Mwatabu S Okantah
The N-Word, or, Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
"The Negro in America must choose between
recovering and becoming fully conscious of
his own identity or being washed down the
plumbless drains of history as a mindless freak
What historical forces and factors have transpired, whereby descendants of a kidnapped people that tenaciously clung to being Africans in a new and strange world, have become a still wandering and too often lost people in search of a proper name? What is the relationship between what we call ourselves and how we see ourselves? Malcolm X once said, "They called me Nigger so much, I thought it was my name." Names. What is in a name? An African proverb says, "It is not what you call me, it is what I answer to." I frequently ask my students, "Do you think there will ever be a time when black people stop calling ourselves Niggers?" I always find it disheartening, when so many of them answer with a resounding, "No."
A new generation claims this word today. Many of them believe, if they change the spelling, they can somehow change the game. It is true that during the slavery period, enslaved Africans transformed this pernicious label into a deflective term of endearment. The fact remains, however, "Nigger," as concept, is a figment of the European/White-American imagination. Its actual meaning and intent say more about white people's inner fears and secret desires, than it can ever really say about black people. It is a part of the legacy of slavery that deserves an annual fire cremation ritual. The degree to which so many of us are still locked into our own belief in it, reflects a condition Dr. Joy DeGruy has diagnosed as, "Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome." Put another way, we have developed observable symptoms from the sickness of white supremacy.
Europeans did not bring "slaves" from Africa. They brought Africans--Yoruba, Igbo, Mende, Fon, Tikar, Wolof, Mandinka and more; kidnapped Africans. Those Africans did not even describe themselves as "black." They defined themselves in relation to the worldview and the cultural traditions of their tribal [national] origins. They did not get off those slave ships saying, "What's up, my Nigga?" The first Africans to hear that word, did not know they were supposed to respond to it. They did learn to respond to the crack of the whip. Like Pavlov's dogs, when they answered to that epithet, they did not get hit. People ask, "What's in a name?" Slave masters renamed their "slaves," precisely because they understood the inherent value of African names. A people that does not know their proper name, is a people forever susceptible to being easily defined and controlled.
Kidnapped Africans knew their names, and, they knew the sense of identity and heritage contained in those names. To be sure, I grew up using the N-word just like most of my friends. My parents used it. It resonated all around us. It was a part of the way of life that raised us. I did not know, then, that we did not know better. Rather than rail against its rampant use in today's pop culture, I think we need to focus more attention on why the people that rule the entertainment industry have such a compelling and vested interest in keeping the N-word alive? When I began to learn the real story of the African experience in the Americas, it made it easier to understand and to place that horrible chapter from the book of the black past in the past.
Visiting the dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast Castles in Ghana, and walking through what are no longer Doors of No Return, freed me to rethink the terms we use to describe ourselves as people of African descent. On a recent visit to Assin Manso, a location where Africans, after being force-marched to the coast, received their "last bath," the tour guide quoted Kwame Nkrumah, "We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us." We are descended from enslaved Ancestors that dared to dream one day we would be free.
To continue using the N-word speaks to the obscene nature of our present mental enslavement. Or, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them." Are we the "Nigger" the white man created, or, will we rediscover and finally become the real people we were born into this world to be?