Nigga Please

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By Temwani Nyama

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 1 of VARSITY News.

 

A reflective account on the problematics of language and the of assumption positionality

 

I recently read C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins for one of my courses which made me think about positionality and social interactions a little differently than I did before. C.L.R. James’ work is a reflexive narration of the lives of the enslaved at San Domingo and the associated Haitian Revolution of the late 18th century. In his 1938 work, James not only takes a jab at the Eurocentric archive but in many ways his unique narration calls a lot of people out on ways that they could be problematic that they never thought about before. Personally, I was called out on the ways that my social interactions like my use of language (particularly the use of the word ‘nigga’*) could be problematised.

C.L.R. James makes numerous allusions to how 18th-19th century European culture constructed reality according to the culture of taste and the lifestyle of convenience that, put rhetorically, was ‘built on the backs of the enslaved’. And so, I started to think about modernity as this blown up version of the culture of convenience and taste. I thought about how my position as a participant in modernity could make me complicit in the acts of violence that constructed it, such as colonisation, slavery, industrialism and the imposition of hegemonic culture. That’s where I started to problematise my use of language.

I couldn’t claim that it was okay for me to use the word ‘nigga’ just because I am black. Reason being, my positionality isn’t the same as was the positionality of the enslaved years ago. Regardless of the similarity of our racial identity, our positioning in modernity is different: the black enslaved was a constructor of culture of convenience whereas the black contemporary is a complicit participant. My experience of violence as a black person isn’t the same as the experience of violence of a black enslaved person. Therefore, my experience and use of the word ‘nigga’ would also not be the same.

And so, what of my claim that my use of the word ‘nigga’ was “a way of being decolonial through subverting its negative connotation”? I completely wrote it off as disingenuous. What consolidated this new way of thinking about decoloniality is that I didn’t do the same “linguistic subversion” for charged words like ‘native’, ‘indigenous’, ‘tribe’ or even the ‘k-word’. I had made sure that the words I had claimed to have made positive were ones I was spatially desensitised to—ones that weren’t particularly used as instruments of violence against the black enslaved in Africa. A large portion of contemporary decolonialism is the painful confrontation of past experiences of disruption. And it is works like that of The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James that make us question that if an act of decolonisation doesn’t in some ways engage with a disruption and violence particular to it, is it genuine?

 

* The word “nigga” was used instead of “the ‘n-word’” for intentions of the author to make the article come off as a reflective account and not a complete realisation of their new epistemology.

 

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