As if on call, shortly after being exposed to the up-coming reality show that will appear soon on FX and about which I have my usual Why-Am-I-Not-Surprised attitude [see my "Black.White." (Part One) entry posted below], I received an email from a student with a bit of film attached. It was a story presented recently as part of a standard newscast on WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, and it reminded me of the cluelessness of the White family on the FX show.
According to the news report, Paul Dawson, a forty-something European-American honors English teacher at Valley High School in Jefferson County, Kentucky, stumbled and tripped over his tongue during class one day when he instructed an African-American boy to get away from the classroom door by saying, "Sit down, niggah!" He claimed on the broadcast to have been just using the vernacular that he has heard the kids themselves use so much. In fact, he said several times in a row at one point in the interview, "Why is this word used so frequently? I'm trying to understand..."
The difficulty, I would suggest to Mr. Dawson, an English teacher for twenty years and, therefore, we might assume, fascinated by words, is that "niggah" is so much more than just a word. A history lesson might be in order here.
When Europeans realized how rich they could become by jingling a few gold coins in brigands' faces on the west coast of Africa to "buy" captured humans that could be literally worked to death for free, they were fairly dazzled by the potential of it all. In short order, they had enlisted the aid and support of the religious community (as in "these heathens, if they indeed have souls, which they may not, will be better off forced into Christendom anyway than allowed to live their lives as they might choose"). Soon, the social scientific community, as well, had joined the refrain, declaring that the social world, just like the jungle, is always ruled by the fittest--or at least by those who can, by any means necessary, force their will on others.
Using this type of reasoning, if reason had anything to do with it, the Europeans involved in this process did not see--or did not want to see--Africans as humans with homes and families, with cultures and religions of their own, with languages and traditions that had been consistently in place for many hundreds of years. So the investors, in the interest of turning people into "property," decided to erase all that they didn't want to see. Instead of acknowledging, then, that the Africans were Ibo and Fulani and Mangbetu and Maasai, the Europeans simply called them after the Niger (which means "black") River, that stretches 2500 miles through West Africa. So the captured Africans became "Negroes."
In the southern United States, of course, where a heavy dialect of the English language rather quickly developed among the slaveholders, the "Negroes" soon became "Niggrahs" or more colloquially, "niggers." I personally believe that this is why European-Americans didn't grouse too much when African-Americans went from calling themselves "Negroes" to calling themselves "Blacks" in the sixties. It was more of the same, if you will, especially since it had been Europeans that called them "black" in the first place, regardless of the "I'm Black and I'm proud" movement. It was when "Black" people began using various forms of the term "African-American" that White folks got edgy because, I think, it takes the lost Africans back to a grand heritage (read your history), a heritage that was stolen on purpose to make them more manageable.
What Mr. Dawson doesn't apparently understand about the word "niggah" is that White folks have used up all their word-using privileges when it comes to the n-word. They just can't use it any more unless they earn the right somehow (as bestowed on the occasional European-American by people of color who love them) and, even then, they'd better be very, very careful how and when they choose to do so. Which they know very well, if they've reached that level of inclusion.
It didn't surprise me that Bruno Marcotulli (the White man made up to be Black for the FX reality show) was anxiously waiting for some African-American to call him "Niggah" so that he could use the word, too. This is a club that is closed to men who look like Marcotulli. And he feels that rejection, that "don't-be-ridiculous" barrier. And with White guilt and White low self esteem and the need many Whites feel to be everywhere at once and wherever they please, he longs to slap hands with a man of color and be included. Just like Paul Dawson does.
But this club is members-only. This is a club made up of people who have suffered so much for so long that no other name could probably ever encompass all the history that it carries within it. History that is rich and deep. History that talks about rising above all violence and all pain and all agony and all shame at all cost to stride into the future anyway. Like transforming the field holler into the blues which eventually became the base for all the musics from R & B and rock and roll to jazz--heard now around the world--African-Americans have squeezed their milleniums of shared history into artforms...and a word.
When Richard Pryor came back from Africa with the statement that "there are no niggers in Africa," he was right, of course. Because that's not where the members of this club reside. They're strictly U.S.-born and bred. With the indomitable spirit of Africa in their souls, but their feet on U.S. soil. Pryor once quipped that Black men hold onto their privates because that's the only thing they have left that hasn't been taken from them. But I would argue that there are other things, as well. And that's their history, their monumental strength and accomplishments in the face of overwhelming odds, and their name--whatever it is they want to call themselves--whether it's understood (and can be used) by the White man or not.