Tuesday, September 11, 2007

They Called her the N-Word

Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson want Black folks to stop using the word "nigger" because it conjures images of
self-denigration. Many folks across the races agree and have joined them in calling for a banning of the word.

The NAACP even went further and staged a mock funeral to bury the word in recent weeks.

The heat is definitely on since the Michael Richards and Don Imus incidents. The call to ban nigger and nigga is the fallout of these incidents.

Yet it is a troubling fallout. One that has unbalanced the weight of the word.

Makes me wonder if all of this postured noise is just a waste of time when it is directed at Blacks? I don't think it is entirely though. There is something to be said about creating positive Black images.

Still, I think that Al and Jesse and the new banning converts are simplifying a complex issue.

There is a distinctive history attached to either word. And that history, and its instrumentality, are being ignored in the current debate. See Randall Kennedy's "Nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" for some context.

Nigger and nigga do not mean the same thing. A distinction that is seemingly lost on Al and Jesse. What is not lost is the opportunism and self-promotion heaped in the formulation and staging of this narrow debate.

A more nuanced consideration of the debate around these words must include some key questions. For example: Who owns the word "nigger" in American race relations?; Second, is the meaning of the word different when used by whites, Blacks, and Others; Third, is there a textual difference in the meaning of the re-appropriated word and its derivative, nigga; And finally, can a word like nigger ever really be banned in a racist nation-state?

When I think through these questions, I am reminded that W.E.B DuBois was not concerned about the naming game. He could care less that Blacks were referred to as Africans originally, and then colored, then Negro, then Black, then Afro-American, back to Black, and in 1986 Jesse said African American best described Black life in America.

For DuBois it was the "thing" that counted. That "thing" was and is racism. DuBois realized that the naming game was tied to the politics of race.

I want to develop these thoughts further and invite comments from readers.

But, even as I work through my thinking this breaking story brings to fore some of my reservations about grandstanding on names and, thereby, forgoing the larger complexity of race and racism. CBS/AP report that a Black woman was held captive and tortured for a week by six white assailants.

The young Black woman (20) met one of the abductors online. She was then apparently lured into captivity where they sexually abused her and stabbed her four times.

This horrific incident may be prosecuted as a hate crime because the abductors called the women the "N-word every time they stabbed her", according to the victim's mother, Carmen Williams.

Is the word "nigger", as used by these six abductors, the same as when it is used by comedian Eddie Griffin or Black rappers?

Are Al and Jesse and the banning bandwagon not victimizing Blacks? Whites obviously use the word in distinct cultural, political, and historical contexts. And in the case above, the outcome for the victim was very different than an off-color joke by Eddie Griffin.

The real battlefield, it seems to me, lies not in the grandstanding about words and images. This is a futile strategy that is really about the madness of liberal multiculturalism. In a very distinct way, the debate is brought on by the artificial balancing of liberal multiculturalism and its interests in leveling oppressions.

This strategy undermines a real advance on the structural sensibilities of racism. It says that Blacks are equally responsible for the horrific history that is attached to the word nigger. Furthermore, it robs Blacks of the power to reassign meaning to hurtful and derogatory words.

The latter is a revolutionary process. It is about seizing power. Renaming is a political strategy toward liberation that cannot just be cast aside.

The real struggle, in my view, would know this and move to secure structural changes to the system that produced the word. If the structure is left alone the racist rot will continue no matter what word games are played.

And in this sense, DuBois was right. It is the "thing" that counts. And the "thing" now is that African American still means "nigger" to more folks than Al and Jesse can count together on any given day.

But we should hardly expect them to call for the banning of the term/name African American any time soon.


Dade Cariaga said...

Well, my friend, you've posed questions that have no easy answers, at least that I can discern.

The meaning of a word, of words generally, may be situational, too. After all, we don't reject a masterpiece like Tom Sawyer because it uses the word "nigger." But I believe the word is an anachronism from a much different time. It would probably be best to just bury it with the rest of the Confederacy.



Ridwan said...

Thanks for your comment brother. I talked to someone over lunch who shared this view. Though he stopped short of calling for a ban, a punitive ban, because he was concerned about other liberal values like free speech, for example.

It is interesting that you raise Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain used that book to push boundaries of race.

Some say that it was the first time that a white American author started to humanize Blacks.

Tom Sawyer is found to be conflicted about Injun Joe's humanity, beyond the image of a "half-Indian'.

I think the word "nigger" in this sense raised doubts about a one-sided condemnation of Injun Joe.

The word was, in this limited sense, confronted.

With respect, to "bury" the word is to deny its persistence, its rearticulation, both of which make "nigger" a mainstay marker of American racism.

Thanks for making me think brother,

Dani said...

My name is Dani Atkins and I am one of 4 surviving children of Ronald Edward Atkins and Clancyna Marie Atkins. On January 26, 2008 my father was killed in a tragic car accident that took place only 2 minutes away from my home. My parents had been married for 30 years at the time of the accident without separation. As I have been assisting my mother with putting together various lawsuits and claims against several different persons, insurance companies, and even the Los Angeles Police Department regarding several acts of negligence and dishonor surrounding my fathers death, I have come across a disturbing piece of information that I, being a 24 year old African American person am appauled. My father having been born on April 9, 1955, has a birth certificate that identifies his color and race as being "NEGRO." My grandmother, Eloise Marie Harrison having been born on April 4, 1933 has a birth certificate that identifies her color and race as being "NEGRO". My mother, who is still alive, Clancyna Marie Atkins born on September 4, 1956 has a birth certificate that identifies her color and race as being "NEGRO" as well. And I am quite sure there are thousands if not milliions of other African American people dead or alive who have been identified on paper at birth as being "NEGRO" I am absolutely disgusted that the United States of America even in 2009 have not made an attempt to make right this defamation of character in administering all new birth certificates to those who have died as well as those still living to identify these HUMAN PEOPLE with dignity and respect. I am passionately committed to make my fathers name wholly reflect the honorable father, husband, and man that he was and the fact that his life was not even given an opportunity to start before he was branded on United States of America paper as being a "NEGRO" is a disgrace and a shame on America.


If you have any questions e- mail me at: kingdom.servant.dani@gmail.com

Thank You,