This was the title of this bold programme, presented by the poet Dean Atta, broadcast yesterday on BBC Radio 4. I caught the second half in the car, between appointments. When I got home last night, I listened to the whole thing. For me, the programme, the subject matter, was a must listen.
As a white person, the N-word is not my word. That is to say, I don’t use it, but I am aware of its violent history. It was thought-provoking, through the prism of Atta’s poem of the same name, to hear Darcus Howe and the comedian Reginald D. Hunter share their thoughts about it’s use and their own relationship with the word. It was clear, after listening to the poem and the personal views shared, that there is no easy answer to the question of the N-word. But why should there be. Language makes us who we are, and who we are is different. And also the same. I prefer to focus on the latter, but I don’t ignore the former. I don’t use the N-word because it is not part of my culture. I don’t think in the N-word. Some people do. Who am I to tell people how to think?
Still, I admire Dean Atta’s poem and it was interesting to hear him reflect on how, since he wrote it and was exposed over and over to the N-word, it sort of lost some of its negative emotional power for him. That put me in mind of another poet, who wrote about washing words – that if you use and re-use them – over and over – they do lose some of their original meaning. This is contrary to Howe’s approach say, where the aim was to reclaim the word, something that Atta thought had failed to materialise, but not because it had not been reclaimed in some quarters, but because he still heard it used with all it’s former venom.
The fact is, we can’t wash words permanently. Meanings can change, but they can’t be erased. Negro became used in the Americas because it was the Spanish/Portugese word for black. Spanish and Portugese imported African slaves. The word carries it’s history on it’s sleeve, however we change it over the years. At the end of the day, categorising someone by skin colour seems reductive, but I understand why it happens. My own children can never be white, but they can always be black. Like Atta said, he may be of Greek Cypriot and Jamaican heritage – but, politically, he is a black man.
So, is it the words themselves that are the problem, or the apparently continued need of people to define similarity and difference in the most blindingly obvious of ways? Reginald D. Hunter said that Atta’s poem was idealistic because he personally, wanted to move beyond a label. Hunter’s point was that we are all labelled, whether we like or not and we don’t actually get to choose the labels. I guess that’s true, but a conversation about whether could ever move beyond that state of affairs is one that I think is worth having.