Saturday, July 26, 2008

What's in a word?

So hip hop artiste Nas has caused a furore at the centre of which is that emotive, controversial word – in North America anyway – nigger. Nas had wanted to use it for the title of his album (now dubbed Untitled), but if Larry Hill's novel, The Book of Negroes, has to be sold in the US as Somebody Knows My Name, Nas was unlikely to get his way with that. I’ve got some strong opinions of my own on this but they will keep. For the present, here are some facts that I've found of interest, as well as some other people's comments that I've found thought provoking. I hope they will help to raise some useful questions. The attitude people have to the use of the word varies markedly: people in the Caribbean, many of whom use the word consistently in a non-pejorative way, regard it differently from Afro-Canadians and Afro-Americans. (Many people in the US and Canada use the word non-pejoratively also, that use being often private.) In North America, there is public pressure that frowns on its use, so strong that even to write it is offensive – hence the convention of referring to it as the 'N word'. Online responses to an article about the use of the word by Nas and other hip hop artistes on CBC News ("Six letters of separation" – 19 July, 2009) reflect this wide variation of attitudes, running the gamut from disgust and indignation to, "They're just words! Big deal." The literature and comment of slavery and post slavery times, frequently employ these and other words with the same root, such as, for example 'nig' in Harriet Wilson's autobiographical novel, Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, published in 1859. The French word 'negrier', derived from 'nègre', meant/means both a slave trader as well as a boat transporting slaves. (There are, by the way, folks with the surname 'Negrier'.) Some scholarship from the Caribbean has discussed the slave ship as the vehicle for the 'blackening' of Africans, since before European contact, Africans were not 'black' (absurd as that may sound) but Ibo, Yoruba, Mandingo, Ashanti, Fon, Hausa and so on – ethnic groups distinguished by their language, lore, religions, customs, culture and history – a monolithic 'black' Africa being (unarguably?) the product of European contact. Historical and social historical discussion must use these words since it is impossible to reflect slavery and post-slavery times without so doing. Contemporary use of words like 'denigrate' draws neither comment nor opprobrium. A word like 'bulldoze', meaning 'to flog severely' or 'coerce by violence', also from slavery times, also with an ugly meaning, since bulldozing often left slaves close to dead, is widely used, with most people ignorant of what it meant for the enslaved. For scholars and writers, the issue can be thorny. Still, a poet like Kamau Brathwaite, perhaps liberated in his deployment by his grounding in history, for he is a distinguished historian as well as a poet, is not constrained in his use of the word. In the first book of his ARRIVANTS trilogy, "Rights of Passage", Professor Brathwaite wields it with power and authority, riffing on it to produce, for example, the word 'nigrating' to describe the migration of black people overseas. Many years ago, I wrote a paper called "The Black Man as Supernigger or the New Israelite", which discussed Derek Walcott's uses of the words negro, nigger and nègre in his play, "Dream on Monkey Mountain". The deployment of the words is important in "Dream" and the play would have been a different play, if a play at all, without them. In my experience, current discussion of the topic has included no reference to language communities outside North America, nor indeed any concern for how they may choose, or may have chosen historically to use the word. The CBC article cites a description by University of Toronto scholar, Rinaldo Walcott, of the ways Nas and Chuck D use the word. (Nas spoke initially of 'taking power' from it.) Professor Walcott says these are "attempts to get black people to think critically about how things have not changed from the time when it was used to insult, to threaten, to put down, to degradate, to dehumanize.” (My emphasis.) Though he probably is not alone in that opinion, general comment does not reflect this sensitivity. I end with a rough rehearsal (I don't remember the words exactly) of a comment made to me by an African-Canadian writer and critic a few years ago. "People may not refer to me as a nigger but that doesn't prevent them from feeling free to niggerize me!" Selah. If you stopped by, thanks. All comments welcome.

20 comments:

FSJL said...

I am deeply uncomfortable with the word 'nigger'. I've used in in historical context -- in discussing Thomas Carlyle's Nigger Question at a conference two years ago, for example, I had no trouble calling it that, while a Scots colleague kept referring to the same work as 'The Occasional Discourse' (the full title is An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question). But I spent my childhood being called a 'dirty nigger' in London. You didn't.

clarabella said...

I haven't said how I feel about it – at least, I didn't think I had. I was in the US in the 1960s in a college with a population that was almost completely white. I think there were maybe 6 people of colour, and one faculty member who was black. I mayn't have been called a nigger there, but there are ways of niggerizing you, as the writer/critic says. Your observation about living in London and being called a "dirty nigger" is to the point. How one feels about something, how one talks about it, how one construes it, is determined by one's experience. Should we make people who are in the habit of using the word non-pejoratively feel that they are doing something wrong? Isn't that policing language? What about the people who are called "Negrier"? Should they be obliged to change their names? Should we object to "Blackman" as a surname"? Some people compare the use of "nigger" with the use of "queer". "Queer" in the mouth of a queer person is very different from "queer" in the mouth of someone who is homophobic. There are people who speak of reclaiming the word in the way queer people have taken ownership of "queer". I realize of course there may be people aghast at any comparison between the uses of the two words, or of seeing the situations surrounding their use as problematic in similar ways...

FSJL said...

As in the Bajan surname 'Blackman'? Hmm.

'Negrero', slaver, is also a Spanish and Portuguese surname. There's a Venezuelan town called 'El Negrero'.

I'm uncomfortable with the efforts to 'reclaim' nigger (or,for that matter, the use of 'nigga'). I don't know what to say about 'queer', or 'bitch' (as used by some feminist writers like Bitch Ph.D or the Skeptical Bitch). I understand the point they are making, but I suspect that the words have so much poison in them that they are unredeemable.

I've used the word in class, btw, since I use Carlyle's Nigger Question as a text in political theory.

Jdid said...

not a big fan of the word but when i think of its use in the caribbean I have t laugh cause its not loaded with all the digust and harm in my opinion.

i think its more of a here in north america we're a minority it takes on different attribute to there where we are a majority. mind you i think todays caribbean youth have taken over the north american maning of the word.

clarabella said...

Hi jdid. Good to hear from you on this. Here's a question. There are people in the Caribbean and the US and the UK, themselves people whom others might describe by this word, who use the word in a way that's not, as you say, 'loaded up with disgust and harm'. There are larger, more powerful groups of people in North America and Europe, and no doubt Latin America too, who have used the word, and still use it, in an ugly, harmful, way. Are we being forced to behave like enslaved people once more when we allow a word to be stigmatized by a group of people because they have had power in the past to harm us, and continue to have power to do so?

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano: You use it in class because you have to, just as the people who teach the poetry of Walcott and Brathwaite, or the plays of August Wilson, or the works of any number of other writers, have to. Linguists must use it in their classes, sociologists too, and any number of scholars in other disciplines as well. So the word, along with its variations is, in a way, inscribed indelibly in our discourse. It's not going anywhere. The people named Negrier and Negrero aren't changing their names. Are the rest of us telling them they have names about which they ought to be ashamed? As for the reclamation, if it happens it may not be anything we set out to do. Perhaps a Bob Marley will make a song, or a Louise Bennett will write a poem, or a Bob Carlin will concoct a comedy sequence that will spread like wildfire and undo the word, just like that. After all, there's a man running for president who's probably been called that word. After Barack Obama, every diasporic black person, as the little girl who spoke to Michelle Obama made so clear, now has to see themself in a new light. A person whom others may have called and may still call negro, nigger, nigga, nègre, whatever, may well be the next President of America, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Man with his Finger on the Red Button. Might the undoing already have begun?

FSJL said...

The word may or may not be going anywhere, but words do die. When was the last time you heard of an expert in law being called a 'legister', for example? The OED doesn't record a use since the seventeenth century (much to my regret).

One day, I hope, it'll be one of those words that people come across in old texts, like 'indagate' or 'whilom', quaint and meaningless.

clarabella said...

I suspect it has too much by way of passionate feeling, too much of history in it, to die. Don't know that legister, whilom or indagate have had such vehement storms of opinion, of feeling, of personal, regional and national experience, whirl round them. I've got a poem called "Yellow Girl Blues". I've just hung up the url. Without that word, no poem... (BTW, it has a jazz tune that goes with it.)

FSJL said...

You may be right. On t'other hand, I've not heard anyone called a 'whoreson' in my lifetime (or seen an instance of the use of the word for more than three centuries), and the power of that insult was not small. 'Whilom' was once useful, and 'indagate' might at some time have gone into things, but 'legister' was a word of some heft and its disappearance was a real loss to the language.

'Nigger', on the other hand, could go the way of 'whilom' and I wouldn't mind.

FSJL said...

I've just read 'Yellow Girl Blues', and I see your point, though I suspect your mother said 'nayga' rather than 'nigger'.

My father never once uttered the word, certainly not in my hearing.

I have been chided online for using the word 'buckra' by the way, and told that it is racist to do so.

clarabella said...

I don't think it's going anywhere, by reason of Henry Louis Gates's theory of black people's making linguistic meaning, i.e., by reason of the enormity of its significance as a rhetorical act. That is, of course, if I understand Gates rightly. It cannot be canceled out because it's carrying too much synchronic and diachronic weight. It may perhaps be moved from people's mouths, but I'm not even sure of that. So I must hope for its salvation.

FSJL said...

I don't know that a word can be saved. Did you know that 'clown' originally meant 'peasant', and was a pejorative term used by the aristocracy? It's come a long way since the Middle Ages.

clarabella said...

My mother never said anything of the kind! I fear I made it all up, inspired by the tale of the daughter of one of my cousin's who is so light-skinned she can pass for white. Mama was a dark lady married to a very light skinned man, and I suspect that the marriage may well have met with opposition. I remember being a big woman (don't laugh) when the difference in the colors of these two people FIRST came to my attention. (I had, by then, lived in the USA.) But all my life they had been different by reason of one being my mother and female, and of a certain kind of temperament and disposition, and the other being my father and male, and of another kind of temperament and disposition. I will swear to this.

clarabella said...

Words can be saved. I know so. No, I didn't know about clown, but I think the aristocracy (small group) looking down on the peasants (large group) probably had things stacked against them from the start. And look where clown has arrived! A formidable word if ever there was one. You are making my case for me...

FSJL said...

I believe you! My experience -- for obvious reasons -- was otherwise, but it wasn't until I hit my teens that I discovered that there could be active hostility to my parents' marriage, or that there were places where it was actually illegal in my lifetime.

FSJL said...

Hmm. Well, 'clown' is still used as an insult, though an insult of a different kind from the original one.

clarabella said...

Now, there's a good example of a word carrying a different meaning according to its preferred use in a particular linguistic community. Do people actually use clown as an insult these days?

FSJL said...

Yes, I've heard 'clown' used as a pejorative -- to describe someone as particularly foolish or stupid.

clarabella said...

I guess. "You're such a clown!" Except I've known it to express a sort of half-humorous judgment, which I'd not characterize as pejorative. I've not heard it in a long time though.

FSJL said...

It can be used in that way, or as a put-down, Phil Ochs's description of Nixon, for example: 'The speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown.' Or as a more direct pejorative.