When you are a reader, you look at words and books like they’re a succulent meat. You relish every curve, criss-cross and slash.
Maybe you’ve never struck a typewriter or thrilled to its bang. Known the feel of keys that patter. You don’t see hieroglyphics on bright white parchment. I even scribe to collect my thoughts or memorize material.
To me, all languages issue a dare hard to refuse. I took the plunge for Castellano and Latin American Spanish, French. I listen intently to Wolof as a woman braids my hair. I collect Albanian phrases in Queens from a bartender and her friends. California valley and surfer were, like, my first languages, it could be joked. Ebonics, for added flair and personality. I add it all to my untidy repertoire. Listening always for the pulse of a civilization. But you may not feel this.
You may not worship at the altar of the eloquent. Words, I would feel deprived without them to read and play with. Ideas that appear to my eyes like miracles, I digest over hours, weeks and years. The Handmaid’s Tale gave me nightmares. The Lover bathed me in grief.
I am sensitive. Words can pierce my soul. One can prick; one can burn. Syntax, diction and tone matter. That’s word order, word choice, and the emotion coming through. Heaven forbid I sense cruelty, because seeing the hate in print kills me twice. I must be vindicated. If not, the words invade my brain and take up occupation. It’s harder for me to forgive an excited utterance if it stares at me from a screen.
But the word “nigger” floors me. Just in the writing of it… yes, it scared me. I felt a little sick to my stomach. I could not even bring myself to look back at what I wrote; this is its staggering power. The only word whose verbal slap can stun me silent. I fear toppling to the floor. I call bloody murder.
But my skin needs to be thicker, not meaning desensitized exactly but thicker, and readier for the impact of our currently dystopic real lives. Confrontation may be crucial at this juncture in time. For the first time in my life, I have decided that racism must be faced head on.
But I’m still not going to Charlottesville tomorrow…
Now, “nigga” still looks weird to me. But this -its shortened, most acceptable form- has spread like a contagion since I don’t know when. NWA couldn’t have been the first. Since this word was reclaimed, it has struck a lighter blow, at least when issued from the lips of those who pass the subjective social/racial litmus test proffered by their environment. I dare say “nigga” has an affectionate and positive connotation when used between friends… although the flipside always threatens to burst through the flimsy divide; so easily can the semantics shift, depending on whether the speaker is addressing friend or foe; whether addressing the admired or the disparaged.
And it’s straight confusing to hear it from a stranger. Whatever happened to “brother” and “sister”? However strange that sounds to us, today, with its old school feel and Nation of Islam ring, that was better. Mami and papi is better. You’ve got to ask yourself why we settle. Why we settle for such a self-deprecating, trauma-laced word. Is it a monument of our own making? A monument to triumph over pain?
I feel no white person should pick up and try either of these ‘n’ words. I know the argument well. The first, you want to keep them in your arsenal, “in case of emergency” like an assault rifle. Shia LeBoeuf, I’d thought was a cool guy, assuming he was a Jewish ally, took it out of his back pocket when he was taken into custody for a drunk and disorderly charge and was confronted with a Black officer to his dismay. It was thoroughly sad to see. If you want the second version, you want to cozy up to Black America or at least to your Black friends. You believe you can be seen for the exceptional nonracist that you are.
You are mistaken. You have the right but not the license. It is inflammatory at worst and hate speech and at best grating on the nerves. A white face mouthing anything close is anathema because an ugly thought lives behind that word. It’s crude and violent to me. Like Michael Jackson and the word, “Bad,” the original meaning never disappeared, there’s just ambiguity added- a layering- over the word’s original meaning.
Transgression is also tied up with it. When Black people utter the n-word, they know it’s taboo. Deftly flipping the implied lack of the self-esteem for the other side of the coin, where some level of respect and even a large measure of affection resides. But a verdigris residue remains. You only need to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to educate yourselves to the pain that burdens many of us darker-skinned folk. Running from our own reflection in the mirror. But “my nigga” as a compliment is powerful as well. It’s only happened to me once. I was first stunned, then overjoyed, then stunned then overjoyed again. It was a pleasantly breathtaking ride.
I knew then that we would not disentangle ourselves from that burdensome identity because of the shared struggles it acknowledges. The pride birthed from our American alma mater’s brand, from the persistent throbbing anguish that exists in every one of us… a wound barely scabbing over for most of us.
God, I miss Obama. At least he was a beacon of hope… Now, no Band-aids nor ready ointments are available. No concoctions in the works, at least not from the Executive. With Birther Trump now in the office of presidency, tearing these wounds back open, leaving them exposed. Witness the bloody issue.
The streams of race, class, sex and sexuality are not distinct, especially not for those situated in the maelstrom. We need to unite rather than splinter in response to Trump’s scapegoating mischaracterizations of undocumented immigrants, his crude appeals to the typical White (Supremacist) American and his marginalization of the rest of us. His policy positions, his Cabinet appointments, and his budget and department cuts reflect a profound ignorance and disregard for all of our lives.
I grew up South of the Mason-Dixon line. Heck, I grew up in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt: Nashville, Tennessee. I spent my youth there until the age of seventeen when I ventured North. Seventy-four miles south of Nashville is Pulaski, Giles County, Tennessee, which is well-known as the “birthplace” of the KKK. I even visited one summer in high school to attend a week-long basketball team camp held there.
My father, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant, almost did not allow me to go. There wasn’t any logic in taking chances with his daughter’s safety as far as he was concerned. He wouldn’t drive in the snow, either. Not taking unnecessary risks in this unfamiliar Southern territory.
I didn’t look into any of it at that time- I deferred to my father’s decision and didn’t push very hard to go to that particular team camp. The situation made me apprehensive and I picked up on the gravity of my father’s concerns. And what did I know about this remote area of Tennessee far from home? Would I be physically assaulted? Ridiculed? Silently despised?
But I had a wonderful time. It made me more of a Tennessean. My pride in Tennessee girls’ and women’s basketball is complete. A lady Tiger, I was, one of the “city girls.” We wore matching plaid scrunchies in our school colors of maroon and pale blue, one of our only nods to girly-ness. We came to work. Then, we met the country girls who came to play, but to our eyes, didn’t look the part. But I digress…
Some friends have expressed to me a refusal to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it ages ago and felt a little baffled by their intransigence, at first, since I read the novel in my early teens. It was a choice on my Summer Reading List. I read it, had nightmares, got on with my life.
The nightmares were of the action movie type. You’re in a state of emergency and your entire life is in jeopardy- and your family’s- and you must ACT or perish. A quite useful kind of dream, if you think about it.
And this from me, Ms. Sensitive. Ms. “I’m reluctant to watch horror movies because they are going to scar me for life”- this me- can watch The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m not great with roller coasters, either. I brace myself and join in, but few notice the apprehension and pervasive sense of futility seated beside them.
I felt more forewarned than traumatized by the reading experience. I added the book to my mental catalogue, marked it prescient, and continued to read more Atwood. I also recommend Surfacing, which I recall as written beautifully and memorably Canadian. I watched the first season of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale series eagerly each week and could tolerate it, even enjoying the mise en scène aspects such as soundtrack choice, casting and costuming. Enacting the book, written in the eighties, and adapting it to resonate with today- that kind of artistic dilemma- really gets my blood pumping.
So, I cannot help but think that some people will be able to handle Charlottesville.
I was safely distanced from The Handmaid’s Tale’s chilling grasp, sheltered in my parents’ home on one of Tennessee’s grassy, steep hills. I could handle a written tale of horror over reproductive slavery back then. I wasn’t sexually active, yet. I wouldn’t have to see it, except in my mind’s eye. No graphic detail….
By contrast, regarding HBO’s irksome “Confederate” series, I am in a state of panic even before the scripts have been penned. I don’t want another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the worst of my horror-movie watching experiences. I don’t want abuse via screen such as must have been experienced by Black viewers watching Birth of a Nation (the 1915 D.W. Griffith 3 hour long, silent film that depicts the mythic inspiration for the KKK) back in those days.
But like “Confederate”, who knows what might come of going to the Answer Rallies.
Let You, freer from trepidation but not braver, You go answer the challenge of the Alt-Right. You go make a show of numbers. You all know I’ve got brown skin in the game. In this case, however, every single fiber of my being tingles telling me I’m not going towards that word or hateful animus.
I will watch nervously from afar, it’s not my town, although now my state. I have been squinting at this issue since July 8 since May 13 since forever, ever since I became aware of such hate… ever since I was a child.
I didn’t realize it then, but to get by in my predominantly white school, I wore blinders. Never looking at it full on… absolutely unable to look at it objectively, I brushed away the idea of racism.
It has got to be natural to fear that gaping abyss and to be pulled toward doubt and paranoia. Worse, in front of people who can look at you and draw connections between you and the Africans forced into chains and hauled here like cargo centuries ago.
I sought out the successful Black writers and derived pride and inspiration from them, feeling that these were my friends and my peers. I wanted to jump into their arguments since it was my plight under discussion: the state of being Black in America, the double consciousness/code switching that tips you towards either crazy or genius. The joy and turmoil, the vicissitudes of life explained by people of my Black American tribe, told from our self-conscious stance. I studied women’s issues with equal intensity.
It was lost on me, for years, how surviving the Middle Passage, itself, could be recast as extremely strong, and how our spirituality carried many of us through… so many things did I miss because of tunnel vision. But it’s a winning strategy. Michael Garcia’s video with Kodak Black’s, “Tunnel Vision” enthralled me for months. To Kodak, tunnel vision is on capitalism or “the hustle” and the simple pleasures of living. My hustle back in school was similarly channeled toward competition… mine athletic and academic. Now, I remove my blinders. I saw in college that I was not “the only one” any longer, and exchanged that silo of the mind for an ivory tower. Now, I’m beginning to see that everyone has different versions of tunnel vision… others focus on spirituality, for example, instead of intellectualizing.
Don’t stay in your lanes, though. Instead, weave a braided understanding throughout your communities. And do it in real life not only from behind a screen. To all of you who are going to Charlottesville, I want you to know that I’m touched. I wish you well and many thanks. But I won’t be a pair of boots on the ground for this cause, I’m just not up for it.
~By APV staffer Kortenay Gardiner