There has been a controversial subject that has been burning inside me for many years. It reached a climax about a decade ago when a former colleague of mine greeted me one day in the office with the words: “Yo, whassup, my Cuban n…a!” I refuse to spell out the entire word out of consideration for those readers who will take umbrage at what I believe to be an offensive term. But you will probably guess what the word is.
My colleague was surprised at my swift and admonishing reaction. I was concise, precise and to the point. Under no circumstances was he to use the “N” when talking to me again.
That was about ten years ago. I had similar feelings recently when I saw and heard Larry Wilmore refer to outgoing president Barack Obama as “my n…a” (notice the ending. The “a” is meant to soften the effect as opposed to the traditional “er”).
I mentioned honesty in my opening paragraph and if I am being honest I have to admit that I had no idea who Larry Wilmore was until I watched the clip of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then, again, US viewers might not know who Graham Norton is. Still, ignorance of Larry Wilmore's media relevance does not lessen the impact of his words.
There was an immediate backlash against the comedian. Some of it was justified, some was not. Responses varied from well –informed ones to ill-thought and poorly-articulated ones. Sadly, lost in the midst of this debate was the primary reason why Mr Wilmore’s colloquial phrase caused such a stink: the history, the (mis)use and the (re)appropriation of the “N” word.
|What did you call the president again?|
Based on my completely unreliable and unscientific research of no more than a dozen acquaintances, friends and work colleagues, I can say that many black Britons feel uncomfortable with the use of “N” word. Not all, though, young people do not think much of it and do pepper their conversations liberally with the term. You could say that there is a generational divide but Larry Wilmore is no spring chicken. What made him use a word that his ancestors heard, possibly preceded by the “f” word, before they were lynched?
That has always been factor number one in my decision to accept this term: history. You don’t need to be born in the States to know that there is a long history of murders, beatings and punishment inflicted on black people. That the “N” word came to signify inferiority simply rubbed salt in the open wound. That a whole political, economic and social system was erected on the back of this racist notion of black people’s inferiority reaffirms my conviction that use of the “N” word is never justified. Even if it is uttered by a black comedian to a black president.
English is not my mother tongue. I may have studied it, mastered it and taught it at some point, but it is not the lexicon I grew up with. Occasionally this makes me feel like an usurper. So, when English-speaking black people talk about (re)appropriating an erstwhile offensive term, I know I must sit up and listen to them. Even if I disagree with them, it is still their language. All I can ask for is not to be the recipient of such hurtful term.
And hurtful it is. The “N” word is not just a product of language but also a phenomenon. A misleading phenomenon, in my opinion. Why? Because it presents black people, especially men, as rap-loving, basketball-playing, slow-hung-jeans-underwear-showing, swagger-boasting “bros”. In the process this word strips the black person of their identity. In fact, it does not even let them carve out their own identity, whatever this might be. It divides black men into the same two camps white colonisers divided our ancestors all those centuries ago: house Negroes and field slaves. The former were the docile, butt-kissing servants, the latter were the fiery, law-breaking firebrands. This division was wrong then and it is still wrong now. Having street cred is not and should never be seen as a substitute for good education and high aspirations. It is not an either/or world, but a both/and one. You can be streetwise and a university graduate.
Larry Wilmore referring to Obama as my “n…a” was incorrect. The setting, the occasion, the audience, everything conspired against him. This makes me think that really and truly there is never a good moment to utter this highly emotionally-charged, controversial word, whether it be in hip-hop or slam poetry, whether it be a white rapper saying it or Common. I do apologise to my Anglophone readers and fellow bloggers for treading on your toes. After all, it is your language. However, I love English as much as I love my mother tongue, Spanish. I am aware that there is a process of reclaiming terms that have hitherto been considered demeaning. I hope the “N” word is never claimed back. There is no “back” to claim. The murders, beatings and punishment will always be there as reminders of the true meaning of the word. You do not need a Cuban to tell you that.
Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 11th May at 6pm (GMT)