Is the N-Word Ever Okay?

The theme for the Moth storytelling evening: Making Peace.the-moth

I arrived early, wanted to get seats for Nelson, Laurie, and myself. My own story was prepared but, dang it, my cough was still too bad to even put my name in the hat.

All of us at Freight and Salvage in San Francisco, over 200 people, were enjoying the quirky evening.…until two minutes in to story number 5 when host Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, a comedian, rushed the stage and snatched the mic stand away from the storyteller.

“That word is absolutely not allowed on the Moth stage,” she said, and pointed to the door. “Please escort him out of here.”

The word was “nigger”.

The reaction was weird. From her, from the audience, from the storyteller, who was not, in fact escorted out. Except for the one woman who thanked Dhaya during intermission, we all kind of looked at each other, in puzzlement.

Really, that word is NEVER allowed? Ever? I am certainly not a fan, but would it matter if the teller was African American? If it is used as a term of affection? What if the story was fabulous, which this one absolutely wasn’t.

I’ve been coming to Moth events for nearly 10 years. Sometimes the stage is positively littered with F-bombs, but are other derogatory terms not allowed? What about “Redskin?”, not as a football player, but as an epithet??

Moth storytelling has been around for a long time and has just released the story collection, All These Wonders, with a forward by Neil Gaiman in commemoration of their 20th anniversary. Surprisingly they haven’t run up against this earlier.

“But we’ve had two incidents lately,” David Mutton, deputy director at the Moth spoke with me from New York. “Both in the Bay Area. The first was in Berkley, where the word was used”—he dances around, not even wanting to say it on the phone to me—“as the punch line in a joke.

“That passed without incident until an audience member got up on stage during a break to say that it should not go unremarked. And then in San Francisco, when the host stopped the story.”

“Neither response is ideal.” He says Moth headquarters has gotten a number of other calls about the issue.

“Moth does not have a rule against using the N-Word,” he said.

“Or any other word. But we are working on a policy of how to deal with this. If you have suggestions, please speak up.”

“I think,” Laurie in the moment, “that the storyteller was working up to a good point…but of course we never got to hear what that was.”

About Karen Ray

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