the power of words
by J.C Phillips
There is a short story I have heard of. Rather than protest the displaying of the confederate battle flag with marches and boycotts, Black folks decide to fly the flag at their homes, wear it on clothing and put it on their automobiles. Once Black people claimed it as their own, White folks wouldn’t want anything else to do with it or so the theory goes. Taking ownership of it would deny the symbol of its power.
As intrigued as I am by the story, I do not recall the author’s name nor do I imagine such a strategy would result in triumph. In fact, I am fairly certain such a tactic would backfire horribly resulting in the display of more confederate flags than any of us could stomach. Moreover, I can not imagine why on earth I would want to claim ownership of a symbol that represents my dehumanization?
The story bears some similarities to the ongoing debate about the Black community’s ownership of the word Nigger or what we now refer to as the “N-word.” Our claim to the word has expanded its use and even taken it international.
A friend of mine tells of being in Bosnia and being greeted on the street by a young Slavic boy with a hearty, “what up my nigger!” Baggy pants and Coca Cola are not the only things imported from America.
There is of course the claim that the Black use of the word is different – We say Nigga instead of Nigger. Admittedly, there is a difference between the word as used by the likes of Richard Pryor and what we heard pour forth from Michael Richards during his Laugh Factory break down a few weeks ago. However, words have meaning. Richards gave us a taste of the word’s true gruesomeness. The actor didn’t just use the word he breathed life into it. Understand that Richards’ tirade would have been as foul without the word. A description of lynching and pitch forks in various parts of the human anatomy is offensive and, as it happens, exactly what the word itself represents. Thanks to modern technology the word showed itself in the stark light of morning and we were repulsed. That is as it should be. We are fooling ourselves if we believe the artistry of Pryor or the inanities of the new minstrels (or the addition of an “a” rather than an “er”) somehow transform the word’s meaning.
Another tape making the internet rounds features two Black boys brawling in their backyard as their families egg them on. The use of the word on that tape reeks with contempt and subjection. It is as vulgar as Richards Laugh Factory rant. More so.
So, why we would claim a word that’s sole purpose was to tell black people that we weren’t fit to walk the earth? And then use it as a term of affection for one another no less?
There is method to paintings that hang on our walls that comment on the history of racism in America. I understand the public and private collections of Jim Crow memorabilia. Sitting on the board of a museum I have held such objects in my hand and voted for their accession into the museum’s collection. These items provide a record of the African journey in America. But unlike the sheet music, comic books and other relics that come through the museum, ownership of “Nigger” does not move us forward. It is not simply a reminder of the past it is an anchor to the past.
Those things we keep in our cultural bank accounts pay dividends and eventually define us. Let us consider seriously if we want to store up cultural capital that declares our self contempt to the world and then gives them permission to agree.