Sunday 31st August, 2008

Denzil Mohammed
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Emancipating the word

“You’ll never know what it’s like to be black,” said my former editor.

And she was right.

“Just the same way some people will never know what it’s like to be a man, or Indian, or gay, or whatever.”

Ah, was she referring to me?

Four years ago, I was barred from using a particular, nigrescent word no matter the reason. It was a rule I just had to accept.

People wrote in, you see. People niggled at the “problem:” My usage was uncontrolled, or so it appeared—uninhibited, profuse. And they weren’t niggardly with their disparaging comments about me, either.

Despite the millions we spend on celebrating something called emancipation, people weren’t emancipated from a mere word. It was just a bad word, which was never to be used. It was, as one reader put it, a “very offensive term.”

Two spellings, same word?

But, maybe, it was also because of who was using it. My name was Mohammed and I had never been black before. So who was I to be using this word so loosely, no matter how much function I vested in it or how constructive its usage?

Since then, I haven’t seen the word appear in this paper.

Except once, a few weeks ago, when a features writer wrote a whole big long article on it in much the same way I had four years ago. Except she got to spell it out—in big letters, too. And she was black.

Well, she happened to be black. I’m not saying the decision of this newspaper to give the word imprimatur was based on that attribute. But I am almost certain the backlash, if any, was not nearly as brutal against the message as it was against the writer, or as it was against me.

And that’s part of the problem, as she intimated in her article: the consensus has long been that some people can say it while others can’t.

It’s something with which I could never reconcile; it’s tantamount to cant. When it is used in constructive discussion, how could it be okay among some but not among others? The word remains the same, right?

No, not according to her article.

In differentiating different usages, the writer proffered two variants of semantics and spellings: one, a modern-day slang popularised by rap singers and, the other, the traditional spelling. The former implied camaraderie, a shared experience and a claim to a reclaiming of the word by those formerly oppressed by it. The other was a slur.

One scholar she interviewed, however, repudiated this “new meaning;” the word is the same word no matter how or when it is used or spelt.

Well, that goes against everything that is natural. According to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a word does not inherently have meaning. People find words to identify objects and concepts and meaning is attributed to them. Thus, people invest words with meaning, and meaning is arbitrary and constantly in flux.

We don’t even realise we do it. Neologisms abound in Trini parlance (ent, hototo, lay lay) and we give words unique meanings (ignorant, miserable, boldface).

The word itself didn’t do that. History itself didn’t do that. People did that. Through consistent working and weaving and warping over time, people make words their own. And since reality itself is textual—since we can only understand and experience the world through language—we can revolutionise our social reality by endowing this textuality with richer substance.

Precedence over others

Granted, meanings are interfered with by their own history, with which the scholar was so obsessed. Obsolete senses retain a ghostly presence within present-day usage, especially with slurs. So it is a pressing problem in the post-colonial paradigm; we are inured to be defensive and obstreperous when it comes to certain “bad words.”

But it seems some words are not to be owned or claimed but forever to be shunned—because we refuse to change the meaning with which others have invested them. We allow history to repeat itself over and over again.

Because, frankly, the word has become so obscenely politicised that people take offence to it no matter how it is used.

It like those “yuh muddah” jokes back in the day. A decade ago, if someone wanted to insult you and give you some kind of “yuh muddah so fat she...” abuse, it didn’t matter how waif-life your mother actually was, that crossed the line, period, and was deserving of a cuff rather than comment. It was mindless, mechanical and meaningless.

And, out of all the pejorative terms and racial and other slurs, this one seems to take precedence. How come it’s not okay to print that word but it’s okay to print kike, or coolie, or faggot, or dyke, when, while their etymologies are different, they can all be used in the same way with the same motivation: to demean, to dehumanise, to defeat?

The only way people—all people—can truly be emancipated from the shackles of history is to face it head on and allow time to effect the changing texture of our realities. Release the word and discuss it and thrash it about so we can overcome it or change it or reclaim it.

After all, if emancipation is about release from oppression, then why is this word still suffering suppression? Let’s test the theory: the word I’m referring to is n-----.


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