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Tavis Smiley on When It’s OK to Use the N-Word

Tavis Smiley, author of "My Journey With Maya," recalls many of the topics he and author Maya Angelou debated -- notably the use of the N-word -- during their long friendship.

Tavis Smiley: Yeah. The N-word. The short answer is that Maya could not stand the N-word; had no use for it and the context of its use did not have matter to her. Her thing was very simply that if I have a vial with crossbones and skulls on it and the word "POISON" written on the bottle, it's poison. If I take that same poison and pour it into the most beautiful vase of Baccarat crystal ever made, it's still poison. For her the context of the use of the word didn't matter. Now this was a generational thing because Maya was 30 some years older than I am, or was at the time of us having this conversation. And my view of the N-word is a bit more nuanced, again based upon the generation that I've been raised in and the music that I listen to and the culture that I've been a part of. So my view is a little bit more liberal than Maya's view on the N-word. And so we had this debate for years about whether or not the N-word was something that ought to be used in any context, and we never agreed on that. There were a number of things we never agreed on. She asked me when I was in Africa what I thought the greatest virtue was. "Of all the virtues, Tavis, which is the greatest virtue for you?" And I said, "I think love is the greatest of all the virtues." And she said, "I think courage." I said, "Really?" She said, "Yeah."

So for 28 years of our friendship we debated which is the greatest virtue, love or courage. Her argument was that it takes courage to love and my argument was, but love is courage enacted. I believe that love is the greatest of all the virtues; she thought it was courage. We never settled that debate. So there are a number of things that we would come back to time and time again over the course of our relationship and we had differing opinions. The point of this is that she allowed me to interrogate her. She allowed me to disagree. She welcomed my opinion. She wanted to hear what I thought on a particular issue even, if she thought I was wrong; we had debate about the merits of art versus entertainment and what makes something art and what makes something entertainment. So we had these debates all the time, but it was such a beautiful relationship when we were always allowed to engage each other. And no matter what the conversation was, no matter how tense or terse it might have been about a particular subject matter, every conversation always, always, always ended on a love note. She never allowed a conversation to end without it being on a love note.


Tavis Smiley, author of My Journey With Maya, recalls many of the topics he and author Maya Angelou debated -- notably the use of the n-word -- during their long friendship. "Maya could not stand the N-word," says Smiley. "Had no use for it and the context of its use did not have matter to her." Smiley also delves into a conversation about values and virtues. What value did Maya Angelou cherish above all? Courage, because it takes courage to love.

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