I’ve studied martial arts most of my life, but I don’t enjoy watching fistfights. Sure, I sometimes watch MMA bouts, mostly as an exercise in making sense of techniques I learned in my Jujutsu days. But I am a salacious voyeur of one class of fights, one that weighs more in murderous intent than in mere blood. When it comes to fights over language, I’m part Don King, part corner, part cut man, part ringside rat, but never referee nor pugilist. This is the first of a few pieces about linguistic rage. First up, the real powder-keg: words of social distinction.
Not long after we got to the US, we moved from New Jersey to Cleveland, and the effect on my brothers was fairly devastating. We were in nice, genteel North Olmstead, where hostility to outsiders of any type was visceral and palpable. I’d already grown a very thick skin from my experience of being an outsider in my own native Nigeria, but my brothers were far more vulnerable. One day Chimezie got into a fight with a kid named Lonnie. I wasn’t there, but Chimezie later told me that Lonnie’s big brother was there, encouraging Lonnie with yells of “Yeah, Lonnie, beat that nigger down.” I was very angry—not because of the epithet, but because I didn’t think much of what seemed to me a ganging up on my brother, so I asked him where I could find Lonnie’s brother.
Chimezie led me to the basketball court where Lonnie, his brother and a bunch of their friends were hanging out. I figured it was going to all kick-off, but I’d earned a physically thick skin in Nigeria as well as a metaphorical one, so I strode up to Lonnie’s brother, looked him in the eye and asked him: “I hear our brothers were fighting the other day, and that you got yourself involved threatening him and throwing insults at him. Is that true?” He sputtered, “Aw, because I was yelling ‘beat that nigger down?’ That wasn’t nothing, that’s just how we talk, you know. I mean, hey, I’m into rap and all that, I didn’t mean nothing by it.” I was genuinely bewildered that he thought the word he used was a bigger deal than mixing his menace into to a fight between boys six years his junior.
And that’s pretty much how I learned the importance of the word in some places. Of course I’d heard and read enough in news and media to know that it was inflammatory, but hearing and understanding are different things. In my couple of years in grade school in the US I’d been called “nigger” (especially in Gainesville Florida), but I don’t think it ever carried more than the run-of-the-mill heft of “fucking idiot” or “son of a bitch,” and I’d respond in kind, and that would be about it¹. The Lonnie incident carried a sense that I really couldn’t get my head around—that a particular word could be considered more offensive than an act of violence.
I encountered this phenomenon a second time, in Dallas. It was in a soccer game, and I tackled one of the opponents hard. He jumped to his feet, got in my face and pushed me, yelling, “What the fuck, you nigger?” I said: “If you can’t take a tackle, you shouldn’t be playing.” And the referee ran over to break it up before anything else transpired. It was near the end of the game and my opponent and I didn’t cross paths again until the end, when the teams were shaking hands. He sought me out very purposefully and said, “Hey, man. I’m sorry I used that word, I just came out of my head, you know.” I told him very levelly: “I don’t care what word you used, but don’t you ever dare push me again.” Again, I cared more about the physical menace, and he seemed to be more contrite about the word.
On the origin of hateful speeches
I’m only too happy to happy to cause trouble myself. A friend of mine in Dallas named Maana was fulminating about how one of her lecturers had discussed being a pioneering white student of “colored studies.” I asked Maana: “So if she had said ‘Black’ studies” would that have been OK?”
She said, “No, because that regards my skin color, and not my heritage. I’m African American.”
I pounced. “Don’t you think it’s useful to be differentiated from an African immigrant to America? And what about, say, a white-skinned South African, Egyptian or Tunisian?”
I mentioned to her the handful of white people in my home town in Nigeria who had completely “gone native,” speaking Igbo even better than I, and observing all our crazy customs. Maana is very intelligent, but nuance didn’t go over very well in this case. I’ll also mention that when Maana told me that she doesn’t use the word picnic because “it comes from lynchings. It’s short for pick-a-ninny,” I first offended her by laughing my arse off, and didn’t mollify her much by saying it was the etymological clap-trap I found hilarious—you find “piquenique” attested in French far too long ago to support such a ugly origin.
Words regarding social groups, whether taboo or not, are an endless source of fascination. I can understand antipathy against terms such as “Indian” and “Gypsy” because they perpetrate geographical ignorance, “spic” because of the associated linguistic stereotypes, or “dago” because of associated behavioral stereotypes, or “dyke” which (probably) derives from a leering association in Dutch between “ditch” and vulva (not very nice, vriend–reminds me of the time hanging out with friends in Amsterdam who regaled me with some nastily imaginative associations between the verb lekken, usually just “to leak” and female physiology).
On the other hand, many of the words that have come to cause offense even to the point of transcending physical violence have no obvious derogatory sense. This isn’t to minimize their offense. Most such words become taboo because they emerged at a time when prevailing attitudes were offensive, and these words are sore reminders of that past. “Nigger” really just means “black,” but emerged from the “dark continent” era where presumed savagery served as justification for actual savagery. “Scotch” is considered a dismissive diminutive pronunciation, a product of colonial royalist attitudes. “Kike” is derived from one of several fairly innocuous associations with common Yiddish names, or “kikel”/”κυκλος” (“circle”) suggesting either circumcision or the signature of an illiterate who prefers not to use something that resembles a Christian cross. “Retarded” would be a very dry, clinical, unremarkable term if it didn’t date from a period of well-meaning attention to the problem that more often than not made things worse by calling attention to and then isolating its designates². “Oriental” just means “eastern”, but dates from a time when exotic connotations at a distance succumbed to “yellow menace” hysteria up close. That reminds me of the converse example of a word, “hysteria”, that does not carry the offense one would expect considering it originated in Greek physicians’ beliefs about the effects of imbalance of humors in the womb (“υστερ”).
Eddie? Why you treat me like animal?
(Bitch, you was butt-naked on a zebra when I met you!)
This arbitrary assignment of words into the taboo or indelicate category doesn’t make it easy for me to take the whole business seriously, but at the same time I recognize the problems with my insouciance. The phenomenology of socially offensive words is as diverse as humanity. Some words that were supposed to kick lumps into Africans everywhere proved effective against Africans of earlier generations. (My father often talks about how grinning Egyptian youths would stroll up to him, and say, by way of demonstrating their mastery of English, “Hey, you a nigger!”) Many of these same words have very little effect among native Africans of my generation. Heck, we routinely shrug off even barbs from our counterparts in the U.S. After Eddie Murphy’s Raw it became a fashionable put-down to call a girl “Mfum-fum.”
We had plenty of pejorative terms of our own, of course, with “Mfum-fum” being if anything a milder form of the more common put-down for a lower-class girl: “bushmeat” (the much less nasty “bushman” being the male equivalent). An Igbo bushman was an “Okoro”, for a common Igbo surname, and it led to a pretty popular song by a singer named Bright Chimezie.
“I went to a disco party and requested for African sound, the whole people called me Okoro. Okoro-le, Okoro. Okoro-le. Okoro…”
(Okoro-le roughly meaning: “Look at that bushman over there.”)
In the Southern region where I lived most of the time, Northern, Muslim Hausa/Fulani took the brunt of casual tribal³ abuse, reflecting the religious tensions in the country. Innocuous terms such as “mallam” (Hausa term for one well educated in the Q’ran) and “cattle-rearer” were anything but innocuous the way we used them. I learned from my brother how his school-mates had taken the Hausa religious praise song.
Nagode Allah, Allah, Nagode Allah, Allah Seriki.
(Thank you Allah, Allah, Thank you Allah, Allah is Lord)
and transmogrified it to
Ndi Hausa ga-ra Calabar, Calabar, Ndi Hausa ga-ra Calabar, Allah Seriki
(Hausa people went to Calabar, Calabar, Hausa people went to Calabar,…)
Which sounds innocuous enough without context, but was probably a swipe at the moderately large Hausa population living and trading in the southern port town of Calabar, where I was born. Some people saw these migrants as a menace, inspired by Northern Premier Ahmadu Bello’s alleged threat to take the Q’ran as far as the sea, meaning to convert the entire country. (Sultan Bello was murdered by Igbo soldiers in Nigeria’s first coup d’état.) Trade migrations, especially by the traditionally adventurous Igbo and Hausa people, fueled many of the ethnic and religious tensions in the country, and casual exaggerations of other Nigerian languages (sort of how some people call Latinos “e-ses” in the U.S.) were the primary form of put-down. With the dozens of current Nigerian languages (hundreds in total, and no, not dialects, languages), there was plenty of room for imaginative abuse.
Burn Hollywood Burn
In the Nigerian Civil war, we actually killed each other over these tensions, and yet to my generation, twenty years later, all that name-calling seemed as nothing compared to what was apparently going on in the U.S. a century after its own civil war, seen through the distant lens of Hollywood. Spellbound by its intensity (and hilarity), most of my Nigerian friends could easily rattle off the entirety of the river of invective by John Turturro’s character in Do the Right Thing.
“You gold-teeth, gold-chain-wearing, fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin’ monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast-running, high-jumping, spear-chucking three-hundred-sixty-degree-basketball-dunking titsun spade mulignane…”
But we’d end it with: “Fuck you, I am in Africa.” It’s hard to beat Spike Lee’s script for such biting streams of invective against Italians, Koreans and Latinos—(Don King interjects: Oh Latinas, did lickle old me neglect you with that)—although the tirade against Jews is pretty weak, as I’ve learned in retrospect (“bagel-and-lox, B’nai B’rith Jew asshole?” What the fuck? Jesse Jackson can do better than that!). Maybe Spike Lee was angling for peace in Crown Heights.
With the Sicilian “titsun” and Neapolitan “mulignane” (I was tickled, ahem, pink to learn from one of my Italian friends that “mulignane” is Neapolitan dialect for “eggplant”) you can see some of that same tribal diversity manifested out-group as I’ve reported for Nigeria. After all, Italians have just as nasty words for each other as they do for Africans. I wouldn’t mind compiling a lexicon of anti-African expressions across Italy. I’m not picking on Italy, but I’m fascinated by the imagination I’ve seen in my small sampling. Although maybe it is apt to pick on Italy, considering the abuse that Mario Balotelli, strong prospect to be the first black player for the Italian national football team, has taken throughout the country as his star has risen.
As another example of how thoroughly the silver screen abstracts tribal pettiness in distant locations, a few years ago I had a bunch of Norwegians in my house, in town for a ski trip. Arild has been my good friend for years, but for the others it was their first time in the U.S. I’d borrowed Training Day from Blockbuster and invited them to watch. That movie is another good one for anthropological study of tribal skirmishing, and there are many better examples than the oft-cited and in my opinion very ham-fisted Crash. In one of the scenes Denzel Washington ends an exchange while driving with his white partner by chuckling indulgently at him and saying, “my Nigger.” At that moment, one of my guests turned to me, chuckled, and said in the same smooth tone, “my Nigger.” I grinned. Lori and I had a good laugh at that later and agreed: “Let’s just hope he doesn’t pull a Francis.” Francis, best man at our wedding had told us how upon first arriving in America from Nigeria, he’d be driving with his friends around the south side of Chicago, and would randomly gesture out the window at people standing on the corner. When his friends asked, “Francis, what are you doing?”, he’d say, “I’m trying to figure out the gang signs, and see what happens.” Needless to say, they told him to keep his mother fucking hands in the car, before he got them all shot. Francis had been watching too much of the Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood genre.
Lori and I have always used pretty hair-raising language with each other, and we have plenty of material, with my immigration from Africa, her “white-bread” Midwestern upbringing, and her father’s derivation from the hills of Tennessee–she has suggested we go visit that part of our kid’s heritage some day, and I told her I wanted to be careful going around with a white mate in any state that has a town named “Lynchburg.” Of course we both know that’s nonsense, having spent a very nice vacation climbing and hiking in Tennessee, though we did stick to the college towns and environs.
Lori and my Norwegian guest illustrate the obvious (but not always appreciated) fact that intent was key. Someone calling me “nigger” means the same as someone calling me “idiot” or even “computer geek” if their intent is to insult me. The personal element of verbal abuse is as harmful as the personal element of physical menace, and though I find endless amusement in tribal invective, I can take it seriously as a dark element of humanity. It’s far more difficult for me to sympathize with cases in which language itself seems to be the only proximate aggressor. In my next article I’ll turn to the truly bewildering politics of language.
¹I do remember from Gainesville one response to being called “nigger”: “I’m not a nigger, I’m a ne-gro / When I become a nigger I’ll let you know.” It occurs to me that even “negro” wouldn’t work these days, and that the wispy distinction this song makes is a foreshadowing of Chris Rock’s “black people” versus “niggers” distinction.
²One of my boys developed physically and intellectually very quickly, and socially/emotionally rather slowly. He’s evening it all out very nicely now, and I like to think much of that comes down to the fact that we never treated him with anything but the utmost naturalness. Regardless, I’d sometimes make the point that his progress in some areas was retarded (always followed by my expectation that he’d sort it all out soon enough), but I learned no to do that when I saw the horrified response to the word by some others. Sometimes even Don King has to tone it down.
³Many Nigerians, and I’ve heard most of all from my father, bristle at the use of “tribe” for Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, and they have a good point. Twenty million Igbos in the country alone (at another few million in recent diaspora, and a large proportion of descendants of forced migrants during the era of slavery), similar numbers of Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani, all with numerous internal divisions, do not constitute “tribes” by any stretch of the imagination. Heck the entire number of the Cherokee nation, with its own hundreds of units are 3-4 orders of magnitude smaller than that. Regardless of all that sound logic, when it comes to describing the pettiness of ethnic discord in Nigeria, and even in the U.S., European nations, in Asia, and heck, everywhere, “ethnic discord” doesn’t cut it for me. A petty word for a petty mindset–“tribalism”.
And please feel free to respond with your own encounters with the harsh language of tribal and social distinction. Don’t be shy. Sure the P.C. police will take you to room 101, but I promise the rest of your linguistic anarchist peeps will be there with the quickness to break you out the clink.
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“your own encounters with the harsh language of tribal and social distinction”
I was once escorting a valued guest and a distinguished member of our board of directors to lunch. As we road down in the elevator I was introducing the board member; “Bob ran marketing at during the 70s and 80s.” says I. Bob stiffened and directing the full power of his position in the hierarchy on me he quietly said: “Sales, not marketing.”