On the way to breakfast with my roommate, a young Rwandan from Nyamata calls out to me but not with the usual greetings of ‘amahoro’ or ‘salaam Rasta.’ Instead, I am greeted this particular morning with, ‘Nigger’ (Pause...remove your annoyance...rewind...look around...who said that?) I stop dead in my tracks and ask him, “What did you say?” With a smile he says again, ‘Nigger,’ sounding more like ‘nig-air.’
How does one begin to explain in Kinyarwanda how annoying that term is to me and how ‘angrifying’ it is to hear that applied to me by an African male, thousands of miles away from the United States?
In Rwanda, this is now the third time that a man has addressed me in this way. Seemingly in admiration and respect, as Nigger (probably meaning to say ‘Nigga’ as I do concede that there is a difference within our communites).
Let’s keep aside the memory of coming home from kindergarten and telling my mom with naive pride that someone in class called me a nigger, thinking it was a ‘good’ word because I was a good student.
I’ll never forget the facial expression of my mom in the bathroom as she was preparing for our departure to a family reunion. She thought of how she could not shield her son from a word with such meaning yet she was a woman reared in segregated North Carolina known for its ancestry of slaves.
Ignore the memory of high school classmates on my school soccer team as well as other teams calling me Nigger and having my soccer coach tell me to decide whether they should stay on the team or not.
The long conversation that ensued in my house at the dinner table with my parents will also remain with me until I am old enough to share it with my children. Forget about hearing that term repeatedly growing up in a complicatedly racist New Jersey society alongside other terms of affection like ‘jungle-bunny’ or ‘monkey.’
Acclaimed poet and friend, Carlos Andres Gomez, said, “What are words worth?” This is a question that we all should ask ourselves.
In a second, the many experiences that I’ve had with race and the association with that word “Nigger” in the U.S. and in Africa reminded me of who I am not and who is to blame for the perpetuation of this foolishness. It is two-fold.
It’s the conglomerate of Europeans, Anglo-Americans, and ‘Toms’ from BET who have sacked the African-American music scene for control as they market their voice internationally and profit from the pre-packaged image they wish to sell.
However, and most dishearteningly so, it is the artist who sells out to sell more. An eighteen year-old in Johannesburg, South Africa (AZANIA) told me at lunch one day that he felt that there was nothing wrong with using nigger with his friends.
I told him that he has no idea about the reality and the history of using words that do not apply to him, that do not define him, that are in many places a word conjuring to the elders and to some of the more informed a systemic attack on African people.
For him, nigger was just another word that Blacks call one another. Now this is a twisted scenario misrepresentation of cross-cultural exchange. Africans sold into slavery, were called nigger as a term of hatred and disdain.
They ultimately decided to ‘adopt and adapt’ the word back into the community and push it forward to Africa as a re-packaged product and term of endearment.
I have a hard time swallowing it, just like I have a hard time watching ghetto youth in the slums of peaceful Bamako, Mali draw the image of a gun on their home overlooking the Niger River. Underneath that gun was scribbled ‘50 Cent.’
It conjures the same feeling when I see in Kaolack and Dakar, Senegal the same graffiti - 50 Cent, Mafia, Gangsta, and Black Kings.
It’s the same visceral response that comes to mind listening to some youth from Soweto freestyle and use American vernacular like they lived the experience of the nigger.
You don’t hear people use the term ‘kaffir’ to refer to themselves in the streets of Yeoville and Hillbrow (in Johannesburg), so why must nigger be the universal term for Black and the implied Black struggle in hip hop?
For most those who live in the US and see what hip hop is reporting to the masses, can only know that another piece of African culture is being assimilated and contorted by Americas society.
It is like looking at rock-n-roll today and hearing people praise Elvis Presley without praising the people who wrote his songs and the people who made it possible for an Elvis Presley to exist.
It is like attending jazz concerts today and will not find an African American in the set, but will hear the sounds of Coltrane, Dizzy, T. Monk, Duke, Ella, Sarah, Nina, and of course Miles.
The young entrepreneur from Cyangugu, Rwanda
I met a young entrepreneur from Cyangugu, Rwanda, which is in the Western Province along Lake Kivu at the border of Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the heart of Africa, this young entrepreneur is making his money from distributing American hip hop to the community through music and videos.
This hustling brother, who is indeed making a way for himself, goes by an interesting name for a community that mainly speaks Kinyarwanda.
He is known throughout Cyangugu as ‘Nigger.’ Before you ask yourself how this happened, that a young African man would come to call himself by the name that European settlers gave to the oppressed Africans in North America, I will say in his defense that he has no idea of the historical significance of the term.
I heard about ‘Nigger’ from some colleagues in Kigali, located a good six hours away from Cyangugu. He is a young man who has made a name for himself.
However, it is too bad that he did not choose a name like Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Vessey, or even Martin Delany. These names at least would reflect the heroically defiant spirit of Africans when placed within life-threatening terrains. Even Tupac would make more sense since he is obviously aware of whom the talented artist is.
Instead, he has chosen to embrace the term of “endearment” that African Americans in the West love to call ourselves as a sign that we are indeed the only group of people that call ourselves affectionately by the racial epithet that meant to degrade us.
This brother’s misplaced term usage is the product of promoting the term and the international distribution of confusion by exploitative capitalists who have stolen hip-hop from the African community in America.
This is believe this is just one of many examples that will be sighted and should remind us to question how we define ourselves.
We need to be aware of who receives our message, who packages the image of our community internationally, and whether we are happy with the way it currently stands. Our responsibility, whether we choose to truly acknowledge it or not, is to a community broader than the immediate one in the United States.
It is simple to believe that elimination of the word ‘Nigger’ will mean elimination of ‘Niggerish’ activities- defined as all activities that continue to set our community image backward with stereotypically negative behaviours.
However, we need to seriously consider if this is what we want for our communities.
The writer is the co-founder of Books for Bugesera