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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Barack Obama in Berlin

So the Democratic candidate for President of the USA, Senator Barack Obama, attracts a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin, the largest one so far in his campaign. There is so much to say about the Senator, the manner and message of the man, the mere fact that he is the Democratic candidate – so much to say about the deep irony of his drawing his biggest crowd in Germany, of all countries. So just a couple of comments here. To begin with, having been in the USA during Civil Rights, I honestly never thought I would live to see the day. That it has indeed come says a great deal for the American people, in particular for young people in the United States. Among many other things, it says that far from being turned off, disillusioned, blasé, consumed only with celebrating themselves on Facebook and MySpace, they are alert, aware and prepared to respond to an inclusive message, a message that empowers them and advances nation building as a common cause. Whatever one's political persuasion, Senator Obama must be given credit for articulating such a view and persuaading people that he means what he says. Of course, what lends credibility to his message is the fact of who he is, the fact that his life is witness to the "Yes-We-Can-ability" to which he now calls his country. Anyone who was there back then is bound to appreciate the awesomeness, the enormity of the now. What Barack Obama stands for is a great deal more than can be communicated by the simple statement that he is the first black man to run for president of the USA – as astounding a fact as that may be – even as the crowd in Berlin listening to him speak is a great deal more than a large gathering of white people in a European city listening to a black man who may well be the next leader of the most powerful country in the world. The bleakest moments in human history and our power to transform them are alive inside this man, and brood inside that crowd. And lastly – for now, for there's a great deal more to be said – the World, the one that begged America not to go to war in Iraq, the one that is frightened about whether we have so ruined the planet that it's about to heave us off its back the way a dog shakes off water, the World that's scared that it may shortly be ravaged by disease at the same time that it is bereft of resources, that World is desperate to find someone who is prepared to give it hope, to tell it that there's a way out. So mock the Senator, call him the Messiah, if you will, but know the times are critical, and admire him for having the courage to want to step into the breach.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer polishing

As it's long past time for spring cleaning, I'm doing summer polishing instead. As a result, you'll see a new picture of Zoey, who has started to walk, and of Grandma who is, thank God, still more or less able to keep up with Zoey. Trying too to stick with the blog, which I started because I've known for a while that we are close to some kind of radical shift in how we on this planet live, and I felt I ought to say so. Thus the blog's concern for the environment, both physical and social, and for song and story, which I feel have important roles in seeing us through whatever it is we're going to go through. I don't go on about God up here, but if you feel there's a Spirit of any kind out there, it's time to be in touch. Ergo... If you come by here to visit from time to time, do tell your friends to stop by, as we'll talk about all these things in upcoming posts. Folks who are interested in Caribbean literature, and in good scholarship may find it worthwhile to visit over the next few posts. I don't claim to be a scholar, but having edited an academic journal (the Caribbean Journal of Education) for many years, having done editorial work and been an editorial consultant for regional and international presses, some quite big, and having been publisher for our own small press (Sandberry), I know a little bit about how the scholarship thing ought to be done. There's some misinformation, downright wrong information, and maybe even a little mischief out there. We'll try to set a few things straight, and if we go astray ourselves, we'll be glad to be corrected. Stay posted!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Brutal, Bloody Business...

Just back from the US where we were visiting for the last week or so. We like driving there: it takes almost as much time as flying when you count the wait at the airports and the drives to and from them, and add that to the flying time. And one gets to see the country, which is vastly better than looking down at sky and clouds, however satisfying those often are to gaze at. Immigration, the officers on the ground at the border, are in our experience good-natured and helpful. (It may be to our advantage that we are old and gray and always on our way to visit our granddaughter.) Which brings me with an ugly jolt to the topic of today's post, and to a determination that I'll be more faithful up here on this blog. I have a play that's currently in workshop at Lorraine Kimsa, the wonderful children's theatre here in Toronto. It's called "El Numero Uno or the Pig from Lopinot" and is set in the Caribbean. In one of the scenes, a Jonkanoo masquerader named Policeman declares that he's going to arrest another one of the characters. The leader of the Jonkanoo troupe reminds him that he's not a real policeman, observing (aside): "That is why me don’t like uniform. Is like it have a powder (sic) inside it that make the wearer want to manhandle people." One wishes it were that simple. My older son just sent me a deeply disturbing report from The Guardian that everyone ought to read. Called "The bloody battle of Genoa", the article appeared on Thursday July 17 2008 on page four of the Comment & features section of the paper. It describes what happened to many of the 200,000 anti-globalisation protesters who came to Genoa, the Italian city that hosted the G8 summit in 2001. All but a handful of the protesters came to demonstrate peacefully. Instead, many were not just manhandled, but so badly bloodied, battered and beaten by riot police that they required hospitalization. (Their treatment by the police medical services also makes ugly reading.) Thanks to a determined public prosecutor, Enrico Zucca, the affair has finally made it to the courts. There is unlikely to be very much by way of redress there, but at least something resembling an accurate account now exists of the abuse of citizens by "lawmen" – people whose duty it is uphold the peace, protect the common person and maintain law and order. (According to the report, politicians like Tony Blair swallowed the official rendering of events, which blamed the protesters, hook, line and sinker. But then, he's proved a gullible one, hasn't he?) And there's the rub. How is it that human beings – each of them someone's child, someone's brother, father, husband, loved one – bring themselves to behave in this way? And in the name of upholding the common good? I won't attempt to characterize it this time around. What I'm immediately interested in is how it can be accounted for, since it is behaviour that's impossible to justify on any grounds. Sure, the article suggests that many of the carabinieri have fascist loyalties. That doesn't help me. I want to know how come in the twenty-first century, our recent history being the bloody business it has been, the upholders of right order and the law in a country that's a member of the European Union are able to have loyalties of any kind that can result in actions like this. These are not hungry people scrapping for scarce resources, nor people in an oppressive regime that orders murder when it sees fit. Or am I mistaken? I have some ideas, but before I hang them up here, I'd be glad to know what people think. Meanwhile, be safe. Stay far from carabinieri!