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
(http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/nigger-0)

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.
In his poem –”Sha-Clack-Clack”– Saul Williams asks the question: “Where my niggas at?

He writes:
“Oh shit, don’t tell me my niggas got lost in time
My niggas are dying before their time
My niggas are serving unjust time
My niggas are dying because of. . . time”
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojDKI8JxfLs)

Larry Wilmore could have referred to President Obama as “my brotha”. He chose instead to reclaim the more transgressive term because in that moment, he wanted to not only recognize the historic character of the fact that a black man is president of the United States, but he also wanted to recognize that this president has been disrespected in a multitude of ways both overt and covert. Yet, he maintained his black stride, his jazz, his gospel, his hip-hop, and his cool in the face of it all.

Wilmore shamelessly claimed the president as “my nigga” in the presence of the entire world, in front of a white dominant gaze. At that moment whiteness was irrelevant.

The act of word reclamation is a power move that not only African-Americans have made, but that women have also made. Just as African-Americans have reclaimed “nigger”, women have reclaimed the word “bitch.” A word that refers to a female dog, it has been used to refer to a sexually promiscuous woman or one who is forever complaining. The noun has become a verb for incessant nagging. (I say nagging is a high art, and everyone cannot do it well. The world class nags among us ought to nag this world into justice and peace, but that is another essay.) Some people use “bitch” to refer to weakness. However when women reclaim the word, they are thinking of anything but weakness. Some women have reclaimed the word to mean a woman who unapologetically owns her sexuality, power, independence, and ambition. She sings the gospel according to Billie Holliday “Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do” and “God Bless the Child Who’s Got Her Own.”

In 1968, a woman known a Joreen published “The Bitch Manifesto.” It says among other things:

“Bitches are aggressive, assertive, domineering, overbearing, strong-minded, spiteful, hostile, direct, blunt, candid, obnoxious, thick-skinned, hard-headed, vicious, dogmatic, competent, competitive, pushy, loud-mouthed, independent, stubborn, demanding, manipulative, egoistic, driven, achieving, overwhelming; threatening, scary, ambitious, tough, brassy, masculine, boisterous, and turbulent.”

It also says:

“By definition Bitches are marginal beings in the society. They have no proper place and wouldn’t stay in it if they did.”
(http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/bitch.htm)

“The BITCH Manifesto” wants to become the basis of an organization that it knows can probably never exist because of the characteristics of Bitches. Still, political organization for the sake of their own liberation and that of all women is an imperative. The manifesto says: “We must realize that Bitch is beautiful and that we have nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever.”

In her book – “Selfish Bitch: A Manifesto for Driven Women Who Want It All, and are Not Afraid to Take It” – Kat Loterzo write about why she wrote her book:
“It’s a call to arms.
A call to women all around the world who are so damn OVER the guilt, and the ridiculous pressure to be NORMAL and do what they ‘should’ do.”

The shellfish bitch puts her work first, will give time to her children and family on her own terms, and knows that she has to take ownership over her life. She strives for success because she knows that in the long run, her success will be beneficial to her family.

Just as women have reclaimed the word “bitch” for the sake of their freedom that will redound to the common good, so has the LGBT community reclaimed the word “queer.” It has not only become an umbrella term for LGBT people, but it has become a descriptive term within academia for critical theories focusing on the intersection of sexual identity, orientation, presentation, and politics in various ways. Thus, we have a body of literature in the areas of queer theory and queer theology.

In his book – “Radical Love: an Introduction to Queer Theology” – Patrick S. Cheng writes about this reclamation as a way of speaking about an intentional transgression of societal norms. It rejects binary categories of female/male, homosexual/heterosexual. For Cheng, the term “queer” crosses boundaries between socially constructed categories masquerading as facts of nature.

There are also queer people who use the term as a radical critique of social institutions that includes race, class, and physical ability. We ought to also add and learning differences. These queers are critical of the LGBT political agenda that fought for marriage equality and the ability to serve openly in the military. They think such institutions hold an oppressive system in place. They have no interest in assimilating into the mainstream of white bourgeois society. They are against the gentrification that middle and upper class LGBT people bring into cities that displace people of color, thus bringing economic harm to communities of color in their wake.

Writing in the introduction to the second edition of “That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes: “The radical potential of queer identity lies in remaining outside – in challenging and seeking to dismantle the sickening culture that surrounds us.”

In the book, Josina Manu Maltzman writes: “We fagulously freaky queerbos are not looking for a seat at the table of normality.”

In reclaiming words, people who suffer multiple oppressions assert their human dignity through the power of self-definition. It is important to note that some thinkers believe that such acts are not true, that they are an internalization of oppression, that the dominant negative meanings of these words remain in full effect, that we see little material difference in the lives of people who want to perform the act of reclaiming words. All of this may be true, still I say that reclaiming words is important because it is an intentional act that sabotages shame. It is a refusal to be ashamed.

In “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”, the main character, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white, decides to join the white race after he sees a black man burned alive.

“I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.”

Bullies use pejorative words to cause us to feel ashamed at who we are. Reclaiming words takes the power away from bullies. There are no more victims. The gospel according to “The Game of Throne.” Tyrion Lannister gives advice to Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell:

“Let me give you some advice bastard: never forget what you are; the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

In the 2016 presidential campaign, we see the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, using pejorative words to belittle his political opponents. In a press conference on the day he acquired the number of pledged delegates to secure the GOP nomination, he referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has Native American ancestry, as Pocahontas. A female Native American reporter said the term was offensive. Trump used it again. Warren is not ashamed of her Native American ancestry, and when Trump tries to reduce her to this one name, he tells us nothing about Warren and everything about himself. He is too clueless to know that he only shames himself and reveals his petty, pathetic self.

Human beings have the power of self-definition. We have no power over what other people call us, but we do have power over what names to which we answer. We have the power to reach within the multiple meanings of words and to take the definition we want. We all can decide which meanings apply to us and which meanings we share in a moral community of survival, struggle, and hope.

 

 

Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”


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