By Phillip B. Williams
“All my niggas in the whole wide world/made this song to make it all y’all turn/ for us/ this shit is for us”
Solange sings this in her song “F.U.B.U.” from her stunning third album A Seat at the Table. It is a song dedicated to not merely making room for Black people but claiming space that belonged to us in the first place: our art and therein our sense of self. But, in order for this to work, Solange is working with the precept that “Black people” is synonymous with the term “niggas,” leaving a potential gap that still keeps many of us from feeling comfortable enough to sit at the table she’s so generously laid.
The word “nigga” has in its etymology the word “nigger”, making it for many identical to a racist word that has its history written in the blood of Black people. Can we be two things at once? Yes, but it would have to be argued that there are two separate things that are present to begin with. I can’t help but think of W.E.B. Dubois’s “double-consciousness” when trying to find contrast between “nigga” and “nigger”. He states:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings […]”
But this “twoness” is usually described as a split caused by the direct interference of white ideologies in the construction and consideration of the Black self. To be American is seen as strange and violent in the eyes of many when the person claiming Americanness is Black.
What happens when one must decide to internalize a word, “nigga”, that can be considered either a direct or indirect interference by whiteness? What happens when one must consider living as both nigga and Black, having no way to reconcile the two?
If we lean to works of art in ways similar to how we lean to myths to help explain a phenomena, then an explanation of the history of “nigger” through metaphor could rightfully be considered useful. But “nigger” is already a metaphor, a stand-in for the realities of a twisted imagination that, having made of itself something irredeemably awful, must project that awfulness onto others or risk losing itself entirely. The issue here is that the Black self is already utterly lost and there is nothing projecting “nigger” can do to recover such a loss.
Taking that into consideration, poetry, the act of transforming language rather than translating, could be the subtle charge that ignites an already-metaphor with more questions as opposed to answers. After all, the danger in the word is that it is used as an answer to a set of questions that remain hidden or at least obfuscated: “Who are you?” “What are you?” “Whose are you?” “How do you know?”
There are books written about this word; scholars, comedians, and artists have discovered for themselves a yay or nay relationship with “nigger” and its variation “nigga”. My point here, however, is to find a point—meaning the tip—with which to puncture my own confusions about this word.
This is more personal, and truly a gateway to a reading of a poem that has caused disagreement among Black readers and for obvious reasons. That poem, “Cross Country” by Roger Reeves, goes as follows:
When I ran, it rained niggers. Early in October—
the first creases of autumn, a flag-weary sky
in which yellow birds, in flight, slip through the breast
bone of God and tear at the coarse threads
that keep the morning knit tightly around his heart.
What was it that they sang about the light, their tongues,
the thistles they pluck from the bitter bark
of an all-thorn then thrust into the breast of whatever god
or good animal requires eating, a good piercing?
These blonde bodies thrashing about above me
were death’s idea of the morning passing. Here,
below this golden altar, the making and unmaking
of my body. The kettle-clank and souring sumac
of a man yelling at the light slipping in and out
of my mouth. What name must I carry above the dust
of this field? Bruised ear, blank body, purple tongue, bloody
God bleeding do you hear me? Deer piss and poison ivy
made pungent by the dew and morning sun rising, do you hear me?
When I ran, it rained niggers. In a ditch along the road,
a pair of wild boars, slain and laid tusk to tail, point,
as if required, in two directions at once, toward my body
pressing the last bits of a hunter’s moon into the tar
of this road and away from the meadow-red light coming
up through the chaff rising above this hectored field
and the man yelling. Nigger in the cicadas tuning up
to tear the morning into tatters. Nigger in the squawk
and clatter of a hen complaining of a hand reaching
below her bottom and removing the warm work
of a cold night. Nigger in the reeds covering
the muck of a beaver’s hard birth. Nigger in the blue
hour of a field once wet with the breath of a lone horse
cracking along its flanks. Nigger in the fog lifting
from this field and the still-birth it reveals. Nigger
in the running. In the bog at the end of this road.
In the war and in between the wars. Nigger
in the pink salt and eyelashes of a woman I love.
Her mouth pulling water from behind my knee.
Pulling, pulling, pulling. Think: nigger is the god
of our brief salvation. Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon.
Nigger in the twilight that is no longer a twilight
but a black creek fumbling along the spine of a boy
who is running through a city that is running out of water.
Even the lions have left for the mountains.
This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken. Auto-tune this if you must.
Cher will be singing in the brush of static from the attic
radio, believing in love after love or life after love
despite the impure thoughts of evening, despite
the rain soaking the red head of a red bird
now dead in a puddle that refuses to reflect the moon.
“I don’t like that word and never use it. It makes me ill to even hear it. Seriously.”
These are the sentiments of many of my friends when I talk about how much I actually enjoy “Cross Country” as a poem.
I press my friends harder. I ask the question, “What about the word hurts so much?” I make sure my vocal lilts sound sincere to reflect that this is not a trick question.
“I mean, historically, people in my family are old enough to recall when that word was used paired with fire hoses and police batons. My grandmother couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that word.”
By “couldn’t go anywhere” my friend means it in the literal sense: segregation in the 1940s-50s. For some people with octogenarians in their family tree, the 1930s prove to be an even more distant but still difficult memory.
Generationally speaking, I understand. When my grandfather, Joe Francisco, was a middle-aged man, he caught wind of some white boys in letterman jackets driving around causing trouble for the Black residents. This was in Gary, Indiana. Up till the late 90s, his house and neighboring houses were surrounded by woods. To protect himself and his family, he took to sitting on the porch with a shotgun. Upon seeing him, those boys sped right by, leaving intact what they otherwise would have destroyed with their bats and America-fuck-yeah attitudes. That kind of freedom to destroy was always given to white people at the time, though it had only been less than 200 years when white people destroying property was last a criminal offense, treason even.
But, of course, the Revolutionary War and later the Civil War were more about white people destroying other white people’s property, which included tea and the lives of enslaved Africans, later to call themselves Negroes, then Blacks, then African Americans, then Blacks and African Americans and niggas.
What’s in a name? It matters what you call a thing, to quote poet Solmaz Sharif. Now, when the lives and property of Black people are upended it is called gentrification, urban uplift, “No Child Left Behind”, redlining, stop-and-frisk etc., and the victims of these incidents are not called niggers, rather Blacks, thugs, welfare queens, criminals, African Americans, rioters etc.
It’s not so much that “nigger” is the cruelest name for Black people but that “Black” is now code for “nigger”—has replaced it even. What, now, is the difference?
After Reagan’s presidency, dog-whistle words hold a danger that is ever-morphing to fit the politics of white racism into the highly censored world of politeness in lieu of policy. “Nigger” isn’t the etymological forefather of “thug,” but it is the psychological backdrop for all of those aforementioned words currently used in popular media to pathologize Black people.
“People who are my age [mid 40s], hearing that word means something different for people who are ten years younger and ten years younger than that,” another friend told me, who could not even finish reading the poem after I enthusiastically shared it from the issue of the literary journal Third Coast in which it first appeared. The poem appears later in Reeves’s prize-winning collection, King Me. “No,” I remember the head shake and the passing of the journal back. “Maybe I just don’t get it,” my friend said, gently.
An old saying: “I love Black folks, but I hate niggers!”
Who defines? Who is defined? In whose eyes does that difference play out to help or hinder? Isn’t having the ability to tell the difference, assuming there is one, an unveiling of one’s own concentrated effort to appeal to whiteness? What happens when your Black is somebody else’s nigger? What, then, do we do with your body?
There’s a habit of scholars and artists to refer to Black people as Black bodies well before we are made into bodies, corpsed by a corrupt justice system and by our own hands as an aftermath of living in corruption and with a dearth of resources.
It does matter what we call a thing if we have power in that naming. The kind of power and how we express that power also makes a difference. It also matters to name the ones who name and who make these names possible.
It is one thing to say “Black bodies,” a habit I must confess to indulging, another thing entirely to say “Black people murdered unjustly.” It is one thing to say “Don’t say nigger…” and another entirely to say, instead, “How is Black any different than nigger, considering our times?” and really think about those who make Black lives into Black bodies.
I want to talk about the poem in snapshots of observation. This is a list of what the poem brought to my mind:
- Nigger as being remade, reconfigured, made unoppressive via inscribing nigger on nature, particularly what is considered ugly about nature but is actually beautiful. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
- Nigger as oppression, as everywhere and thus inescapable
- Nigger being everything and therefore nothing, not even the speaker, not even the reader
- Nigger as a creation of the white imagination across the country that they cannot escape (re: Baldwin)
- Or nigger as the country itself and everything in it, nigger not being what nature is called but what nature calls, what America calls, the speaker
- “Nigger/in the running” slavery and too the idea that escape from the word is impossible. The speaker is the label as too are his very actions. His living takes on the slur—as the work slurs in and out of identities and images.
- Nigger as verbed, as its own form of “to be,” as in “[I] nigger in the running.” The act of running in the poem runs through a catalogue where nigger is both mirror for the speaker and independent objects. How do you nigger without meaning to or knowing you are niggering?
- Twilight as black creek and “Pulling water from behind my knee” – another mirror? Slave ship? Mississippi River? Body as vessel for nigger? Speaker as ghost or survivor of slave trade? What does it mean to rain “niggers”? Who died in the Atlantic? From whose mouth did the word, cadenced with spit, fly? Water always returns to its source. How do we define home?
- Auto-tune as the softening of the word. Illusion of music. Distortion of the speaker (makes it more palatable?) in order to erase the poem and erase the speaker. Un-body the voice
- “Running out of water” ways to escape (“Wade in the…”)? Needing the element that made possible the location of racism affecting the speaker, an Anti-Middle Passage?
- “This is America speaking in translation” from what to what? Translation as movement and reiteration of one language into another. Whose tongue is in my mouth?
- “In the wars and in between the wars”—Say their names.
- “Nigger in the fog lifting/ from this field and the still-birth it reveals”. Again, the word obfuscates then leaves a trail of disappointment behind as it is unable to birth anything.
This is just the beginning of my exploration of this poem. Truthfully, it’s hard to consider what beauty could possibly be found in what hurts. But I argue that the word here is not arbitrarily thrown around anymore than the preponderance of trees—what wind does with their branches—in so many poems.
I have no connection to “nigga” that is positive, nor do I trust the wobbly, amorphous quality of it. Its meaning, like so many other words with historically amplified connotations, is always in contention and I feel as though I never know what I’m being called when I’m called that, regardless of cadence, environment, or the people using it.
To some, it is a strange incoherence to find a Black man in the 21st century who, regardless of context, has a heart-drop-into-his-stomach moment every time he is called “nigga”, which is supposed to be a sign of brotherhood, a way of saying “I see you when no one else does.” The lack of “er” makes a difference, I’ve been told.
Call the source of my bewilderment a kind of socialization: I’m sure being raised in a household where the word was both used and vilified, often times in the same conversation, didn’t help at all. I was also raised hearing a substantial amount of rap, so the conundrum of “Bitch ass nigga” with “Where my real niggas” sits with me today as a sort of unexplored paradox.
Hearing Black men who portrayed themselves as heterosexual use nigga to lovingly describe their heterosexual homeboys in parties, barber shops, bars, houses, on street corners while reserving other words to describe gay Black men let me know there were limitations, to say the least.
Despite the above, I have zero issue with Black people using the word and zero tolerance for anyone else using it. There is something in “nigga”: a blade, a prayer, a plea, an attempt that will always intrigue and baffle me. Some people I love and respect have used that word to describe their love for me, taxing as that is, even when I ask them very kindly not to. There exists a kind of loyalty to language that trumps our friendship. Is it loving me or loving the word that turns them on the most? Am I being respectable by not wanting to be called that any more than I would want to be called a faggot?
But that, too, is interesting. Can a nigga be a faggot? What about Black men who are staunchly against saying nigga but have no issues with performing misogynoir? It’s one of those situations where we define “nigger” and “nigga” as strictly heterosexual male and therefore the protection must be heightened. “Forget those hoes and bitches. We must protect the niggas!” and “Don’t call me yo nigga, fag!” Fascinating.
If we can return to Reeves’s poem, one concern I heard was that Reeves would read this poem in front of white people. “He shouldn’t do that!” the complaints went. The intense stench of respectability loomed in the air as though using “nigger” in front of white people somehow made Black people look bad?
The truest humiliation is in believing anything we do in front of white people has the possibility of making us look good to them and needs to carry that burden. It was Baldwin who said that the word belongs to white people. So, what is the problem with reading to a crowd of white people something sourced from their own historical imaginations? Again, to quote Baldwin, “You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”
“White people will stop saying nigger when Black people stop calling each other that,” is symptomatic of the stupidity that racism encourages, so illogical, ahistorical, and childish is the premise. It’s not like those white people who feel this way are going around calling us anything else we call ourselves, such as king and queen, beautiful and genius. They’d rather jump through all levels of burning hoops just to maintain what they think is some level of control over the possibilities of hurting another group of people in the name of free speech.
They want options, notwithstanding that they are the original niggers and should, before calling anyone else that, practice using the word as a descriptor for themselves.
And indeed they do but under the guise of singing song lyrics. There are plenty of times I hear white students who do not believe that sound can travel through walls rapping to their favorite song, all “niggas” and whiteness intact. If this “shit is for us,” and I do believe it is meant to be or can be deftly argued as such, what good does it do when with a slide of a credit card or the press of a play button anyone can have niggas in their mouth?
“Don’t be mad if you can’t sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world/For us/This shit is for us,” sings Solange.
Nigga is both status quo and subversive, its simultaneity in dual positions dependent on the person who speaks it. The locus of “nigga” in the active imagination transforms the span of the word in ways where a simple acknowledgment of subjectivity does not satisfy.
What is required is complicated: a knowledge of the historical configurations of one’s imagination, one’s ability to (re)imagine, that reveal how and if pain can be removed. The duality then rests on the perception of whether or not other people using the word is acquiescence to lexical violence or defiance against it vis-à-vis reformatting the DNA of the word. One must be telepathic to know this beforehand.
The lack of potential to find a truce, perhaps, lies solely in the inability to seam the ruptures between ideologies. One ideology says that it is impossible to revise nigger, offensive even as it erases the experiences of those who have suffered beneath the heel of the word; the other says that revision is reclaiming the agency and therefore the lives of Black people, a stance built on the politics of resurrection. However, what neither ideology recognizes is the inactivity of the word alone, and how nigger was and is only as violent as the operative violence in which nigger finds its home.
The word itself is benign, neither an incantation for destruction nor a war cry against it. “Nigger” requires around it a cellular wall of measurable activity that gives it definition. If “nigga” is a revision of the word “nigger” then too the actions around “nigga” must be revised lest it fall into the same relentless viscosity of hatred as its predecessor.
What troubles all of that is the echo of Baldwin: if this word truly belongs to white people as a projection of their own insecurities, then aren’t both ideologies worried about and playing with a broken toy for which there are no instructions? Have we underestimated the prison of the word by overestimating its power?
Excited about getting a poem accepted by a top journal, a beautiful friend of mine greeted me in all caps online: “NIGGA!”
I smiled. I knew what he meant. I read the “a” ending erase the “er” and knew that a transaction had begun. But my heart, truth-teller it always wants to be, still dropped. How does one clean blood from a word? I’m still on the fence, which makes me either a coward or a diplomat, or something altogether different. But, like Reeves, I want space to explore and question and dissect the language I take for granted, to explode all of its possibilities regardless of the boon and burden the aftermath of such exploration can have.
To finger wag at my own people who use the word is dismissive. There are so many of us who criticize those who do say “nigga” without critiquing how in our own lives we perform the supposed shackles of “nigger” with our minds in lieu of our tongues.
Though I do wonder about the names of things and welcome the day when by my own name I can be called and that calling be enough.
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the Co-editor in Chief of the online journal Vinyl, was the Emory University Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry for 2015-2016, and will be visiting professor in English at Bennington College for 2016-2017.