Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 11:10 PM Cape Town Time- My Dorm (LBG)

Irony is a wonderful tool that God employs. So today on my way to campus I was listening to my iPod and the song "Be a Nigger Too" by Nas came on. I've heard the song a million times but for some reason when I heard it this time it seemed like the first time I ever really listened to it. Maybe it's because I'm in Africa but some lines in it resonated in a deeper way than they had previously. They reminded me of a quote from Paul Mooney when he said "Everybody wants to be a nigga but nobody wants to be nigga."

So anyway that's on my mind when I'm walking around and then I sit down to write some lyrics to this track Lamar sent me. The track is actually called Nigga Moment (all my fans of The Boondocks get it, lol). As I'm sitting there thinking about how to approach this song in a fresh way this dude walks up to me. I'd met him a few days earlier and he sits to talk with me. I can't help but notice in the conversation he seemed to be using a good bit of profanity and talking about women and what not. Now anyone who knows me knows that I'm no saint when it comes to using less than pristine language but I was unsure if dude was for real or if he was trying to "level" with me somehow or trying to play me. He's a black South African by the way.

So pretty quickly he gets to the question of if he can use the word nigga. I have to admit I felt slick uncomfortable. I didn't really answer but instead tried to explain the ways I used and the ways it's kind of conventionally used. I don't think he read my discomfort or didn't care so he told me about how they use it there and in what ways. I guess at that point he took my not saying no as a green light to use the word liberally.

At that point we get into a conversation about where we're from. I tell him Chicago and he asks me if I'm from the hood. I kinda replied yes but tried to explain what that means and how things really are in our neighborhoods but didn't get very far. We end up talking about Tupac and dude really digs Pac. At that point I was like cool but one sentence he said I was just like "wow". He said, "Man, that nigga Tupac was a nigga."

I swear I was like frozen. I didn't know whether to get mad or not. I didn't know what to do. I just told dude I had to go to class and shook up with him and bounced.

This interaction left me feeling alienated (shouts to Bridget Reilly for calling that one) and just kind of confused.

A friend of mine also had a conversation with a South African girl here who told her that she wasn't African-American, black, colored or really any of those words. That she was just an American.

These two experiences have been spinning in my head all day and I've been trying to figure out what to do with them.

I think the thing about black folks (or whatever we are) in America is that this is our experience. We don't have a mother tongue or culture that we can draw on all the way back through time. We had to and did create our own language and culture and history from scraps of Africa, America, Europe, and whatever else. But the thing about it is that leaves us with something that nobody really knows what to do with. We're not fully African and we can't be and don't want to be because America is a part of us. And we can't be solely American because that ignores our history and the current day implications. Also the racialization of our society won't allow us to be solely American.

It's weird because I've realized a lot of Africans are huge fans of black popular culture from America but it gives them a very narrow view of our black experience and one that doesn't take into account most of my everyday life. Yes, there's violence and gangs but that's not all. And also there are systemic reasons for those things that people (even in America) don't get. And things a lot of rappers say are not really accurate pictures of the black norm (if it exists which is a whole different convo). So it leaves people with this weird view of who I am and how to relate to that. And on top of that Black American Identity that is assigned me here there is also still the dominant American Identity that is assigned me here (rich, frivolous with money, na├»ve about struggle, entitled, a bunch of other shit that I'm not really). I recognize my privilege in being able to even come abroad but its kinda crazy the way people stay trying to box a nigga in (which is something that happens everywhere anyone goes really).  And it's funny because as much of our culture Africans enjoy (music, clothing style, and more) they recognize very little of our history as significant (minus civil rights and perhaps the harlem renaissance).

But on the subject of nigga I think I figured why it made me so uncomfortable when dude said it. It seemed like he was trying me. Like he was playing with the word to see my reaction. Maybe not maliciously but still without reverence. I know that word is something people are mad divisive around and I know I use it and throw it around at times but I have my reasons. I think there's a difference to growing up with a word. Hearing your family use it, your peers, and others. Hearing it used to hurt you from white people and hearing it to marginalize criminal elements or even to unite your population. Having all that moving inside you and knowing that history, having lived a small bit of it, and then making a decision. I think that's different than a cat in Africa who hears it in a rap song, decides it's cool and rolls with it. I guess in a way I feel like I've earned it or at least like I use it consciously and after long hours of study, discussion, meditation, experience, and prayer on the subject. The very first (terrible) rap song I wrote was about "The N Word". It's something I've dealt with in my reading, writing, and thinking from the beginning so when anyone who just steps in and grabs it I feel defensive.

I think the black American experience is unique in a way that Africans and Caribbean folks often can't see or empathize with unless they come live it because we are a minority. Aside from being a minority (as there are minority blacks in England, Canada, etc.) we didn't make the decision to be where we were at. When South Africa broke free from apartheid it was the will of an oppressed majority triumphing over a despotic minority but with slavery or the civil rights movement or any black movement in America it's a vast minority appealing to the conscious or fear of a majority that has a history of hostility or at least blissful compliance in injustice. I don't even know where I'm going with this. Just wanted to get all these ideas out so that I can maybe use them later or just think about them more. I'm just trying to figure out where are the differences and similarities and all that. We'll see.

"we all black within, okay? we all african, okay some africans don't like us no way."


"they like to strangle niggas, blame a nigga, shoot a nigga, hang a nigga. still you wanna be a nigga too, true?"





Apologies for some of my language but not really. I'm just trying to be frank about my experience so folks can learn from it and also so I can go back and have an accurate record of my happenings and thoughts. That's all.


dope poem that idris goodwin has on the subject of what black folks are and such…


Bridget Riley said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Nate. I think one of the most important things you've said here is your point about the problems with a narrow view of the African American experience. Clearly you've encountered that with some South Africans, but perhaps more importantly (as you also point out), we encounter it everyday with whites and blacks in America. Perhaps some of the world's misunderstanding of (all) Americans stems from our lack of self-understanding. I'm thirty-years-old and only four years ago did I start to overcome that narrow view of the African American experience and our racial history. You are doing good work to help us all overcome it, and it sounds like you are keeping your mind open while you're there--the only way to truly continue the good work. Thanks for the shout out!

Scottie Eggleston said...


This is an experience I knew you would have. I had the same experience when I was there in '08 - might have been the same guy. After I left Cape, I did a 6 week safari from there to Nairobi, Kenya. There were three girls from Ireland on the safari, one of them had worked in NYC for a summer. Apparently, she had met some "Irish Americans" in NYC that were proud that they were the largest group of whites in America. I don't know if it's true because I hadn't heard that before. She began to scold me about the roup not being Irish American because they were not born in Irelad, they were simply American. She said if she moved to America and became a citizen, she might consider herself Irish American, but most likely, just Irish.

I guess most non-Americans see us as American first, then divide us into racial/ ethnic groups second. I struggled (still do) with that thought - should we see ourselves as Americns first or continue to use our group identity above all else? What do we gain or lose either way?