So I’m sitting in this workshop at this conference about how the N word and the B word impact male-female relationships within the Black community, and it’s getting pretty controversial. The facilitator is presenting a case on why we shouldn’t say it anymore, how it’s no different when we use it than when slave masters did. It was only a matter of time until hands shot up into the air for the sake of rebuttal. “But when Black people say it, it’s meant as a term of endearment!,” “when I say it, it’s like I’m calling you tha’ homie”, “WE RECLAIMED THE WORD!” That’s when it hit me…
How can you reclaim something that was never yours?
The N word was given to us; it was shoved into our minds as a phonetic label of oppression, of ownership. It verified that we were someone else’s property, and that we were deserving of being treated as property rather than as human beings. But now all of a sudden it’s a term that uplifts and empowers us? Something that we should take pride in?
Yet at the same time we don’t want anyone else to say the word or refer to us with that word. It’s not okay when others use oppressive language but it’s okay when we oppress ourselves?
We didn’t reclaim anything, we recycled it.
There are other things that were never ours. When White plantation owners were finished eating their meals, slaves were given the leftovers, forced to make due with hooves, intestines, skin, and God knows what else. The food we were given was yet another symbol of oppression, representing an inherent lack of dignity that shaded our efforts for a seat at the table where respected men had their meals. We ate in silence, slowly gathering strength so that we could one day too be America.
Today, Soul food is a cuisine that Blacks embrace as a token of our culture, something that we take pride in as a piece of who we are. At dinners we lick our lips anticipating the glory of greasy fried chicken, snack joyously on salty pork rinds, and meet our lips with chitterlings without as much as a second thought. But it still kills us. It still heightens rates of diabetes, hypertension and atherosclerosis in our community. When did one man’s trash become our treasure?
We don’t even own our music anymore. Hip Hop was a culture made for the sake of unity and community in a society that refused to accept what we had to offer. From DJ Kool Herc to Grandmaster Flash, to KRS One and Afrika Bamabaataa, we became masters of ceremony so we wouldn’t have to be mastered anymore. Rooted in the brightness of this radiant genre though was one catch; don’t sign a record deal. Lord knows our music would be stolen (again), degraded, artificially manufactured, and given back to us in a distorted heap of superficiality.
Today, we pay homage to groups like Sugar Hill Gang and Run DMC, forgetting they were the first to break this promise. We rave to “jockin’ the bitches, slappin’ the hoes” get down to “pop that p***y for a real one” and turn up to “toot it and boot it.” As if the degradation of our women is something to be celebrated, as if perpetuating violence against Black men is the dope thing to do. Today, we march to the beats that rhythm our own destitution.
Doesn’t it irk you that the same people who taught us every ounce of violence, rape, colorism, and sense of inferiority we’ve been struggling with for the past 300 years are the same people who’ve given us everything we identify with today? Doesn’t it upset you to know that we don’t own anything for ourselves? Not our music, not our food, not the stores we buy from, not even the language we use to define each other. Does it not make you feel some type of way to know that our contemporary chains are the same as the historical, only more voluntary?
Even if it doesn’t, you can still feel the irony. For decades Black people have been the among the first to take a stand against inequality, discrimination and prejudice in America. Nationally we’ve spearheaded civil rights endeavors and advocated for the liberation for all those victimized by arbitrary hierarchies. Even today, we vanguard social media movements while continuing to strive for excellence in arenas that weren’t even made for us. Here at UCLA, we host powerful rallies and protests, make chancellors and vice chancellors shake in the knees, and continue to build on a fifty year legacy unprecedented in the UC system. But somewhere along the way we forgot to stop internalizing the poison fed to us by the same systems and ideologies we claim to be fighting against.
We see the snake clear as day, but have we recognized the venom pulsing through our sickened veins?