By Yasmeen Muqtasid
Fox’s new hit series, Empire, broke records and rules during its 10-week introduction to the new world. Empire revealed a new viewership that shatters all myths that people won’t tune in to see a majority Black cast with its winning ratings and non-stop social media chatter. The Empire has already conquered a viewership of more than 14 million weekly. However, if Empire producers follow the suggestion of its leading male star—Terrence Howard—a powerful empire of the show’s fans and non-fans alike might strike back and quickly kick-drop what has become a weekly ritual for many African Americans and viewers of all backgrounds.
Recently in March, Terrence Howard in an Access Hollywood interview said that using the N-word in Empire would be more authentic and be in step with keeping true to everyday black life. In a bizarre series of rationalizations, Howard says “that as long as you remember to take out the “er” then anyone can say it,”—he also said that his white friends use it with him. This suggestion comes on the heels of Howard’s nasty divorce in 2011, which he reported in court documents that his estranged ex-wife allegedly “hated black people” and would often call him names such as “monkey” and “n**ger.” Lucious Lyon—we are thoroughly confused. Which one is it? Is it ok or is it not ok? Obviously, Howard understands the sting of the word from his marital woes, but does he really understand the historical stench that permeates from a word birthed from such a hateful place.
To introduce the N-word to Empire would be to devalue the very power that the cast has established both onscreen and off-screen. Using the word on Empire would be akin to African slaves tasting their freedom having established new free settlements in the North, only to decide that they miss their Masters and are willing to give up their freedom and to be enslaved again. And that’s what the N-word does every time we allow others to say it—unchecked, whether one is black or white—it’s a step backward not forward for black people. Using the N-word is an indication that one is still not free—mentally. If you were free, you would not desire to use the word, because you would understand that the word takes us as a people back. The word weakens the empire our ancestors built so that we might exist today. I wonder if the same people who advocate for using the N-word would dare to say it in the presence of a Dr. King, Malcom X, Rosa Parks, Emmet Till.
Let’s give Howard the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he has not thought about the lasting consequences that such a change in the tone would have if Taraji Henson a.k.a. “Cookie” called him out of his name on the regular with an N-word here and there. We must ask ourselves what would be the worldwide ramifications of having the N-word on such a popular show that touches the minds of millions of people. This is a question for all artists on television, film and music—what’s the impact of this word when it’s memorialized in such powerful mediums. Is that what we want our Black empire to be remembered for—the N-word—and a continual resurrection of the word in pop culture? We must let this word die.
It’s ludicrous that Howard would even suggest in conversation to Lee Daniels, creator of Empire, that the N-word be incorporated. I wonder if Jewish actors have ever insisted that Steven Spielberg use the K-word in his latest production. Yes, there is a derogatory word for Jews, but guess what–they don’t use it amongst one another, and their community will ensure your demise (as it should) if you try to drop it casually and say, “it’s a term of endearment.”
In the midst of such supreme success with Empire, one has to question Terrence Howard’s mindset to have even thought to share the suggestion that the N-word be used. What should anger Howard and all of us, is the fact that so many black people past and present were killed and still are being killed by someone (white, black, etc.) who dares to think that we are “N**gers” and feels justified in treating us as sub-human.
The progress of our first black president, our first black attorney general, and our first black female attorney general in waiting way, are all contrasted against the real drama of the daily murdering and terrorizing of unarmed black men and women by police and vigilante American citizens. Considering all of the recent killings and beatings of unarmed black men and boys from the University of Virginia—where honor student Martese Johnson was brutally beaten to the murder of Anthony Hill, an unarmed, naked U.S. Air Force veteran to 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s execution, why on earth would Terrence Howard think it a good idea to incorporate the most vile word known to black humanity into the Empire storyline. The N-word is the last word that far too many black souls audibly or symbolically heard on this side of heaven. Whether they heard it while being sold from their parents, while being lynched, while being beaten, or while being raped—one thing is clear, that the aggressors in each of these very real life horrors thought of black people as sub-human N**gers.
Words have power—and if we think there’s no power in what we call ourselves and allow others to call us—well—therein lies the reason why the only formidable “Black Empire” that will ever be realized is in the fictional world of Lucious and Cookie.
Yasmeen Muqtasid is the founder of Black Women Matter, Inc. Black Women Matter was founded in 2010 to address matters that are important to Black women. BWM uplifts, encourages and empowers black women–because WE matter. Yasmeen is a California native and UCLA graduate who loves good conversation, good people and good food. Find her on Twitter @bwmatter or email her at email@example.com