Early this week, I happened to have a discussion about Agatha Christie’s infamous novel Ten Little Niggers; later reprinted as And Then There Were None. I won’t delve into the details of our discussion, but it helped me shape what I am going to address today. You see, history has turned somersaults to get to where it is now. Still,
Though life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backward.Soren Kierkegaard
Among other things, the colour of our skins greatly affects the fluidity of our identities as well as the validity of our expressive forms. The histories of the prejudices and injustices attached to it undoubtedly make this a fundamental fact.
Now, when thinking back to the word nigger, many will linger on its irreversible result in defining racism rather than on its slang inference in today’s setting. An ethnic slur, nigger is a fact of history; the rest is only interpretation and consequence.
The many times I have asked the perennial question “What’s your take on niggerism?” exhibited a variety of reactions some of which acknowledged the discourse and a majority expressing irritability, complacency and/or OK-ness.
That its use is tolerated and casually used within the black community does not mean it is better understood. If anything, a mere tolerance of something signifies a surface acceptance rather than the ability to face the underlying issue. It follows then that to ‘reclaim’ and continue its usage is to give it life as well as to violate one’s principles and respectability politics. This is only in my opinion of course.
Cue James Baldwin..
On August 2nd, the world marked James Baldwin’s 93rd birthday. People shared a great deal of his works online. However, a clip from the 1963 documentary, Take This Hammer carried the day. Not unexpectedly, many of Baldwin’s black fans applauded and swore by his speech. Yet for some, their ordinary day-to-day involves the use and push of the word nigger.
“If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?”
There is much to be savored in indignation; it can also be a way of reassuring oneself, and others, about one’s normality. Today, the black man may call on his “Yo nigga” friends out for drinks; cough out “my nigga, my nigga” lyrics; call a ‘bitch ass nigga’s” bluff; troll an online user’s “real versus nigga feelings” and etc.
But whether out of spite, fun or an exaggerated sense of brotherhood, I have not come across a combination of such contradictory elements where on the one hand, he chastises its originator on account of racism and slavery and on the other, in his popular thinking, finds it cool and defensible because he is at last free! Free from discrimination and ridicule? Or free to use because it is a shareable similarity among black men?
The organization of human psychology is such that it becomes keyed to definite cues or to contexts of association, and where black social critics like Baldwin have done something to discredit the word; it is, regrettably, the black man who is still currently much indisposed. What’s more is that it has brought out the pretense that the word nigger is an insult and only disrespectful when mouthed by a ‘whitey.’
Do we persist on the use of the word nigger based on an underlying expectation of kinship and solidarity owing to our black history, or a degree of closeness that far exceeds what we can achieve by cooperation, or a tyranny of collective assumptions such as trends and participatory culture? Whatever it is, the influence no doubt impairs the objectivity of those involved.
It is never easy to separate yourself from an expression of your culture. Opportunely, this wasn’t ours. It isn’t ours.