In Defense of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Woman is the Nigger of the World'

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A few days before accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, Better Midler tweeted this: 

“Women are the n-word of the world.” Raped, beaten, enslaved, married off, worked like dumb animals; denied education and inheritance; enduring the pain and danger of childbirth and life IN SILENCE for THOUSANDS of years. They are the most disrespected creatures on earth.

In quoting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s once banned song — it was actually Yoko who said “woman is the nigger of the world” before John sang it — Midler obviously meant to make a bold pro-feminist statement. But the backlash on Twitter from some prominent African Americans was fast and unrelenting. 

Levar Burton replied, “I believe you meant well. Still, you crossed a line AND gave the impression that your suffering is commensurate with that of my ancestors.”

Frenchie Davis lamented, “Bette Midler’s choice of words broke my heart today and proved my theory that Black women can’t afford to trust White feminism.

And DL Hughley quipped, “Bette Midler says women are the niggas of the world! Nah! Niggas are still the niggas of the world!” 

Midler, who is a friend and admirer of Yoko Ono’s — she performed at Yoko’s birthday concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010 — deleted the tweet, and then defended her deleted tweet in second tweet that she would also delete:

"Women are the…etc” is a quote from Yoko Ono from 1972, which I never forgot. It rang true then, and it rings true today, whether you like it or not. This is not about race, this is about the status of women, THEIR STORY.”  

This served only to pour gasoline on the proverbial fire. If Midler was standing by her original tweet, then why did she take down? With the pressure mounting, Midler served up an explanation and mea culpa:

“The too brief investigation of allegations against Kavanaugh infuriated me. Angrily I tweeted w/o thinking my choice of words would be enraging to black women who doubly suffer, both by being women and by being black. I am an ally and stand with you; always have. And I apologize.”

There is a lot to unpack here. However, before doing that, this is probably a good time for me to disclose that I am the co-creator and producer of the Annual John Lennon Tribute in New York City. The Tribute started as a neighborhood event a few blocks from the Dakota and has since evolved into a full-scale charity concert attracting top talent and fans from around the world. 

At last year’s Tribute, Patti Smith, the recipient of the 2017 John Lennon Real Love Award, took the stage and performed a mournful rendition of “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” to a receptive overwhelmingly white audience. In singing the song, was Patti Smith guilty of “disregarding the experiences of Black women,” as Bette Milder was accused of by Ohio Democrat Nina Turner? Was her audience complicit?  And if yes, then what of John Lennon, who sang “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” in concert in 1972 at Madison Square Garden? I remember it well, because I was there. 

The concert was a benefit for the WIllowbrook School on Staten Island, where mentally handicapped children were living in filth and squalor. Opening acts included Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder. By their presence, were they enabling Lennon to express disregard for the suffering of African Americans? Would Stevie Wonder have joined John Lennon on stage to sing “Give Peace A Chance” had he believed that were the case? And, by the way, are we going to hold artists of 1972 to 2018 social standards? 

Times and sensibilities have changed. We now live in the era of Black Lives Matter and #Me Too, both necessary and important responses to a social and economic system rigged against people of color and women. I am not going to wander into what I regard as a senseless debate over who has suffered the most in our culture. As a white man, I know for sure that it has not been me. That said, make of this what you will: Black men in America had the right to vote before all women. Also, we had a Black male president before a woman president. American patriarchy, in its virulent toxicity, rules at the expense of women of all races, who remain second class citizens, “slaves to the slaves,” as Lennon sang, and as was originally noted by Irish revolutionary James Connelly.  

Is it any wonder then that “nigger” and “cunt” are the most forbidden words in our language? Both words have an ugly history and have been used to degrade and oppress African Americans and women. Consequently, and undeniably, African American women suffer doubly. And yet those emotionally-charged words remain in use and, notably, not exclusively by those who use them pejoratively. 

While many African Americans and women feel strongly that “nigger” and “cunt” can never be used by anyone in a socially acceptable manner, many others are on a mission to reclaim the words for their own use. This strategy, which I am sympathetic to, remains controversial. But whatever your view on this, can anyone reasonably accuse Chris Rock or Eve Ensler of being insensitive, mean-spirited or clueless for using the words “nigger” and “cunt” in their art?  Of course, Chris Rock being black, and Eve Ensler being a woman, gives them a license that I do not have. A white male using the word “nigger” or “cunt” is immediately suspect. So, I accept that I am somewhat out on a limb here, however unlike Bette Midler in her tweet, I will stand by my use and choice of words in this essay, even though some may find it offensive. 

I have spent my entire professional life in comedy — I was an editor at MAD Magazine for 33 years and have performed my First Amendment show, The Joy of Censorship, in 44 states. Among my greatest stand-up heroes are Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. They were all fearlessly self-expressive. No one — not the cops, not the clergy, not the government and not anyone in their audiences who were outraged, White or Black — could take their words away. Each of these comic masters used socially unacceptable language to expose and satirize racism and sexism. Notably, when John Lennon was under fire for “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” it was the Dick Gregory, who had called his auto-biography “Nigger,” who came to his defense and posed with him for the cover of Jet. 

 Lennon himself, outspoken and insistent, refused to apologize for the song. He appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and read a statement by Ron Dellums, the Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus: "If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by other, the good news is that you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most people in America are niggers.” 

What was not widely known in 1972 is that the provocative line was first spoken by a female character in African American author Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God — “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Whether Yoko was familiar with that is unclear. In any case, it is something that Yoko fervently believed to be true and, eventually, so did Lennon, who was in the midst of an unlikely and remarkable journey, evolving from a misogynist to a feminist to a househusband. Lennon actually modeled the journey that countless American men need to make. In half a life, he went from writing “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man” (a line he lifted from an Elvis song), to “woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotions at my thoughtlessness, please remember I’m forever in your debt.” 

Lennon’s shocking declaration that “woman is the nigger of the world” signaled a pivotal juncture in his personal transformation. His unassailable point that regardless of their race, nationality or religion, women are shamefully oppressed and mistreated by men, remains as true today as it was nearly a half century ago. Women are second class American citizens, black women even more-so. What’s the argument here?

In “Imagine” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” Lennon made passionate and poignant pleas for equality. He was an outspoken supporter of Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Are we really going to get into a debate over whether “Woman Is the Nigger of the World in its time was in any way racist or misogynistic? It most definitely was not.   

Part of the problem here is that Bette Midler decided to start this conversation on Twitter, which doesn’t allow for any meaningful nuance or context, though that may not have mattered in this case anyway. Thirty-eight years after his death, Lennon’s songs remain controversial, and not just “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” “Imagine,” with its secular message of love and peace continues to piss-off many conservatives around the globe — you can look it up. 

 All this said, regardless of your position on Lennon’s use of the forbidden word, the lyrics of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World” still cut painfully and disturbingly deep. As Lennon passionately implored us, “Think about it, do something it.”