never know what its like to be black, said my
And she was right.
the same way some people will never know what its 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 appeareduninhibited,
profuse. And they werent niggardly with their disparaging
comments about me, either.
Despite the millions we spend on celebrating something called
emancipation, people werent 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 havent 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 outin big
letters, too. And she was black.
Well, she happened to be black. Im 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 thats part of the problem, as she intimated in her
article: the consensus has long been that some people can
say it while others cant.
Its something with which I could never reconcile; its
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 dont 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 didnt do that. History itself didnt
do that. People did that. Through consistent working and weaving
and warping over time, people make words their own. And since
reality itself is textualsince we can only understand
and experience the world through languagewe can revolutionise
our social reality by endowing this textuality with richer
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 shunnedbecause 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
didnt 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 its
not okay to print that word but its 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 peopleall peoplecan 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? Lets
test the theory: the word Im referring to is n-----.