by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on May 31st, 2016 | 1 Comment »
WARNING: I will quote the original sources in this essay verbatim. Some people may find the words offensive. Reader discretion is advised.
At the 2016 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the last during the administration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, comedian Larry Wilmore ended his presentation referring to the president as “my nigga.” His use of the word “nigga” reignited the discussion about when and where and how and by whom the word ought to be used or whether it ought to be used at all. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton is among those critical of Wilmore’s use of the word. Sharpton rejects the argument that the word can have a positive connotation, that there is such a thing as reclamation of pejorative words, either for African-Americans or for anyone else.
I say that most words are fecund with meaning, that these multiplicities of meaning shift depending upon context and the human being using the word, that negative words have been turned upside down and inside out, and reclaiming words is a liberatory act of empowerment.
I will not rehearse the etymologies of the three words I will consider in this essay – nigga, bitch, and queer – except to say that they were and are sometimes still used to disrespect another human being. Once upon a time in America it was common to see the word “nigger” used to speak of African-Americans in respectable journals. There is no question that the word was used to represent black people as less than white people. There was a time that to call an African-American person black would be cause for consternation. Some white people past and present till spit the word “nigger” out with hate-filled venom.
James Weldon Johnson in his 1912 novel – “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” – wrote of a common rhyme: “Nigger, nigger never die. Black face and shiny eye.” However, Frank Horne, activist, physician, civil servant, poet, and uncle to the actress and singer Lena Horne, reclaimed the word in his poem “Nigger” when he turned the rhyme into a black history lesson. (https://hiddencause.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/poem-of-the-week-horne-2/)
The poem says in part:
Little Black boy,
Chased down the street
“nigger, nigger never die
Black face an shiny eye
Nigger. . . nigger. . . nigger. . .
Hannibal. . Hannibal
Bangin’ thru the Alps
Licked the proud Romans
Run home with their scalps
. . .
Toussant. . . Toussant
Made the French flee
Fought like a demon
Set his people free
. . .
Jesus. . . Jesus
Son of the Lord
Spit in his face
Nail him on a board
Nigger.. . nigger. . . nigger
Little Black boy
Runs down the street,
“Nigger nigger never die
Black face an’ shiny eye
Nigger. . . nigger. . . nigger
Also, in “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”, Johnson describes the use of the word “nigger” among some black men:
“I noticed that among this class of colored men the word “nigger” was freely used in about the same sense as “fellow” and sometimes as a term of almost endearment; but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.”
This is not unusual. Most group have some expression that they may use to refer to themselves or that others in the group may use but is forbidden to outsiders. In the popular British Television show, “Downton Abbey”, the Irish chauffeur who has married into the English aristocracy says of himself:
“You won’t make a gentleman of me, you know. You can teach me to fish, to ride, to shoot, but I’ll still be an Irish mick in my heart.”
It would have been an insult for anyone else to say that to him.
And this is the rub. Some words are acceptable within groups, but are forbidden to those outside the group. In their use of the word “nigger” within the group, it is a word that connotes shared experience, but when the word “nigger” becomes “my nigga” it connotes a shared moral and communal location. African communal logic says that: Because I am we are, and because we are, I am. The moral space created between the individual and the community past, present, and future, makes a righteous claim on both individual and community. We all exist to uplift the individual, and the individual has a responsibility to do her or his best for the sake of the community. Thus “my nigga” is family and friend and sometime enemy, someone with whom I share past, present, and future moral responsibility.