I generally do not refer to myself, or like others referring to me as ‘nigga’ or the other one, ‘nigger’. The only time I speak the word is when singing along to music; the only times I utter it in my head is after hearing or reading the word. It is not in my vocabulary. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable: the fact that it exists, the historic and present use of the word by non-black people. I cannot use it without thinking instantly about these things.
I get very uncomfortable when I see depictions of anthropomorphic apes, particularly gorillas; I’m sure part of the reason I don’t like watermelons anymore is because of anti-blackness; I become very self-conscious when I eat chicken around non-black people; I bristle when I hear the word slavery being used to describe low paid labour; I become annoyed when I encounter a negative use of the word and concept of ‘black’ and ‘dark’. In short, I am very sensitive about a lot of things; my black skin is only so tough.
I do not think, though, that this sensitivity is a negative one. It is borne out of being aware of language, symbolism, and reality. It is being able, or constantly being forced, to see how certain gestures, objects, narratives are linked to or are the products of a particular history and how they perpetuate this history into the present. It is the result of seeing how these things are linked to the ever present attack on Black lives, bodies, and existence. Following Darieck Scott in ‘Extravagant Abjection’ blackness in part describes living with a conquered history.
This sensitivity arises from our brushing against the boundaries allocated us in global white supremacy/global anti-blackness. It is the result of the narrowing of the space around us and our bodies. We become familiar with the contours of white supremacy because we continually come up against them.
In this paradigm, white people have little, if any, restrictions; they brush up against the boundaries less than POC, than black people. They do not learn the shapes anti-blackness, or racism takes. For most white people, we are taking things too seriously when we express our discomfort around certain words, objects, and actions. This is because the experiences of white people, their lubricated movement through this oppressive world, has been made to be the ‘norm’. Their incredibly minimal and limited encounters with the walls of white supremacy are in their mind, the only way anyone can experience racism, so that racism becomes simply about calling for a ‘final solution’, or explicitly speaking about enacting violence on people of colour as a group; those really explicit, undeniable racist occurrences. Most white people miss entirely, precisely because it has almost never affected them directly, that racism is much larger than that, encompassing employment, representation in media and texts, historical erasure, continual dehumanisation, mass incarceration, silencing, gaslighting and so much more.
People of colour are best placed to know what racism looks and feels like because it exists to subjugate us, it affects us directly and always.
It is impossible it seems, to think of slavery without thinking of black people. The idea and meaning of slavery has been irrevocably blackened by European enslavement of Africans, after all, it was key to their ability to dominate the globe. This haunting is always present as we still live, though in denial, with the products and effects of this enslavement.
The Atlantic recently published an article titled ‘My Family’s Slave’ by Alex Tizon. The Atlantic gave two alternative titles: ‘A Story of Slavery in Modern America’ and ‘Lola’s Story’. Tizon writes about his experience growing up the son of Filipino migrants in the US, and of his experience of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, Lola, the woman who was enslaved by Tizon’s grandfather, the condition being passed to his daughter, Tizon’s mother. The figure of blackness is present throughout this article, Tizon himself could only confirm Lola’s enslavement by comparing her to enslaved black characters. Responses have connected Tizon’s narrative of Pulido to the tropes of the faithful, forgiving enslaved black person, a trope frequently deployed to assuage white guilt. The ways in which Pudilo is dehumanised and even the way Tizon attempts to complicate his relationship with ‘Lola’ (grandmother in Tagalog) as beyond master/slave, are strikingly similar to the ways some enslaved black people, particularly enslaved black women were treated.
Tropes like the black mammy, that looms large in that article are the contemporary parallels of representations of enslaved black people used to justify their enslavement, and those used in advertising to sell products.
Enslaved black people’s supposed nature as always jovial, careless, unintelligent, was continually used as justification for their enslavement. The songs of slaves, whether of lament and sorrow or joy, indicated their ambivalence towards, and even enjoyment of the condition of enslavement. Alternatively, their dim-wit, lack of rationality, closeness to nature, at times nonsense speech, and resistance to pain made them highly suitable as slaves, as they didn’t even understand their conditions.
Minstrelsy capitalised on and popularised these depictions of black people, before and after slavery was abolished in the Americas and in Europe. White performers through the 19th century earned their stripes, made their fortunes and fame performing these stereotypes. It was the main form of theater and music consumed by white Americans and Europeans during this period. Blackface was even present in the UK in the 17th century. Think of Othello.
While the most well-known forms of minstrel blackface employed only the explicitly negative stereotypes of black people, others, intended to be anti-slavery propaganda, used joyful, slow, excessively grateful caricatures like Mammy or Sambo, drawing on texts like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. These were done not simply to mock and actively dehumanise the enslaved but intended to help and save them. They were intended to shed light on the cruelties of slavery and racism but instead allowed for white people to consume anti-black narratives and imagery, feed their comfort and consolidate a vision of white people as naturally superior. While white people received entertainment and tighter bonds as white through the practice of blackface, black people did not feel the same or reap any rewards. Frederick Douglass wrote scathing words in regards to the practice, calling blackface performers ‘filthy scum’. Today, black people who say less than this are still described as being too sensitive.
The harm that these narratives cause is not limited to the past but exist today. We see it in the magical negro trope; in the success of narratives like ‘The Help’; in Katy Perry in that awful video with Migos. The form of blackface has evolved beyond even the simple donning of pitch-black paint and red lipstick to digital forms of blackfacing, where users take on AAVE to pose as or imply, a black person. These digital form of blackface consist of the taking on of a black character combined with the exaggerated use of language to mock and dehumanise black people, sometimes accompanied by blackface imagery, or the digital golliwog.
Blackface exists to consolidate whiteness, or to remark on the contrast of whiteness and blackness, of white skin to black skin and to make a spectacle of blackness, or to be more precise, those who possess black bodies. Blackface is almost never intended for black consumption, it was almost always intended for white consumption. Even when the bodies performing it are black bodies.
Last year, Zoe Saldana played Nina Simone in the biopic ‘Nina’. In it we see a more evolved, socially conscious version of blackface. Because Zoe Saldana looks nothing like Nina Simone: being golden ochre to Nina’s rich, dark umber; prominent nose bridge to a flatter Negro nose, dark makeup, and a prosthetic nose is applied to transform Saldana. Zoe Saldana was effectively blacked up to ‘accurately’ portray Nina Simone. Saldana’s body, more palatable to the white gaze, is inadvertently contrasted with Simone’s, an undeniably Black body. Nina Simone, and women and others with similar features to her know very well the price of having an undeniably black body as opposed to Saldana.
The practice of blackface and the products which were spawned from it, such as the golliwog specifically targets the darkest black people, with the most Negro of noses, and the nappiest of hairs, with lips full and soft.
The argument for nigga to be a word used exclusively by black people is one that I support. This exclusivity I think is the reclamation. That black people have constructed a system of grammar that signifies their power is surely a good thing. To respect this exclusivity is to give respect to the history of black people, to the marginalised, to acknowledge and be moved by their power. To respect a marginalised group when they say ‘do not use this word that has been and is still used to dehumanise us’ is, to me, a small glimpse of the future, one where the rules of language take into consideration the history of the oppressed and actually protects them, one where words make those of the historic oppressor group confront their privileged position.
Blackface is a bit like the word ‘nigger’. It is a practice that dehumanises black people and that consolidates whiteness. When we say, especially the darkest of us that are specifically targeted by this practice, that this is all there is to black facing, when we point out its historic use and present day contribution to anti-black violence, we are told it is an art form, that we are too sensitive, as though this were a bad thing. As mentioned above it is precisely the sensitivity to these historic forms of dehumanisation that, when allowed to guide our practices, will produce this black, anti-racist future I like to imagine. Perhaps taking the steps to never reduce blackness to simply skin colour or racist stereotypes, with little mention of the negative repercussions of this practice will take us closer to this future.
- Gretchen Gerzina – Black London
- Saidiya Hartman – Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making
- Micki Mcelya – The Faithful Slave
- Vincent Rafael – Lola’s Resistant Dignity
- Ferris State University – Jim Crow Museum
AbsurdistWords – on anti-blackness in media and advertising
- Manuel Arturo Abreu – Online Imagined Black English