Origin of the term Motherfucker

When Russ referred to his good friend Irv as a motherfucker he was not cursing him, he said it as the superlative compliment.  This is something very hard for white Americans to understand, motherfucker as a synonym for genius.  Russ traveled among hipsters, cats who took their cues from the black musicians they hung out with.  Miles Davis, it was agreed, played like a motherfucker.  Coltrane was a motherfucker, so was Eric Dolphy.   Just a fact.  Nobody was more powerful than a motherfucker.  Picture it, if you can.  See, you can’t.

I must have been ten or eleven when my father returned from one of the sensitivity trainings he conducted as a member of the Human Relations Unit of the New York City Board of Education.  He’d take the rival high school gang leaders to retreats outside of the city, they’d spend a weekend in some leafy setting, role playing, rapping, telling hard truths to each other, bonding.  He came home from one retreat and handed me a mimeographed sheet with the word Motherfucker printed across the top.  

I believe it was mimeographed, printed in that purple ink the mimeograph process (precursor to the Xerox) used.  The mimeograph used an ingenious stencil that was created with a kind of carbon paper.  You could type on the stencil and also write or draw on it by hand.  I used to love seeing my drawings mimeographed, on the rare occasions when teachers let me use the stencils.  The stencil was placed on a drum.  The drum was turned, a pump was activated and ink went through the stencil on to a succession of mechanically fed pages that fell in a stack and sometimes smeared slightly if the drum turned too fast, though the fragrant ink was quick drying.  

Anyway, at the top of this sheet my father handed me in the kitchen one day (which was an early black and white photocopy, now that I strain to recall it) was the word Motherfucker, and below it were a couple of paragraphs explaining its origin.  I wish I still had the sheet.  

My father used the word as a jumping off point for one of his sessions.  He asked a circle of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Italians what the word meant.  The Italian kid said it meant the last thing you say before fists fly, the weapons come out.  

“You call somebody a motherfucker you’re ready for them to try to take you out.  Fighting word, that’s all it is.  Nothing you can say to provoke the other guy more than calling him a motherfucker.  There is no word in English after that to escalate the level of violence.  The only thing after that is a physical battle.”  

The Puerto Rican hood agreed.  “I call you a motherfucker right before I kick your ass,” he said.

My father looked at the Black kid, who was smirking slightly and shaking his head.

“Tyrone,” said my father, “you have a different definition, I see.  Tell us what the word really means.”  Tyrone brought out the nuance of the word, as it was used on the street, more than the other two and my father gave out the mimeographed sheet for them to consider.

As I remember it the sheet gave the word its roots in American slavery.  The motherfucker was a man like Thomas Jefferson, all-powerful, someone who literally owned your ass and could have his pick of the slave women to have sex with whenever he wanted.  If you were a slave boy and you saw him coming to take your pretty young mother there was nothing you could do.  If you were a slave man twice as strong as the master and saw the motherfucker coming for your girl, there was nothing you could do.  The motherfucker was going to fuck your mother, sister, daughter if he felt like it, simple as that.  It was the law and it was the custom.  So, say this for the motherfucker, as much as you might hate the motherfucker, you had to give him his enviable due — he was a motherfucker, no question about that.  

Yeah, you could also use it as the last thing you said before you capped somebody, or poked him in the stomach with a baseball bat, why not?  A motherfucker kind of deserved that, really.  Live by the sword, die by the sword, motherfucker.  The word could also be used in passing, to express disdain or mild disrespect, to assert one’s right to an opinion, underscore that the person you’re talking to is no better than you.  Like in the sentence “it’s entirely appropriate and fair to say that Jimi Hendrix played guitar like a motherfucker, motherfucker.”

 

 

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