Wednesday, March 21, 2007

call my name: ruminations on the n-word and slave mentality

Admittedly, I've only been tepidly interested in (and mildly dismissive of) the recent move by New York City to request that its residents voluntarily refrain from using the word nigger and, I guess, the word nigga. In the past, I've very clearly stated the position I take in the debate, but I will state again publicly: I do not support a ban of the term nigger or its derivatives; my position has nothing to do with my First Amendment rights.

I concur that the word remains quite dangerous, and that non-Negroes should refrain from using it in mixed company for their own physical safety. (What you utter in the privacy of your own racial group is up to you.) I do not support a ban because, firstly, if I may paraphrase something I've written previously, advocating the removal of a word that is a (large) part of a decidedly "anemic lexicon" is incredibly irresponsible. In a nation already fearful of saying the 'wrong' thing, or of at least having to say sorry once that 'wrong' thing has been confessed, I find that such gestures--symbolic or otherwise-- implicitly impel us to remain dishonest and silent about race in America. This, in my estimation, is about as effective as putting a Band-Aid on a surgical wound. I venture to suggest that true racial healing will only happen once we willingly engage in honest discourse about it, when our interracial conversations resemble our intra-racial ones. Such engagements, I suppose, will necessarily require the use of terms we tend to sweep under the davenport to keep company with loose change and dust bunnies when our best Negro (and White) friends come over for a fried chicken dinner.

Secondly, I quite earnestly believe in the difference between the nigger and nigga. Yes, I'm fully aware of term's linguistic ancestors. I understand, for example, that initially the word had no pejorative connotation; that nigger, perhaps in certain mouths simply meant slave since, in this country at least, slaves were black. Yet I am equally fluent in the myriad of ways the meanings of words transform, that generally "moot" often means "little value" or "frivolous", and that the phrase "begs the question" when used these days very rarely connotes its original rhetorical definition. (Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.) By no means is such word transformation limited to terms with no ties to human description. Women use "bitch" and gays use "fag" in and amongst themselves ad nauseum. I am left to wonder, then, if this fight to conflate nigga with nigger stems from the same source that inspires similar folk to intimate in their talk that somehow blacks remain the only oppressed group on the planet or, at least, that we're the ones who have suffered most. (I'm also inclined to believe that supporters of the n-word ban also want to bleach America by removing the names of members of the Confederacy from school buildings and the like. But that's another story.)

One of these fighters was profiled on NPR's All Things Considered the other week. New York City is not the only place to have considered a voluntary censor of (all forms of) the n-word. Tim Gaylord, a resident of New Jersey has made similar efforts. As heard in the report, Gaylord seems to abhor the n-word because it reflects the same self-hatred that might prompt one to get her hair straightened at the local beauty salon. What piqued my interested, however, was Gaylord's response to a 16 year old student's disagreement with his position. Like a lot of young people, the teenager stated that it was okay for Blacks to use the word, and that it more than likely didn't matter whether or not the term was banned. In response, Gaylord said the youngster displays what he calls a "slave mentality." Interesting--this idea of the slave mentality. Admittedly, I've been thinking a bit more about the phrase since I heard the piece on NPR, and I've concluded that perhaps Gaylord is right--but not in the way that he thinks he is.

The more I think about it, the more troubled I am at the idea of "slave mentality" as epithet, for it seems to me that a slave mentality is the very reason I sit in front of my computer typing these words. I do not believe we will ever know the terrorism of slavery, what it must have been like to endure a regime not only designed to oppress, but destroy--and survive it. We are often so glib, almost insouciant in our analysis and present-day discussions of our enslaved predecessors, that I want to throw a copy of Octavia Butler's Kindred at anyone who begins a sentence with, "Well, if I was a slave, I would've..." I refuse to acquiesce to the idea that not hitching a ride on the Underground Railroad was some sort of implicit acceptance of slavery, which would in a generation or two merely manifest itself as some (latent) desire for whiteness. And, I seriously contemplate rejecting the notion that slave mentality is a pithy description of weakness and self-hatred, and a desire to assimilate. The assertion seems a bit too specious for my liking.

Perhaps a slave mentality is the one that made soul food good, created the blues, illustrated for later generations how to turn nigger into nigga. Maybe a slave mentality is the cornerstone to surviving centuries of violence and oppression. Maybe that's why I've never seriously considered trading my surname (or my Adidas) for something that links me to the abstraction that is the Dark Continent. One more reason to resuscitate the term, (American) Negro. Maybe.

Mc... It's my slave name, and I'm keeping it.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison


Anonymous leshaun said...

I live in the city and i heard about this potential ban of the n word. When i heard about it, i was reminded of a recent panel discussion i had attended about post-colonial black(ness). someone in the audience said that the "n" word was the worse thing that could happen to black people. now when this dude sed this i wanted to smack his upper-crust, detached artist ass. if you think the word nigger is the worst thing to ever happen to black people he must be forgetting about words like "rape", "jail" and "no healthcare".

i hate to be a downer but we are so lost.

22/3/07 16:53  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...


i must say, i'm convinced, finally. it took me a while to get here, but i'm here. i used to stay away from the term (in both iterations) because of its history and because i didn't want to be producing self-hatred through language...however, i'm not much more convinced that the term can and *should* be re-deployed with new meanings and values associated with it...

i get it...

though, i probably won't use it, i won't bristle when i hear it...and i will understand the implications in the myriad of ways it is being used...

27/3/07 19:17  
Blogger summer m. said...

@leshaun: niggas stay on the wrong side of the issue.

@holla: what did it take to convince you.

28/3/07 10:14  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...

i mean...i've been reading you for a minute and you'd always make the argument about how the term can (and is) redeployed; also your discussions of the dangers of political correctness; throw in some frank leon roberts blogging about the power of words; then throw in my own research on performance theory...and i've just been convinced...

also...boondocks...i loved the show...they used it a lot...and i became convinced that there were multiple things going on with the usage of the word and self-hatred wasn't the most apparent, the most prevalent or the most powerful...

28/3/07 16:19  
Anonymous leshaun said...

also it is important to note that the term is being villified with an unprecedented fervor onlynow that its more widely used by BLACK people. when crackers where using nigger left and right, nobody wanted to stop that shit.

28/3/07 21:01  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...

i just reread your post and i'm just compelled...this is some good shit (comma) nigga (i stole it from you, remember

on the insousciance of "slave mentality": have you read either of Saidiya Hartmans' works (Scenes of Subjection or Lose Your Mother)? the words you speak regarding the slave mentality ring consistent with what she discusses in both her works...

and on a not-so-related note: how're things at UChicago?

29/3/07 10:10  
Blogger summer m. said...

@leshaun: i hadn't thought about that. interesting angle i def need to examine more.

@holla: thanx, baby. i haven't read either book, but i'll def look that up. can you email me those titles?

thanks, y'all.

29/3/07 10:50  

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