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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Boston mag heads into trouble

Boston Herald, April 6, 1998

The caller to the Herald the other day was cool and even-tempered yet irate - looking for a sympathetic ear and a voice to tell him he wasn't imagining something or being overly sensitve or just plain crazy.

"Have you seen the cover of Boston magazine?" he asked. And the headline to a story about Harvard's Henry Louis Gates?

"Head Negro In Charge," it proclaimed. You couldn't look at it without being offended, he insisted. And you sure couldn't help but see it headlined on the cover.

It didn't matter that there was a 12,000-word article inside calling Gates the smartest black man who ever lived; most people wouldn't get that far. And if they did, they would be met by the phrase again, this time in 96-point type on the story's frontispiece.

"HNIC" is common parlance in the black vernacular, only the "N" doesn't stand for "Negro" it stands for that other N-word. 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.

In its plantation roots, HNIC referred to the house slave or black overseer who got to deal with massa directly and kept other blacks in their place.

Today, with bittersweet humor, it means the one African American executive at a corporation or workplace, or the otherwise highest-ranking black if only on the janitorial staff. The not-so-funny joke is the unspoken general understanding that while the former probably won't do anything for you, the latter will.

I doubt very much any of this was understood by Boston magazine's lily-white editorial elite, who took the phrase out of context from the article to splash it all over the tome. As with most headline flaps, the article's author is not to blame, except perhaps for including the term in the first place and then watering it down to define the "N" as Negro - a curious judgment call since the real N-word and other vulgarities pepper the article ad nauseam.

Of course, we couldn't use the N-word in the title, the magazine's editors said. Yet cleaning it up a little suddenly gives them license to say what they really wanted to say - like so many stogie-stokers of country clubs or executive boardrooms who suddenly change the protaganist of a black joke to "this country fella" when the one black member walks into the room.

Lest someone accuse the pot of calling the kettle some-color-or-other, it should be pointed out that the Herald's editorial management is no more racially diverse than Boston magazine's is. But at least when the caller asked to speak with a black reporter on staff, he got one. (Ironically, as he and I laughed at the end of our conversation, he had been looking for the Herald's HNIC.)

Today, Boston magazine's editors will meet with the presidents of the Boston NAACP chapter, the Urban League and the Organization for a New Equality, who will attempt to teach them journalistic as well as racial etiquette. It is a meeting that should have come eight years ago, when the magazine published "Blackout," an article explaining to the world that black Bostonia had no real leaders.

Now, in Gates, the magazine has amazingly found one. And with one Freudian slip of the pen, they called him what they've always been calling us.

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