On Friday, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, sat with Nebraska senator, Ben Sasse, to discuss his new book. During the interview, Sasse invited Maher to visit the Midwestern state, saying “we’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” To which Maher responded, “work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger,” just before quickly claiming it was a joke.
Despite the laughs and subsequent applause Maher received following the “joke,” many were not amused by the blatant racism and disregard for hundreds of years of suffering. A house negro, more commonly known as a “house nigger,” is a slave who worked in the master’s house. In most cases, as described by Malcolm X back in 1963, a house negro is more privileged and trained than the field slave who does all of the manual labor outside. While both individuals are enslaved, the house slave is reluctant to revolt, as they feel grateful for the “better life.”
Since the racial slur, many have called for the firing of the TV host, putting the pressure on HBO to relieve Maher of his duties. Activist DeRay McKesson discussed the incident, criticizing Maher, the audience, and Sasse for his actions, or lack thereof, during the interview.
“Bill Maher has got to go,” McKesson tweeted. “There are no explanations that make this acceptable. And why does the audience think it was OK to laugh? And Ben Sasse doesn’t even flinch. What is happening with the word?,”
“Trump has undeniably moved the post Re: what is acceptable in political discourse, but we can’t sit idly by, as discourse breeds actions.”
Political commentator and analyst Angela Rye weighed in on Maher’s comments as well, describing the meaning of the racial slur.
“A #housenigger is a painful reminder of the atrocities that happened on plantations. A #housenigger: a reminder that Massa could have his way with slaves without regard or permission because we were deemed property.”
“A #housenigger is not a joke,,” Rye continued. “It’s not a laughing matter. It’s not okay to make light of our trauma in this country. It is time for the boundaries of Black people, Black bodies, Black minds and Black history to be respected and revered. We are more than house nigger or field hands! #webuiltthisjointforfree.”
In the meantime, Sasse reflected on the controversial conversation in a series of tweets on Saturday, wishing he condemned Maher’s statement when he had the chance.
“I’m a first amendment absolutist,” Sasse said, in his tweets offering “three reflections on Bill Maher.” “Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn’t good enough.”
“Here’s what I wish I’d been quick enough to say in the moment: “Hold up, why would you think it’s OK to use that word?… The history of the N-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s, therefore, an attack on American Creed. Don’t use it.”