I don’t know how to read this, but it just happened and it’s… weird…
so I was working on a facebook status to mark 21 august as 180 years since Nat Turner’s rebellion and 40 years since George Jackson’s assassination. and I’m just reflecting on it quietly to myself, and I turn back to tumblr and…
i would have to say Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Sula is my favorite book. Followed closely by Beloved. I have always had a soft spot for Giovanni’s Room and I just reread Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone a little more critically and it sat well with me and caused me to think some concepts through! I skimmed through The Man Who Cried I Am by John Williams a few months ago for a class and thought it was very exciting and definitely has a place on my list of books to (re)read this summer. Bruce Nugent really peaks my curiosity. His novel Gentleman Jigger is an interesting account of the Harlem Renaissance. I have a love-hate relationship with Zora Neale Hurston, but for the most part I enjoy her work. Hortense Spillers peaked my curiosity into the work of Gwendolyn Brooks so I am slowly but surely checking her out, so far mostly her poetry, but I want to start her fiction soon. I like the plays of Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and I read a lot of Richard Wright in high-school. Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name always makes my list of favorite reads. I hope by authors you meant fiction… that would be my list of fiction. But if you meant something else, I’ll probably have a whole other list, haha. Who are reading currently? And who do you like to read (your favorites)?
“While generalizations tend to be useless, I would venture one that appears to stick—black writers, whatever their location and by whatever projects and allegiances they are compelled, must retool the language(s) that they inherit. The work of logological refashioning not only involves the dissipation of the poisons of cliche and its uncritical modalities but it also takes a stab at the pulsating infestations that course through the grammars of “race,” on “blackness” in particular.”—Hortense J. Spillers, “Peter’s Pan: Eating in the Diaspora”
CAUTION: Nigger will be used often and freely in this post > Black people, I’m Black, guard down. Non-Black people, read freely amongst your-self, but I suggest never aloud in a multiracial liberal room, but who knows what goes on when we aren’t there, it may go over well. < This was a joke… Breathe and commence the reading.
This is not my first situation dealing with the word nigger, and it will by no means be my last. The terms of the debate surrounding the issue usually fall within:
Who can use it? / How should it be used? / Is it different when Black people say it? / What to do when non-Black people say it? / Who is a nigger? / What is a nigga? /Something about appropriation. / A little about reclamation.
My disclaimer to you: this entry ain’t about that, but uses those frames to launch into a broader discussion of language, Black protest, and perhaps just how fucked up this world is. I’ll use the incident that I was involved in last night concerning the word nigger and hopefully meditate on something a bit different/grimmer/humbling.
THE SCENE: My final summer in Orange County, I decided to stick around campus and serve as a Resident Advisor for summer students (free rent before Chicago). I was placed in the dorm I worked during the school year as an RA, the African-American Studies themed house. During the summer, it’s simply a dorm, no theme, but me being me, I decided to leave the afro-centric/black loving decorations up for all my lovely non-Black students. Seriously, in this house I’m the only Black person, besides Miles Davis, Judith Jamison, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, MLK, Fred Hampton, Marion Anderson, Angela Davis, Booker T, and the other Black leaders that adorn the walls.
Last night I was sitting in the house study room, reading parts of Nella Larson’s Passing and Toni Morrison’s Sula, along with a chapter from Barbara Johnson’s The Feminist Difference. It was some side research –a kind of distraction from what I actually should have been studying, but I was still reading Black and queer, with a smile on my face. A group of residents were in the next room watching a movie and from what I could tell having a good time, laughter, conversation, and smiles all around. My headphones were in, so I wasn’t too distracted from them. NIGGER or perhaps it was NIGGA that I thought I heard from the other room, but I wasn’t too sure. I wasn’t sure if it was the TV or one of the three white males in the room, or perhaps the Asian female. Regardless, I wasn’t sure exactly what I heard, or where/who it was coming from, so I decided not to engage, plus Beyonce was playing in my headphones, and why ruin my night with pointless argument (I use pointless purposefully, which I hope will become clear by the end of this entry).
About fifteen minutes later, I noticed the gathering in the other room had moved to the patio, which I thought was for a smoke. Five minutes later, the party of four had dwindled to two upset residents sitting on the couch talking. I entered the scene to inquire the happening.
THE INCIDENT: All residents involved had been drinking. Nigger had been used repeatedly by a white male, and made the rest uncomfortable. An argument about the word was had, the argument was taken outside, in which the “Nigger-“using resident, physically assaulted another resident, then stumbled drunkenly into the night, threatening the assaulted resident of wanting to “stab him, kill him, and he should watch his back.”
All of it caught me a bit off guard (and secretly made me laugh) for multiple reasons:
a) surrounded in a room of visible Blackness, operated by an openly Black RA, niggerdom just can’t be shaken,
b) in a group of non-Blacks the word nigger will be violently argued over (either the right to use it, or the right to ban its use), and finally
c) at no point in time did anyone think, perhaps my RA who is sitting in the next room should be involved (not to mention: our openly Black RA, who happens to be a somewhat known campus activist).
I would like to think the latter statement about myself is what kept them from coming to get me; I can often be seen around campus wearing a “Negroes with Guns” shirt.
I talked to the residents who were offended by the word Nigger, and they all kept reminding me that the “Nigger”-using resident was really drunk, and it was probably an isolated incident that would blow over in the morning. They all supported the zero tolerance policy against racially and sexually offensive language. I sat and I listened until about 2am, and then went to bed with a lot on my mind. And here I am now, writing… because what I would like to do about the situation I probably can’t while wearing the title Resident Advisor.
THEY JUST DON’T KNOW
“I’ve been called it enough, I’ll say it when I fuckin’ feel like it. In fact I say it about 100 times every morning, ‘nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga…’ it makes my teeth white.”
- -Paul Mooney
Remember, this entry ain’t about who can say Nigger and when. The above quote from comedian Paul Mooney is mostly for a laugh, but we’ll see if we can do some more with it.
Last night I remained calm, cool, and collected. Perhaps even somewhat unattached/uninvolved from the situation—as I usually do concerning the use of the word nigger. And just to put my cards on the table, I use the word and I use it often. But, I also understand why people are offended and I know that the word has a violent history that needs to be reckoned. In the eyes of my residents and in their demeanor their response to my somewhat non-response fell into either one of two categories (or perhaps both simultaneously) that I associate with liberal reactions to the word Nigger. Why aren’t you as upset as I am about this? And/or, aren’t you happy/grateful I defended the Black honor?
I put my thinking on the table to search for ways to deal with the situation in less of reactive manner that usually breeds reactionary solutions. What has us up in arms concerning this word? Why does its use still garner so much shock value? I would argue that once the word enters conversation (particularly from non-Black people) post-racial, post-civil-rights, and now Obama era happiness is thrown into crisis. And the shock comes from recognition of the violent history the word Nigger conjures. I’ve consistently found, both moves are acknowledged in liberal reaction but almost immediately disavowed when a response is formed. As with last night, alcohol was to blame. But more prominently, its usually that “people just don’t know the history” or “but, Black people say it all the time.” Neither excuse sits well with me; nor actions that attempt to address those excuses. They do little if nothing to rectify the problem. THE PROBLEM. If it were an issue of historical accuracy, perhaps I can get on board with the history argument, but the fact that Nigger is associated with Black people, slavery, and violence, I would go ahead and say is not the great American secret. Disagreement? Talk to me. Seriously, I would love to discuss it. But in anticipation, I want to launch a frontal attack on the history argument with some historical evidence. A showcasing of the entanglement of Blackness and niggerness, with the help of a scholar by the name of Ronald Judy. In the essay “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity” Judy walks through the history of this word:
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nigger belongs to the French negre, which, like its Spanish cognate, negro, was used in early modern time to designate black people.
- It appears to have come into English through the Dutch, sometime in the sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth century, it appeared in variant forms: neeger, neager, negar, negre.
- In its earliest known literary reference of 1587, it is already associated with slavery: “There were also in her 400 neegers, whome they had taken to make slaves.”
- By the time it reaches the Virginia colony, it simply designates black people as slave-labor, as in Captain John Smith’s 1624 observation: “A Dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars.”
- The Latinate, niger, was used by Hellowes in 1574: “The Mass gets bordering upon the Indians, and the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnes”; and by Reginald Scott in 1584 in the precise sense of black-of-color:”Askin likea Niger.”
- By the time Samuel Sewall began writing his Diary, the appellation also referred to slave-labor as property: “Jethro, his Niger, was then taken”(1 July 1676);
- In 1760, G. Wallace argued “Set the Nigers free, and, in a few generations, this vast and fertile continent would be crouded with inhabitants.” Robert Burns added the second “g” to the Latinatein 1786: “How graceless Ham laughed at his Dad, Which made Canaan a nigger.”
-Hence, niggerdom as the designation of black people in general, whose despised status Henry Fearon(1818) thought was deserved: “The bad conduct and inferior nature of niggars(negroes), “and William Faux(1823) lamented-“Contempt of the poor black or nigger, as they are called, seems the national sin of America.”
I’m in no way implying that we should all have these dates and quotations memorized verbatim and ready to gun sling in argument (or perhaps we should, haha). Rather, in addition to my claim that we all know Nigger is associated with Black people, there really is a historical archive that can be walked through to prove that point.
Nigger and its negative value and its association with Blackness is not a fact to be discovered in day-to-day conversation! And we all know nigga comes from nigger.
A Nigga, Nigger, Negro, Black, African-American in a house of Humans
As I stared into the liberal demeanors searching for my response to the word “nigger” being used in the house, all I could think is what I can’t say because I am an RA. What if my response to my offended residents was, “Cool! Let him say nigger, lets me know what I’m dealing with. He can bring ‘nigger’ to the table and this nigger will show up with a gun.” Sadly, things just ain’t there yet. For those of you shaking your head right about now, hold on to this thought, we’ll come back to it.
What changes in the world if we rid it of the word Nigger? Perhaps an easy chance to conjure the dark history? Maybe an opportunity to (un)name “people”/objects deemed lesser?
If I am reading my Fanon correctly, not too much changes. In Black Skin, White Mask he writes, “Dirty Nigger! or simply, Look, a Negro!” Update the language a bit for 2011 and Nigger stays, but we’ll change Negro to Black. Concerning the incident in my house, Niggerness operated in a conversation regardless of whether or not a Black was in the mix. For further illumination on the complexity of THE PROBLEM, I return to the essay “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” Judy writes:
“The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains. The Force is there in the nigger body, standing-in-reserve, as it were, for its owner to consume as he/she likes” (Judy, 223).
As I have been writing this entry, I have been contemplating what I could have done at the moment I first heard NIGGER (or perhaps it was NIGGA) that evening my house. I could have stepped in and rested upon my authority as being the Resident Advisor of the house. Or perhaps used my intellectual prowess and wielded my knowledge of Afro-American, African-American, Black, Negro, Colored, Nigger, Nigga history. Maybe, I could have just inserted my openly Black demeanor and let the room know I’m not okay with the word Nigga or Nigger. No matter what, there is an extra piece of the puzzle operating no matter what action I would have taken. Whether I’m there or not, I’m always already there. The Niggerization precedes any gesture I can make, as Judy writes, the value is not in my physical body, but rather in the energy, the force of Blackness operating in the conversation regardless of my physical absence. All of my gestures toward “authority” may have temporarily quelled the use of the word “Nigger” in the room, but what power, what force do I have access to in disrupting the logic that rest upon the presence of Nigger, Niggerness, the logic that was at play while I was away in the other room?
NIGGA SECTION: excuse me, i mean, CAN I TALK TO BLACK PEOPLE FOR A FEW LINES?
I don’t claim to have any answers, and at this point I’m not even sure I want answers. All I know is this: this Nigger debate keeps going around and coming around. The line I used from Fanon was first published in 1952, and as I said, Negro may have changed to Black, but Nigger remains the same and we have yet to come to a “Black” consensus on the matter. But we all know what the world consensus is on Nigger—who the nigger is, why it exist. That social fact is what needs to be reckoned, and when I use the word ‘reckon’ I don’t mean, needs to be known. Rather I am thinking toward something a bit more pressing if you will. When I read Saidiya Hartman:
"The demands of the slave on the present have everything to do with making good the promise of abolition, and this entails much more than the end of property in slaves. It requires the reconstruction of society, which is the only way to honor our debt to the dead. This is the intimacy of our age with theirs—an unfinished struggle” (Lose Your Mother, 170)
A knowing of the slave experience is placed squarely in front of me, or perhaps bonding me. Which is to say, I can not know myself outside of this slave experience. Because the slave structures social relations so intimately, I was involved in the Nigger conversation without being involved. I may be the openly Black conscious RA, but Fanon’s dirty Nigger is still alive… and writing.
 This section of Judy’s essay was broken apart and reformatted for your viewing pleasure on negrosunshine, the words are from page 222 of the essay, in which all sources are cited, I apologize for not citing them here, if you can not find the essay, hit me up, I’d be happy to provide it and/or the citations.
“[W]hen the white American, holding up most twentieth-century fiction, says “This is American reality,” the Negro tends to answer (not at all concerned that Americans tend generally to fight against any but the most flattering imaginative depictions of their lives), “Perhaps, but you’ve left out this, and this, and this. And most of all, what you’d have the world accept as me isn’t even human.””—Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
“We live in a culture that makes it seem as though having contradictions is bad—most of us try to represent ourselves in ways that suggest we are without contradictions. Contradictions are perceived as chaos and not orderly, not rational, everything doesn’t follow… [Contradictions] mean we are in a process of change and transformation.”—bell hooks
laying in bed or on the couch thinking. about shit i wish i could forget. The Smile still tends to rank up there in the first thoughts of the day. even though im over him right? whoever’s name i was calling the night before to the delight of a response of my name in return tells me The Smile is a “non-muthafuckin factor” right? haha. the mornings tend to be the hardest. so i write.
and i keep challenging myself. im only as good as the last word i write. but i don’t have shit to say. so i lay in the morning thinking about all the books i need to read. articles. essays. chapters. so much to do before happy hour. how will i ever be able to get it done when i need to contend with flashes. dreams. and thoughts of The Smile?
plus i got Revolution to plot!
so im just writing down these thoughts. in hopes that if i document them (him) perhaps they (he) will leave my mind? i still have to wake up in the morning. and in these quiet moments with nothing but myself. my thoughts. i have to be productive somehow. find myself again. cuz in the morning im lost all up in my thoughts. my imagination. my reminiscing. and that’s no way to be. too much on my mind. but reckoning the strong possibility that when concerns him. its actually nothing on my mind at all. ha! too much of nothing.
its time to read. ive admitted though. i still be thinking in the morning. about shit i wish i could forget. but ocean sings it better than i can write it.
ive been thinking about you / do you think about me still? / or do you not think so far ahead? / 'cause ive been thinking about forever…