to register Nigger for a clothing situation. So Damon Wayans is late getting to the trademark office. Isn't Damon Wayans the guy who on In Living Color, who used to have their Homey the Clown character and his response was, Homey don't play that. Well, the Trademark Office is saying to Damon Wayans, Homey, we don't play that. We are not going to trademark Nigga. And so, tough. You are in a bad situation. So go and try to make your money elsewhere, in some other way. But he is late getting to the trademark office. As far as the use of the word nigger, it's such common usage now, that, you know, again, I say you can't ban words, but you don't have to trademark them, either.

Ms. BERRY: I think the genie is out of the bottle, using the word, but giving it a trademark gives it a certain kind of status that is acceptable, and, therefore, I would be opposed to a trademark--and I just wonder if Damon Wayans if he understands why he wants to do this. But I think the genie's out of the bottle. People are going to continue to use it. It's been used--whether it's being used in hip-hop music or even if Boondocks has used it, put in the mouth of Martin Luther King, but to make a point. So that I think what we need to do is to teach our people and our children more about the history and the context of this, and if they buy the word, know what they're doing--but I don't think we're going to stop the use of it.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, in terms of fluency of language...

Mr. MARTIN: And teach them some self respect...

Mr. MEYERS: But in terms of fluency of language, nigga does not mean what nigger meant. And in today's population, today's younger population culture, it is a popularized, commonly used phrase.

GORDON: I tell you what, listen I got to hold that thought. We'll get into the nuances... Guys, I got to hold it there. We'll get into the nuances of the N word a little later. Mary Frances Berry, Michael Meyers, Roland Martin, I thank you all for joining us...

Mr. MEYERS: Right, thank you.

GORDON: ...appreciate it.

GORDON: Up next on NEWS AND NOTES, maintaining customs in Katrina's aftermath, Mardi Gras is in full swing and many say it's about holding onto culture and family traditions.

(Soundbite of music)

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