Niggas Speak of Rivers

Under the POETRY tab I have posted a poem that I recently wrote called “Niggas Speak of Rivers.” Some might recognize the play off of a Langston Hughes poem title–”The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Though the poem speaks for itself as a response to the Negro in Hughes’s poem, who recognizes the depths and vastness of our history, the title of the poem is troubling for some and beckons reasoning. To such demands I offer this:

     There was a time when Black people in America said “I will no longer be called a ‘nigger’ and I will not answer to the term ‘colored’” and so we became “Negroes.” We became Negroes and we proclaimed that identity from Harlem apartment windows, in our Negro publications and into any ear that would take the time to hear the proclamation. That time passed. That time passed and it was replaced by a time when we became Africans. We wore our dashikis proudly, our afros at maximum capacity and we flew red, black and green whenever we went wherever we were going. Sadly, that time passed. We then became “Black.” Just Black–nothing more and nothing less. When asked “what are you?” we responded with “Black!” as if it was the most absurd question that ever needed answering. Again, times have changed and, seemingly appropriated from the word “nigger,” a large majority of the Black, once Negro and formally African, community began to accept and identify as “niggas.” Now, to a percentage of people who were born before a certain period of time, and who fancied themselves participants in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the birth of nigga was, and continues to be, devastating. I mean, how can we fight for all of these years to prove ourselves worthy of respect only to claim the improperly-pronounced brand of our slavers? How could we? This question is undoubtedly logical considering the distances that we have traveled, as a people, from not only being called niggers, but also referring to ourselves and our peers as niggers. I cannot, and therefore will not, offer an answer to this question, but I will share my perspective on the use of the word nigga in today’s Black communities and mainstream society.

     Because I have almond-shaped eyes, my skin’s complexion appears mixed, my name is Japanese and my hair doesn’t quite curl like some of my Black brothers and sisters I have been repeatedly asked “what are you?” and for many years my response was “the niggas!” Some people found this response alarming, but it was my attempt at summing-up my loyalties and identities in a quick response. Should I have believed anyone cared to hear the longer version I would have explained, in length, that though there is American Indian, French, Spanish and other European blood that creates undertows in my arteries I do not claim their cultures and in my eyes I am 100% Black. Also included in my explanation is that “nigga” represents a solidarity with my people, who society turns up its nose at–not just White society, but affluent Blacks who sneer at baggy jeans and t-shirts that mimic the dress of our African brothers and sisters. “I am the niggas” meant that I live and breath the struggle of my people, I do not exist above the sneers, I am judged and convicted daily because of my skin and I know where I come from even if I am not sure where I am going. That was my understanding of “nigga.” It was the reappropriation of a word that still stings when slung from pale lips, but that grows power and strength in the mouths of the Black community.

     That was then and this is now.

     Now, I understand that though the word holds deep meaning for me the majority of young, Black brothers and sisters are without context for the words origins, its mutation and its power today. Now, I understand that, like when an artist sells a piece of work he relinquishes custody of the work’s meaning to the buyer, when we sent the word “nigga” out into the world, repeated it on rap song after rap song, in movie after movie and saturated our daily conversations with it we lost custody of the word’s meaning. Today, Whites, Latinos, and Blacks use the word nigga like a substitution for the word “dude” or “man” or “bro” without any regard for the weight of the word, which leads me to the reasoning behind the title of my poem “Niggas Speak of Rivers.”

     I mentioned before that in Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” the narrator of the poem recognizes the depths and vastness of our history through association with rivers across lands and time; in my poem there is a yearning for that recognition and those associations that has been lost on the Black generations that missed the Black Arts and Civil Rights movements. The piece is a declaration of hope that we will return to a time when we are proud, fierce, educated, determined and ready to fight for ours. So, when I write “nigga” in the title of this poem I write it to show the price that was paid when the Black community misplaced its histories–we succumed to the brand of our slavers because we lost sight of the depths and vastness of our history.

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