The N-Word In Luke Cage Is Problematic — But Not For The Reasons You Think

Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix.
Luke Cage, which premiered on Netflix over the weekend, highlights Harlem’s luster. Among barbershops and bodegas, Black people are shown living and breathing at the center of a Marvel production. The show's superhuman main character walks the neighborhood’s streets as something of an anomaly in 2016: a Black man who can’t be killed by anyone’s bullets. Luke Cage adds Harlem to the Marvel Universe’s purview. It also — for better or for worse — adds the N-word.

Luke Cage is, by many accounts, the first time any character in the Marvel Universe has used the word, an important one in our collective cultural lexicon. The reasoning behind its inclusion is obvious: This show is trying to be perceptive about Black culture and Black life, and this word is uniquely positioned in Black language. On a porch, in the front seat with the window down, in a Beyoncé song, or in a group chat with my best friends, this is my favorite word. It sounds like music, tastes like soul food, and feels like a familiar place. It's a word that was meant to wound, but has now become For Us By Us. Today, it's mostly white people — in headlines and Slate pitches — who squabble over how to use it, when to use it, where to use it, who should and shouldn’t be using it. What’s weird is that Luke Cage squabbles over it, too.

The first handful of episodes show the volley of power between Luke (Mike Colter), Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), and Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard). Luke is supposed to be New Harlem’s defender, taking the neighborhood back from the cousins of the powerful Stokes family, whose grandmother ran the streets like a political boss. Cottonmouth and Black Mariah are cast as the staunch traditionalists, gatekeepers trying to keep the old hierarchies intact. Half of this makes sense: There’s certainly a battle going on between Old Harlem and New, but not in the way that the show is selling. That dichotomy is most clearly represented by who is using "n----" and how.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Luke hates the word. When a teenage gangster puts a gun to Luke’s head in episode 2, he seems irritated. He’s Mr. Bulletproof, after all — the weapon can’t make him bleed. He’s scoping out a fortress called Crispus Attucks, the Fort Knox of his antagonist Cottonmouth. The teen catches Luke scheming, and threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t leave. “What are you doing here, n----?” he asks. Luke’s annoyance is palpable. “Young man, I’ve had a long day. I’m tired,” he says.

And then two strange things happen: “But I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a n---- standing in front of you? Across the street from a building named after one of our greatest heroes?” In three lines, Luke Cage conflates patriotism with respectability politics.

This kind of thinking falsely dictates a path to Black achievement. Be Black, it suggests, but not Black in public — sagging pants, drop-out rates, senseless crimes, and the welfare state are all to blame for Black people’s problems. Conveniently, this "logic" says nothing about the prison industrial complex, the police state, educational disparity, or the housing discrimination that leaves people of color dependent on a state that destroys us. One part of this flawed ideology centers on the use of the N-word.

This one word, is what’s holding us back
, the politics of respectability decree. The rappers brought it back, and the kids are keeping it alive. If Black people stopped calling each other n----, all our problems would disappear.

This ideology gets quite a bit of play on Luke Cage: Black Mariah is the mouthpiece, Luke is the muscle. Mariah needs cash to fund her “New Harlem Renaissance” project through city legislation. “Politics is where the power is, Cornell,” Mariah explains. The subtext here is that politics are where the white people are, and Black respectability prioritizes white comfort over Black realities. Cottonmouth disagrees: “When the smoke clears, it’s n----s like me that let you hold on to what you’ve got.” N----s — the people white America never sees coming, the people police want to shoot — are the real bastions of power, he counters.
Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix.
The final big fight between Luke and the show’s most menacing antagonist is underwhelming. But the N-word — who chooses to use it, and how — is the real battleground in the Marvel show. The problem is that Luke Cage is on the wrong side of this debate, mostly because the show chooses to take part in it at all. It’s annoying and outdated for Black people to lecture other Black people on the identity politics that go into these two syllables.

The real struggle is getting everyone who is not Black to stop saying it. Insecure and Atlanta, two shrewd shows about Black people, get this: The N-word is thrown around as casually as it is at dinner with my friends. We’re Black, we’re young, we say the word and we like it.

Only Luke Cage’s baddies throw it around casually. Luke loves God and America and hates the N-word, so the term is posited as antithetical to everything good and righteous. The way the show and the character handle the word is the clearest example of why their perspective somehow feels old. Maybe it’s the weariness of Luke's middle age, or just the an occupational hazard. Luke Cage may indeed be Harlem’s hero, but I’m not sure that that Harlem exists anymore, or has the same needs.

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