It’s not in America's best interest to assimilate. As confessional poet Alan Shapiro says: "Cultures are fed by impurity. … Mongrel dogs live longer than purebreed dogs." Our cultural "impurities" are the nuances that make our lives so interesting, so challenging, so inspiring from one day to the next. They give life to our poetry. So, when someone misguidedly preaches the values of assimilation, I ask myself: do you want us to die?
The other day I wrote a column about a restaurant visit where an African-American woman said the word "nigga" several times in the course of jovial conversation – and loud enough to make those around her uncomfortable. It was the loudness of her voice, not the word itself that prompted me to propose a ban on loud mouths, much like the ban for cigarette smokers.
Maybe, it's time for me to explain why I wasn't bothered by the word. It's not because I'm African-American, though there are many within my culture who say that should be the very reason why I should oppose "nigger" and its derivatives "nigga," "niggaz," etc. For anyone of us who says it, even in private, that could be considered evidence of self-loathing, given its racially-charged history.Yet, as a poet, I believe in man's ability to alter meaning, and as an African-American, I certainly believe in the power of a culture to endure oppression in such a manner that ultimately allows citizens to empower (i.e. define) themselves.
Let me put it this way, since others typically use their cultures/experiences to measure the African-American experience: what's the difference between "bitch," "fag," "kike," or "nigger"?Certainly, each word has led to hardship. There have been women, homosexuals and Jews (and the list could go on) who have been oppressed and murdered (the ultimate oppression) by others who have used these "obscene" terms against them.
Yet, in each case, the oppressed have taken the word and redefined and embraced it.No, they haven't forgotten the word's troubled and bloodied history — no one can actually "forget" such things — but in using the word it is possible to say that such history can no longer define how people choose to view themselves. So, back in the day, when N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) said "F— Tha Police" on behalf of all real niggas, that was not only a powerful rebuke of an institution that had long been a source of oppressing the African-American community, but the song was also a strong message of self-definition to a damning society that would consider us to be "niggers" no matter how much we achieved. It's the kind of "If you like us, fine. If you don't like us, that's fine. We know who we are" stance that African-American culture has thrived upon for decades and centuries.
That's redefining - much like Britney Spears choosing to shave off her blond hair as a way of redefining "beauty" in her own terms instead of society's. That's power. That's language at its best.So, why are there no calls to remove "bitch" or "ho" or "queer" or "faggot" or "redneck" etc. etc.. from our lexicon? Why the word "nigger," even though anyone could be called this word, this reflection of a state of mind, of being?It's because there is a class struggle within the African-American community.
Lacking a Better Word?
And I'm not blaming rap music, but a number of African-Americans are simply tired of the capitalistic system that elevated the "ghetto" life to be "true" black experience so much so that anything to the contrary was considered to be "white" – for lack of a better word or description. Not all African-Americans grew up in the ghetto. There is a battle of definition, a strong desire to police our image.
As the African-American middle class grows and overt racism decreases, they are beginning to realize that their use of the "nigga" toward low-income blacks – who might seem lazy or unwilling to change their circumstance or just embarrass the race – has the same inflection of contempt and hatred that whites from yesteryear used when they called us "niggers."
In other words, all things being equal, people of the same economic standing have the tendency to talk and think alike.That's what vexes a culture that ought to know better. That's why you have African-American leaders saying that it's impossible to change the meaning of the word. They want to get rid of it so they don't feel so conflicted. It enables us to avoid a much-needed, introspective discussion about class.
See, "nigger" or "nigga" causes you to look inward every time you say it or hear it or read it. It's the reason why some whites hate rap music. They want to sing the songs, and secretly they long to be able to say "nigger/nigga" without guilt. They pout that they are not like their forbearers, the ones who enslaved, lynched and cursed African-Americans who sought for basic human rights. They feel falsely accused when they have to skip the word or PC it (the "n-word") in public when everyone knows that they use it in private as much as African-Americans do. They pine to accuse African-Americans of black racism, which is oxymoronic.
Some whites want to be able to say "nigger" as loudly as many of them who shun it as measure of their progressiveness. They are tired of having to explain the duplicity to their kids. (Welcome to our world.)They don't want to confront their own conflicts.I’m not going to tell white people how they should or shouldn't use "nigger," but suffice to say, given their history with the word, it should make them think twice before using it in any context. Why are you using it?
In any event, regardless of the answer, I can't be mad. Ban "nigger" and another word will take its place. Human nature is human nature. Language is language. The African-American experience is the American, even the global, experience. So, Vietnamese kids listen to "black" music and call themselves "niggas" and I can understand on so many levels why they do – and respect it, too.