Friday, January 4, 2013

A Nigger Unchained: Django

I've decided to start off my first post for 2013 with a bang.  What started out as just going out to watch a movie on Boxing Day, turned into an blog post idea about the contentious n-word - the nigger.

Looking forward to any thoughts on this topic.

A Nigger Unchained: Django

Colonialism…has always claimed that the “nigger” was a savage, not an Angolan or a Nigerian, but a “nigger”. 
Frantz Fanon, 1963[1]

All the big hoopla around Quentin Tarantino’s instant classic, Django Unchained, starring the angry runaway field nigger (Jamie Foxx), the brainwashed house nigger (Samuel L. Jackson), the bloodthirsty nigger-hater (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the nigger Jezebel (Kerry Washington), may not come from the movie’s cinematic and historical wizardry, but because of the insecurity and racism of an overwhelmingly ignorant White audience.  Does my use of the word “nigger” upset an academic audience conflicted and overwhelmingly influenced by an opaque historical lens that applies our twenty-first century views and beliefs on past events?  Some may argue that this is an unfair, and even racist, categorization of White social norms and political correctness; you can even argue that since 1850 (Django was set in 1858) the picayune and pejorative identity of the “nigger” has evolved to Negro, to Coloured, to Black, to African-American, and now to a cornucopia of hyphenated and non-hyphenated self-identifiers.

             This article is not intended to be a movie review, nor is it designed to persuade the reader into believing that I plan on assuaging the insidious nature of the word “nigger”; albeit historical and reclaimed by many in the Black community across the United States as a term of endearment, I strongly believe that there is no place in society for descriptors rooted in such violence, destruction, and hatred.  This article intends to explore the “touchy” subject of the roots of Black identity, Blackness, and the question of what a “nigger” really is in American society since the mid-nineteenth century.  I say, “touchy” since this is a highly contentious and ongoing debate.  I do not contend to be an authority on the subject; however, I do intend to provide a syncretic mix of how the past continues to influence the present in American society.  For some, a nigger is no more than a six-letter word used in the Black community; there are many who believe that calling a fellow Black man or woman a “nigga” is no different than addressing him or her as “brother” or “sister”.  This use has been debated throughout the scholarship and popular culture, most notably when it comes to hip-hop and rap music.  If Jay-Z, one of the most successful Black crossover rap artists, is able to sell millions of albums – and one can argue a large group of sales going to White suburbanites – by throwing around “nigga” in most of his lyrics (a smash hit for 2012 was his collaboration with Kanye West for the song “Niggas in Paris”), is it okay for Johhny McHale from Rhode Island to call his sixth grade classmate Eli Winkowski his “ride or die nigga”?  It may sound facetious, however, where does one draw the boundary between imitation as a form of flattery and appreciation as opposed to an excuse to vent deep seeded racialized beliefs through discriminatory and hateful language?  And does it remove the term of “endearment” qualities from Blacks that have fought for hundreds of years to neutralize its destructive etymology?  

This line of thought intrigued me as I watched the overall historically accurate Django Unchained.  As a historian I wondered if most of the audience members understood that while it was a fictitious narrative, the context and brutality of slavery was real.  As a historian I wondered if at least half of the people leaving the theatre would decide to scour the internet – or at least Wikipedia – to learn a little more about the Antebellum South and the institution of slavery.  As a historian I wondered if people in the theatre actually believed that Tarantino “created” this story when Frederick Douglass and many other Freed slaves wrote their narratives in the mid to late nineteenth century?  As a Black man I wondered if people really understood that those niggers were my ancestors and that Broomhilda was my great-great-great grandmother; the Mandigo fighters were my nineteenth century brothers; and Django was my long lost father that I never knew.  Did they really think that?  I doubt it.  I am not so naïve to think that movie watching is no more than a passive exercise and that most people just want to see a Tarantino splatter fest like the Kill Bill series.  I do not believe that every paying moviegoer is obligated with the social responsibility to “understand” the message; whether we like it or not, cinema is not real life.  However, when confronted with a fictitious, or real, topic or issue that makes us uncomfortable, unnerved, or question our own beliefs, I think we must ask the question, “why”.  Why did it make the White lady in the row in front of me cringe when Whites called Blacks “niggers” in the movie?  Why did she cringe even though the word was used so much that you thought there was some kind of tally amongst the cast members with the winner getting a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup and a box of Uncle Ben’s rice?  Better yet, why would some people find it offensive when during slavery the common reference of an African-American was to call him or her a nigger?  The movie raised several questions about what is socially acceptable in American society and the boundaries of political correctness.  While I applaud the progress and the continued dialogue on race and racialization in the United States, particularly since the post-War Civil Rights Movement, with the proliferation of social media, questions remain about the pejorative re-appropriation of the word “nigger”.  Better yet, similar to the coward-like autonomy of the Ku Klux Klan’s white hooded robes as they burned crosses and lynched law-abiding fathers and sons, social media has created a new avenue for the neo-racist hiding behind modern technology.  Once confronted with Django’s visual evidence of the brutally violent roots of their ignorance in the darkness of a movie theatre, neo-racist can no longer justify their racism as benign or sans malice as they hide behind 140 characters on Twitter.

What is most troubling is that most neo-racists do not even understand the word “nigger”, nor do they understand the historical and social complexity of Black identity.  They may know that it is a “bad word” to call Black people, but they do not understand why.  What is a Negro?  What is a Black person?  What is a nigger?  One cannot simply reply that a nigger is a Black person.  If that was the case, why would anyone be offended while watching Django?  Why would radio stations blank out “nigger” from of all A$AP Rocky’s or Drake’s songs?  Some argue that there is no other two syllable word in American history that embodies so much hate.  Others argue that the word has become the common pejorative epithet for the denigration of the Black Self and the African-American community.  There is nothing or no one lower than a nigger; to be labeled a nigger is to be seen as non-existent and worthless.  If its etymology was not based on the racialization of dark-skinned peoples of African descent, I would believe that “nigger” would not have survived its diachronic and transgenerational existence.  However, similar to Pierre Vallieres, leader of the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) niggerfication of the Quebecois in his 1968 book, White Niggers of America, a nigger is not confined to or always represented by one’s phenotypic and ideological Blackness.  The problem is that historically and socially, one’s black skin colour was, and is, the ultimate qualifier for his or her codification as a “nigger”.  This idea that you had to be Black to be a nigger, and that only Blacks can be niggers, facilitated the nihilistic structure of external and internal Black hate that is rooted in American society up until this present-day.  To be classified a nigger is to be subjugated to an ideological subaltern underclass in American society; it is an unfortunate reality that has not changed since the end of the Civil War.  

The “nigger” is a diachronic parasite; it is a historical cancer that survived the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the election and re-election of the first African-American President of the United States.  It is an insidious lexicon leech that continues to suck the blood of the integrity of individual rights and American “freedoms”.  It is a stain on the socio-economic growth of the United States and why equality remains only a dream and façade for those that built the nation.  One of the greatest minds, Black or White, of twentieth century America, Malcolm X, spoke on this paradox of progress for Blacks in the 1960s in his autobiography.[2]  In arguably one of the most telling revelations of the Black condition in the one hundred years since the Civil War and Emancipation, Malcolm X wrote how the “nigger” codification superseded all African-American achievements.  In an early 1960s exchange with a “token-integrated” Black Associate Professor, one in which he said, “he got me so mad I couldn’t see straight,” Malcolm X asked one of the most poignant self-reflective questions any high achieving Black American has asked him or herself at some point in their personal lives and professional careers.  From The Autobiography of Malcolm X:

He was ranting about what a “divisive demagogue” and what a “reverse racist” I was.  I was racking my head, to spear that fool; finally I held up my hand, and he stopped.  “Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s?”  He said something like, “I believe that I happen not to be aware of that” – you know, one of these ultra-proper-talking Negroes.  And I laid the word down on him, loud: “Nigger!”[3]

It must be disheartening to know that despite all of your academic and professional achievements; your awards and accolades; the car you drive and the house you park it in front of; and the size of your bank account, you will always be defined by the colour of your skin.  Malcolm X did not mean to chastise a fellow Negro brother; however, he wanted to let him know the reality of race and racialization in twentieth century America.  The Double Consciousness that W.E.B. Dubois speaks of in his turn of the twentieth century literary and cultural gem, The Souls of Black Folks, forever contextualizes the achievements of African-Americans within the racialized confines of their marginalized Black sense of Self and White negrophobia.  Building on Dubois’ monumental theory, Malcolm X has shown that White racists will never see a Black man or woman as their equal, irrespective of their socio-economic status in life.  The Mudsill Theory established during slavery – whereby Whites believed that no matter their depressed condition in life, they were always to believe they were better than the most uppity “token-integrated” Black – was another ideological paradox of hypocrisy that survived socio-cultural transformation in the United States since 1850 to the new millennium.  You will always be that “Black” doctor, or that “African-American” lawyer, or even that “nigger” president.

            The election, and more importantly the re-election, of Barack (Hussein) Obama supposedly ushered in a new era of a “post-racial” America.  Can we really say how much has changed since Malcolm X shouted to the Black “token” Ph.D. in the 1960s when in 2012 people still believe that “no NIGGER should lead this country”?[4]  What about when “Americans” took to Twitter on December 16th, 2012 to admonish the “stupid sand nigger” President when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) decided to cut from a football game to show Obama’s speech from the Newton memorial service for the twenty children and six adults tragically and senselessly gun-downed (by a White man) at Sandy Hook Elementary school?[5]  I put “Americans” in quotation marks because how could any “true” American take to a public forum and call the most powerful man in the world one of the most emasculating, denigrating, and hate filled words in the English language?  Yes, social media has blurred the boundaries of accountability, common decency, and common sense; however, there is an omnipresent and ominous relationship between “nigger” and “Obama” in the digital world.  And where do these thoughts come from?  People that live, breath, work, and interact in the real world.  I wonder what Malcolm X would have said if he was alive to see that the most powerful man in the world – the President of the United States of America – was still called a nigger.  If it happens to Obama, what hope do the rest of us have?  Are Black and African-American academics and “Black” topics in academia simply token representations of a depressed, marginalized, and neglected field?  Is Django Unchained not a cinematic re-enactment of the past, but a mirror to how present-day society sees and feels about the “niggers” among them?

So then, what does this all mean?  What do I mean by being “Black”, or “Blackness”, and most importantly, who and what really is a nigger?  The psychologist and revolutionary mind, Frantz Fanon, created one of the seminal and most influential works on Black identity in Black Skin, White Masks.  The roots of nigger, Negro, African-American, and Black, go beyond the film, hip-hop, and politics; the codified identity of dark-skinned humans is firmly entrenched in the fundamental social fabric of the United States and the Americas as a whole.  Race and the word “nigger” are as American as apple pie.  Worst yet, African-Americans were hung from the very same apple trees as the strange fruit White racists loved to taste.  The strange, picayune, and obfuscated identity of the African Negro in the United States is a subject dissected by numerous scholars including Fanon.  What must be acknowledged is that the “nigger” is not real; it is a social construction designed to subjugate a class of dark-skinned forced labourers during the institution of slavery.  There is no such thing as an “authentic” nigger, similar to there is no such thing as an “authentic” Black woman or man.  “Black” signifies an imagined history; a Black person is a social construct.  He or she is as real as race is biological.  He or she was, and is, created through ignorance, prejudice, and a means for class and socio-economic exploitation, which is justified through the hegemonic ideology of White racial superiority.  A Black man, or woman, is not a person who happens to be black in colour, but “Black” in existence.[6]

                The idea of the Black Self was created as a means for White colonial administrators, slave traders, slaveholders, and Eurocentric ideologists to exploit, dominate, and subjugate the colonized African and African-American.  The deracination of the African, and the subsequent misappropriation of his Black identity, manipulated and destroyed Black self-worth.[7]  “Black” became a negative codifier and self-identifier; it consigned Black people to a position of racial and social inferiority.  “Black” is an ideology that supports and justifies social inequality; it is the ideological means to subjugate and oppress.  It is an ideology based on an illogical fallacy.  A fallacy in which scholars such as Radhika Mohanram argued, “‘Blackness’ was constructed in order to function as a binary opposite to whiteness, and bring the latter into meaning”.[8]  One must have a “Black” to be able to identify a “White”.  The “Black” Other, created a “White” us.  Joanne Pope Melish concurred with Mohanram that Whiteness was created through the exclusion of the Black Other.  Melish argued that Whiteness in the United States was “a place where whites belonged and people of color did not, where people of color and whites were fundamentally estranged”.[9]  John Block Friedman wrote of the “monstrous” races in Medieval art and thought and that the idea of Blackness can be linked to the creative imagination of the unknown (darkness) in Greco-Roman ideology.  It created the belief of the Other as an inferior being.[10]  David Brion Davis argued that African and African-American slaves were “historically linked to inferiority, ugliness, and Blackness”, which subsequently facilitated the creation of universal stereotypes – the racialization – of slaves where “Black” and “Blackness” became negative colour codifiers.[11]  It was supported by the Biblical “fact” of the Curse of Ham and Christian ideology to justify European enslavement and debasement of Africans and African-Americans.[12]  Through “Christian socialization” and “the mentality of the enslaver all housed in his black, ex-slave’s body”, Anton Allahar argued that a society was created where “being black was devalued and despised, even by black people themselves”.[13]  Whites racialized and consequently dehumanized African peoples by associating the belief that they were in fact a “monstrous race” – a condemned and domesticated class in society.  The ideology of Blackness was not emancipated with the slave; “Black” continues to represent a lower and inferior class, and a lesser being in present-day society.  It took African-Americans hundreds of years to be legally recognized as equal American citizens, and the clock continues to tick on when Blacks in the United States will be unequivocally accepted as equal partners in society.

                The perpetuation of the “nigger” moniker operates within the same paradigm as the social construction of race and Black identity; it is a pejorative fabrication designed to subdue and condemn.  Fanon believed that “the black man is not a man” and “the black is a black man; that is, as the result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated”.[14]  I contend that the Black man – and woman – a person who is seen as “Black”, cannot free themselves from their ideological ties to inferiority.  The Black man is not a man, he is an object, a commodification of Self.  His inferior Self – his identity – is the creation of the White man; “the black soul is a white man’s artifact”.[15]  Nevertheless, when Fanon wrote, “Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect”, and “for the black man there is only one destiny.  And it is white”, he fails to acknowledge that “White” and “Whiteness” are social constructions.[16]  A Black man does not want to whiten his skin; history has shown through the ideology of the One-Drop Rule that colour is not a definitive racial identifier.  The Black man’s “destiny” is to become the ideological “White” man.  One would argue that “Whiteness” was unattainable.  Nevertheless, as “Black” represented inferiority, “White” was its antithesis.  Whiteness meant social equality in a fundamentally unequal system.  Fanon did not explicitly define Whiteness, nor did he acknowledge that White supremacy is a form of social control.  White hegemonic power and the ideology of Blackness facilitates the continued use of “nigger” and the historical and current negative representations of African-Americans. 

Despite what some gun-toting right-wing political pundits and academic institutions across the United States may think, White superiority based on biological predisposition is a fallacy; it is not real, nor is there any veracity in this claim.[17]  Whiteness by birth does not make you “better”, nor does being born with a darker pigmentation make you a nigger.  Historically, the White American racist convinced his inferior – the Black man – of his supposed “natural” inferiority.  Much of this was done through physical violence and psychological warfare especially following Emancipation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow.   That being said, the White racist may create his inferior, but it is the inferior who must submit to his authority.  If the African-American accepts their ideological “Blackness”, then as Fanon wrote, “as long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion…to experience his being through others”, and “for not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man”.[18]  If the Black African-American is a socio-historical fabrication, so then what is a nigger?

If we look at Fanon’s work, he argues that a nigger is the lowest class of the ideological and fabricated “Black” existence, and Black person.  Simply put, a nigger is a class-based reified creation of a socially constructed historical fallacy; it is not real.  African-Americans “understood clearly how the term served to enact the embodiment of innate, permanent inferiority”.[19]  Following Emancipation, and I argue throughout the course of American history from Andrew Jackson to Michael Jackson, African-Americans always understood that the “nigger” was a tool used to oppress, subjugate, and ridicule.  According to Melish, the pejorative term “nigger” was used once Whites no longer controlled the physical condition of the African-American.  In northern states in the nineteenth century, Free Blacks did not constitute a majority of the population, nor did they live in a colonized political nation-state; their displacement from enslavement to “free” actors in the capitalist economy, however marginal, caused their exposure to a new form of class discrimination.  A nigger is excluded from all participation in the social economy; it is the neo-racists’ new whip and the African-American’s psychological chain of mental slavery.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and the rise of the “new” racism through social media, and the insidious nature of the Obama Twitter comments becomes clear.  Fanon himself said that he “was expected to behave like a black man – or at least a nigger”.[20]  Is this any different of what White racists expect from their President?  Countless Americans, academics and the like, would argue that the United States has made considerable strides in race relations since the mid-nineteenth century; however, the laws may have changed and White audiences may have cried during films like Glory, The Color Purple, Remember the Titans, Amistad, and Malcolm X, but all that progress is all for not if in 2013 a sixteen year old boy can take to social media and call his (Black) President a nigger.  American history and social norms have programmed generations to come to believe that the African-American is expected to “behave” a certain way – like a nigger.  He is expected to embody ignorance, savagery, and an uncivilized nature.  A nigger is dehumanized; he is non-existent.  He should act like a nigger, an ape, a gorilla, a monkey.  What is forgotten is that a nigger is neither Black nor White – it is a representation of ignorance and subservience.

After having read this article, some people may decide to boycott Django Unchained.  Furthermore, they might question my own Black “authenticity” since I liked the movie.  They might ask: “how can a Black man like a movie where a White director has his actors drop the n-word like it’s an invisible character?  Didn’t he hear what Spike Lee said?!”  My response?  If you decide to abstain from watching the movie because of the “n-word”, you are ignoring a bigger problem in American history and society.



[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 150.
[2] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: One World, 1964).
[3] Malcolm X, 310.
[4] Tracie Egan Morrissey, “Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets About the ‘Nigger’ President,” Jezebel, last modified November 9, 2012, http://jezebel.com/5958993/racist-teens-forced-to-answer-for-tweets-about-the-nigger-president.
[5] Timothy Burke, “Take That Nigger Off The TV, We Wanna Watch Football!”: Idiots Respond to NBC Pre-Empting Sunday Night Football,” Deadspin, last modified December 16, 2012, http://deadspin.com/5968935/take-that-nigger-off-the-tv-we-wanna-watch-football-idiots-respond-to-nbc-pre+empting-sunday-night-football.
[6] At times throughout this article I will use the pronoun “he” or “man”, but I refer to both sexes equally.
[7] I refer to the African as an individual black in colour prior to his creolization in the Americas.  One may argue that he is “racially” and socially pure.  An African-American is one who is of African descent throughout the Americas.
[8] Radhika Mohanram, Black Body: Women, Colonialism, and Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), xiv.
[9] Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 265.
[10] Anton L. Allahar, “When Black First Became Worth Less,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 34 (1993): 42.
[11] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 65-67.
[12] For the Curse of Ham, refer to Genesis 9:18-27.
[13] Anton L. Allahar, “Unity and Diversity in Caribbean Ethnicity and Culture,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 25 (1993): 81.  Hegemonic ideology occurs once Blacks – and the society at large - have indoctrinated this message of inferiority by the ruling White class.  Hegemonic ideology allows for domination by mass consent by the oppressor and the oppressed.
[14] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 8.
[15] Fanon, Black Skin, 14.
[16] Fanon, Black Skin, 10.
[17] Fanon argued that “it is the racist who creates his inferior”.  Fanon, Black Skin, 112.
[18] Fanon, Black Skin, 109-110.
[19] Melish, 245.
[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 114.

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