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African History

Essentially “Nigger”

Pardon my use of the n-word. But before I get to vindicating myself, a few things. I promised a review of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I have been unable to fulfill this promise because I have been unable to read the book. To be specific, I have been unable to get past the first page. I therefore cannot say much about it and I will reserve any fully fleshed review for the day when I am actually able to read it (although I suspect this day may never come). In short, I did not like the first page and this prevented me from going further.

What I have enjoyed reading, however, is the short book, “Aime Cesaire, poete martiniquais.” This marks the official beginning of my research on the Negritude movement. For the next couple of weeks, I will attempt to answer the question “what is Negritude?” But even as I do this, so many questions come up alongside. One phrase that Cesaire uses stands out in my mind. He cautions against “de-niggerfying the nigger.” Unless you want to translate “negre” to mean Negro, then why is it acceptable to use the n-word in academia? Why is this important movement called the “niggerness” movement. Wouldn’t “blackness” (noiresse? noiceur? noiritude? Help Rethabile) have done the job? Why can Cesaire and Senghor make claims about taking back ownership of the n-word and rappers today cannot?

My second question is actually one I’ve been wanting to post on for a while now. The post in my mind has been called “Problematizing Essentialism.” According to the book I’ve just read, the 3 fathers of negritude used a very interesting approach in developing their concept. Here’s my (probably flawed) translation:

[they] attempted to define the nigger by that which was his own and was common to all niggers, and also by the counter-values of the white race. This led them to conceptualize a “nigger archetype,” profoundly distinct from the other racial archetypes, although sometimes identical.

So here’s my second question of the day: is there any such thing as “essentially nigger” or essentially black? After barely 2 years in the US, I have quickly come to realize that some things are considered “black” and others “white.” A black person who dresses preppy is immediately an “Oreo” or “Incog-Negro.” I still haven’t figured out the name for a white person who acts “ghetto.” I am not particularly dying to know. What I am dying to know is if there are things that are inherently black or inherently white. Is there value in classifying things this way? Why do we feel the need to do it?

The questions could continue. They do continue and so does my research. Now I want to know, is it possible to “de-niggerfy a nigger?” What are the implications?

13 Comments

  1. Interesting musings. I’m with you on the No.1 ladies detective agency. Made it thru the first one, but cannot bring myself to read the other installments. Found the story and plot…too darned simple. Something I would have been content to read at 10, not at 36. Won’t touch the negro discussion right now ’cause I’ve only just succeeded in “freeing” myself (suppressing consciousness) from that space for a quick minute.

  2. I wouldn’t want to interfere with your research and the answers you will find to your own questions. But I guess that in posting them here and now you’re inviting your readers to join your questioning. So, let me share some of the answers I’ve got from my own research on the Negritude movement a while back.
    First, I think that the answers to all these questions hinge on whether the n-word stands for Negro, or for Nigger. I must say that in my own research I never came across a description of Negritude as “Niggerness” and I suspect this may have a lot to do with the translations of the particular publications we read, or how we ourselves translate the original words written in French by the “founding fathers” of Negritude.
    In my recollection, they use the words Negre/Noir=Negro as the racial archetype equivalent to Caucasian, hence its acceptability in academia. In this sense, Negro/Noir has no pejorative or “denigrating” connotations: it’s used just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, for instance, have used it. In Portuguese, as in French, Negro/Negre/Noir is the acceptable term to refer to the so-called “negroid” race, whereas Preto=Black can have derogatory undertones and can be understood, depending on the context and intention of its use, as the equivalent to “Nigger”,which I believe was invented in the States to have exclusively racist connotations…
    From there, I found that the Negritude movement’s main claim regarding the “Negro Essence” is that, contrary to (still) prevailing stereotypes, the Negro is not a “lesser” human and by no means “less intelligent” than the Caucasian or any other race, s/he just has a different approach to understanding and conceptualising their surrounding universe. Hence Senghor’s famous phrase, which encapsulates much of the essence of Negritude: “The reason is Hellenic and the emotion is Noir/Negre/Negro”, by which he meant that the Negro rationality was founded on and derived from the human senses and its profound interaction with and dependence on nature, whereas the Caucasian one was primarily based on abstract (from nature) calculation…

    Finally, let me say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the No.1 Detective… probably because I read it while living in the Tlokweng area of Gaborone, where much of the story takes place…

  3. Koluki said some of what I wanted to say. I never knew nigger to be synonymous to Negro. I have heard Indians referred to as niggers by the English. When race was categorized the Indians were as categorized as Caucasians. It was meant as a derogatory term for black and brown people. Because to say Negro would have required effort and respect. Blacks were not worth it.
    For what it’s worth, nigger was not in any American dictionary when I was a child. Only recently when blacks called each other nigger, has it ever meant a term of endearment.

  4. Thanks for the responses. I suspected that negre would be better translated as negro as opposed to nigger. But I think the question that still remains for me is what “Negro” itself meant i.e was it the n-word of the era? Something to be cringed at or something worth reclaiming?

  5. Agree with Koluki and Hathor. Nigger and Negro aren’t the same. The origin of the word Negro is Latin and it just means Black, whereas Nigger…

    Besides, Negro is the academic equivalent of Caucasian or Asian. In other words, Nigger belongs to the same world as Honky and Chink. Unwanted words.

    The French do use “noir” to refer to the colour (une voiture noir = a black car), but even they use “negro” to refer to folks of African descent.

    About The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I agree that it’s a bit slow, but perhaps that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found that it depicted Botswana life marvellously.

  6. Here’s a poem by Senghor to illustrate his use of the word Noir/Noire:

    FEMME NOIR

    Femme nue, femme noire
    Vétue de ta couleur qui est vie, de ta forme qui est beauté
    J’ai grandi à ton ombre; la douceur de tes mains bandait mes yeux
    Et voilà qu’au coeur de l’Eté et de Midi,
    Je te découvre, Terre promise, du haut d’un haut col calciné
    Et ta beauté me foudroie en plein coeur, comme l’éclair d’un aigle

    Femme nue, femme obscure
    Fruit mûr à la chair ferme, sombres extases du vin noir, bouche qui fais
    lyrique ma bouche
    Savane aux horizons purs, savane qui frémis aux caresses ferventes du
    Vent d’Est
    Tamtam sculpté, tamtam tendu qui gronde sous les doigts du vainqueur
    Ta voix grave de contralto est le chant spirituel de l’Aimée

    Femme noire, femme obscure
    Huile que ne ride nul souffle, huile calme aux flancs de l’athlète, aux
    flancs des princes du Mali
    Gazelle aux attaches célestes, les perles sont étoiles sur la nuit de ta
    peau.

    Délices des jeux de l’Esprit, les reflets de l’or ronge ta peau qui se moire

    A l’ombre de ta chevelure, s’éclaire mon angoisse aux soleils prochains
    de tes yeux.

    Femme nue, femme noire
    Je chante ta beauté qui passe, forme que je fixe dans l’Eternel
    Avant que le destin jaloux ne te réduise en cendres pour nourrir les
    racines de la vie.

    Léopold Sédar Senghor, “Oeuvres Poétiques”

  7. Ciiku

    I just wanted to say that I loved No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I think it has a special appeal to anyone who has lived in Botswana because, as Rethabile said, it depicts some of Botswana life. I think also life in many parts of Africa, an older Africa, perhaps. I especially loved the character, Mma Ramotswe. No-one who’s lived in Africa can deny they know someone just like her. Read it as a “feel good” book. Although some have argued that the author could be viewed as a little patronizing, I felt none of that. I believe that he writes of a simplicity of life in some parts of Africa that is simply undeniable.

  8. “is it possible to “de-niggerfy a nigger?” What are the implications?”

    To de-niggerfy a nigger is to say that ‘hair could grow on one’s palms’, meaning to say a ‘de-niggerfied’ nigger will become white. It is easier to be ‘darkened’, than to ‘lighten’ up. Besides, no one has successfully changed the ‘foundative’ genes of the black man. Kindly note: a ‘nigga'(thats the right word) is always a ‘nigga’, dead or alive. In fact, it doesn’t matter if u’re black, asian, white, latino or whatever. If you feel you are ‘nigga’, then you are.

  9. Can anyone please explain the connexion between the n-word and the first page in “The No. 1 Ladies’ etective Agency”.
    Am I dumb, or what?

    Bosse Hammarström
    http://www.bossesblog.blogspot.com/

  10. Annie, if you haven’t already, take a look at Brent Edward’s The Practice of Diaspora. Especially in the intro and first chapter, he explains the problem of translation when moving from French to English and vice-versa, especially when it comes to terms like “black,” “negro,” “noir,” “nigger,” and “negre.

  11. Sokari

    Annie@ I say the same as Rethabile as negro in Spanish (Latin) means black which is quite different to “nigger”. As Hathor states i have heard the term “nigger” used to describe people form Arab speaking countries as well as Indians, Pakistanis and so on.

  12. Keguro, I have read parts of Edward’s piece and found it very helpful. I hope to get through all of it. Thanks for the tip.

    Bosse, I don’t recall suggesting any link between my two streams of thought. I write in a very stream of consciousness style.

    Sokari and Rethabile, the more I dig, the more I find that you’ve only given me part of the answer. French people today do not use the word ‘negre.’ In fact most people generally hesitate to use the word. Is it simply anachronistic or is it a derogatory term? I think I’m going to take a step back from this forum for a bit and re-formulate my questions. Research is hard:-(

  13. Sokari

    Annie@ understatement! I cannot speak for the French or their language. However I must say when I first arrived in Spain (not speaking more than 5 words) I did find it strange hearing this word “negro” used in general everyday speech to mean simply black as in colour. I still feel strange when I hear it or use it myself as a descriptive – it doesn’t flow easily from my tongue.

    A couple of days ago I was sitting on a bus minding my own business when a grandmother and her grandson got on the bus. The little guy was possibly 3/4 and he sat opposite me and kept holding his grans face and pointing to me saying “negro” “negro” – I kept a straight face more interested in the adult reaction than the childs words. She tried her best to ignore and that spoke loud for me. I tried to start a conversation about black with the kid but he was too young so we just chatted much to the visible annoyance of his gran.

    The Spanish derogatory term is to use the word “inmigrante” for people of colour or from the global south” as opposed to those from Europe. “inmigrante is a nasty word in Spanish – negro inmigrante is probably worse though I dont know that they use that term. Just the little kid saying “negro” and pointing was a bit disconcerting to say the least – coming from London anyway.

    I think your visit to Martinique will be a revelation in language and race:)