I Am Not Your Nigger, Nigga, N-word, or Future Permutation of the Word Negro™

Imagine being at a club in Cairo eagerly awaiting to get down after a week of hard work and a new friend makes the case for why they do not listen or dance to American hip-hop.

“It is misogynistic, homophobic, and there is the strange use of the N-word.”

Since I desperately wanted to dance with them in comfort at that exact moment, I tried a bit of smoke and mirrors, which went something like this….

“Of course the misogyny and homophobia is regrettable, but such remarks are couched within the complex interplay among racial injustice, empowerment, and the ultimate attempt to become a (wo)man.”

As for the N-word that was a bit harder to explain.

First, “It is not all hip-hop music only that kind of hip-hop.”

Second, “It’s a Black American thing, you have to be born of that experience to understand why rappers use such words and why it is acceptable as a 21st century commodity.”

Then I mumbled something that only my glass of beer heard.

Finally, “as a Black American I give you permission to dance, drunkenly, here and now. When I am trying to escape the harsh realities of dealing with racism, sexism, and authoritarian regimes; I like to unwind by shaking my ass to appropriations of historical slurs and misdirects of sexual desires.”

I was never fully committed to ‘nigger’ or ‘nigga’. I did not go out of my way to police its use among friends and the words never came easily from my lips. I remember vague conversations in high school and college about why you should not use those word; but in my arguments I started to feel like my grandmothers who always extolled the benefits of relaxed rather than natural hair. In time, my argument shifted to intra-racial class dynamics. We were and still are witnessing some kind of time travel, battle royale featuring the Talented Tenth, Malcom X, and the hip-hopper de jour for the souls of black folk. But all of these debates seem too academic: who uses the word, who justifies its use, and who makes money from the repeated use of the word. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently offered one of the better rationales for why white Americans should not, cannot use the word. It ultimately boils down to respect for the internal dynamics of a marginalized group and the “basic laws” of humanity that respect the places, actions, and words of the other. Whites, Coates argues, have always felt entitled to enter any space, participate in any conversation, use any words as they see fit; and that is the privilege that needs to be dismantled. But what if their “right” does not emanate solely from their race, but from their ability to consume?

There is something jolting about hearing the phrase “yo my nigger” while abroad…there was that time I heard it in Bogotá, in Prague, in Accra and then in Cairo. I was at the Saqqara Pyramid with two friends, one Black American and the other Black Mozambican, and an Egyptian man with a donkey selling his souvenirs kept calling us his niggers. He did not see three people he needed to denigrate for fear of their existence. He saw Americans (by virtue of speaking English ) who happened to be Black; and by virtue of being American in this part of the world we must have money. Besides, what did he know about the States unless it came from cultural distortions in the form of movies, sports, hip-hop music, clothes etc. Whenever these incidents would happen, Black American expats would regroup and the established residents would explain to new arrivals that this occasionally happens and it is better to grin and bear it. This could mean the difference between paying $25 or $20 for a souvenir that in reality costs only $5 to make. When I would tell my Egyptian friends about this man, they would cringe and dismiss him as an ignorant pest who, like the rest of his kind, detract from the experience of visiting the pyramids. Sure he may not know the history of American slavery or movements for Black empowerment, but he knows how to make a buck . . . just like that rapper was trying to make a buck when he laid down the track that made nigger and nigga postmodern euphemisms heard round the world. So really who is performing for who.
I never did convince my friend to dance that night, perhaps for the better. At a time when there is greater visibility of Black American life and an acknowledgement of its complexity, what is to become of the objects created in the past to challenge the system, but are now integral to it? Does taking a stand against such music mean a rejection of American history and everyday life in Black communities or could it be a rejection of the commodification of that life?

I finally saw Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro; and seeing it in Cairo with Arabic subtitles was fitting to James Baldwin’s concern about the construction of a racialized other in an effort to deflect personal anxieties. The movie has been widely heralded for offering insight into why America’s original sin, i.e. race, continues to haunt us. But just as the juxtaposition of police and mob violence from the 1960s and 2010s served as a stark reminder of the work that must continue; Peck’s deafening silence on Baldwin’s queerness also reminds us of the persistence of taboos within Black American communities and the need to privilege coherent narratives of racial strife and resistance. Baldwin did not conceal his queerness; it was not an open secret. It was integral to his work and likely shaped his ability to bear witness to the existential desire for an other. Even though I can understand why niggers emerged in the White American psyche, I am still confused as to why the words “nigger” and “nigga” circulate across the globe at accelerating rates. Is this the triumph of a hip-hop industry that provides a forum in which White Americans experience the exclusion that so many black, brown, female, and queer “others” have endured at their hands? Is it the responsibility of the artist or the consumer to handle with care any object that is necessarily an artifact of subjugation and rebellion?

Black American culture has come of age in the era of globalization, and given that so much of that culture processes the experience of human subjugation it is not surprising that with the consumption of such experiences there is a desire to understand and a willingness to perform this pain. Deploying the word is a ready-made act of rebellion; so is it any real surprise that White Americans, Chinese, Ghanaians, or Egyptians say the word as they consume a product and make it their own. It is their consumption and reproduction of the word that puts money in the hands of those who were simply chronicling Black American life or raging against the machine. If nine years ago we were able to see the possibilities of what America and the world could be if a Black American held power; today we are stuck in a post post-racial phantasmagoria, where seeing is not being. We see black, brown, female, and queer folk gaining visibility in the cultural marketplace, we consume new objects that better express an authentic racial/gender identity; but does that make us free? Does it end the exploitation of those who make such objects and those who consume them? It might seem odd that I only came to terms with not using this word or purchasing music by artists who use it gratuitously while living abroad. I understand the process of reclamation occurring when trying to demystify its power. But when questions about who can say it conceal questions about why we say it and more importantly why people across the world say it, then there needs to be a discussion about how it arrives to distant shores. When I hear the word abroad it is never used in the derogatory tone (don’t worry, each country has its own language to denigrate brown and black bodies) it is always used as a term of endearment and often followed by pleas to shop for objects or services. It is only when your racial identity is reissued and repackaged for your purchasing power pleasure does the strangeness of using that word become more real.