Wednesday, June 16, 2010

                              Niggas in the Point Bring Change

     I spent last week at a death penalty seminar on Lake Blackshear near Cordele, GA, which was more fun than it sounds, but then it would almost have to be wouldn’t it?

     One of the things we talked about there was race--how it affects our relations with clients, the jury, our co-workers. We Southerners love to talk about race--it’s so much a part of our culture and history, unlike say, Idaho, where there seem to be more whites who think they hate blacks then there are blacks to hate--and our discussion had much more active participation (we were black, white, and Latino) than previous subjects, which pale in comparison. (I can’t recall any of them at the moment. They had to do with mental health mostly).

     Which started me to thinking about a subject I’ve been toying with writing about: niggas. Not the word with the “er” on the end and its hate connotations, but niggas (or niggahs), what Big Boi, or an anonymous black person on the street, is to Andre. (If you don’t know who Big Boi and Andre are, you’re probably not ready to read this piece).

     In my discussion group at the seminar I related the following anecdote.

     Some of my white acquaintances sometimes refer to me as a redneck and I take no offense. I sometimes refer to myself as a redneck. After all, a redneck lady raised me.

     The only time I’ve ever been called a redneck by a black person was in the early seventies in a parking lot just outside the entrance to Underground Atlanta. It was about 2:00 a.m. and my friend and I were leaving our shift at Dante’s Down the Hatch. My pockets were full of money, but for reasons I don’t recall work had left me in a disgruntled, don’t-give-a-shit state.

     A black teenager fell in beside us and inquired, “You redneck?”

      I have trouble making chit-chat—I was worse at 22—and greetings like “What’s up?” cause me to stop and consider “What is up?” (Although if you ask me “Wassup?” I know the correct response to be, “Wassup?”) And so I pondered this question and replied, “Well, I don’t know, what is a redneck?” My friend—we’ll call him Terry Kennedy—who was later to inform me that our inquisitive friend was fingering a large knife in his pocket as he spoke, quickly assured him that I was not a redneck, I was just stupid.

     Fortunately for me and my unborn children, an Atlanta City cop walked up at just this instant (“What’s the trouble here?”) and the discussion broke up.

     Now if a black person of my acquaintance should tell me, “You’re just a redneck, Millsaps,” I wouldn’t take offence, but this young man in the parking lot intended it as hate speech. He assumed, with considerable historic evidence on his side, that redneck hated him and if I were one I was about to become filleted redneck.

     OK, I see he didn’t actually call me a redneck but my point is the same.

     I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to tell the above story—in an abbreviated form and without the oh-I’m-so- clever asides—to my discussion group, but I told it to show a mirror image of the “n-word” problem, which seemed pertinent to the discussion at the time.

     And I know it’s not the same. “Redneck,” is not a term applied indiscriminately to all social classes of white people, and more importantly there’s not the history of slavery and social oppression, but it’s as close as whites can come, I think, to appreciating black experience of the n-word.

     Black people, I don’t know exactly when, stated calling each other “niggas,” for much the same reason, it appears, that American Revolutionaries adopted the Brit’s derisive “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as their theme song. It’s a term of comradery, solidarity.

     (Bill Clinton, “the first black president,” is, according to my lights, a redneck. If Bill and I hung around together, I imagine we’d call each other rednecks. And if Bill were my buddy, I’d probably smoke a lot better cigars and get a lot more—well, you know).

     White culture—youth culture anyway—became aware that black people call each other niggas when hip hop became mainstream. It’s now not only mainstream, it’s the predominate musical culture of young people worldwide.

     And “nigga” is probably the most prolific non-article or linking verb word in that music. Sorry ho, that’s just the way it is.*

     Young white males in the American South now refer to each other in informal situations as niggas. It’s a term connoting solidarity and comradery. It means, roughly, “dude” but with more affection. Will this phenomenon cross over to white-black intercourse?

     I’m of the opinion that it will, and soon, and I think that’s a good thing, a milestone of sorts. Because nigga, you can’t have it both ways. If you bandy the term about as a substitute for “my good fellow,” and you’re the dominant culture, it’s natural that your admiring listeners will adopt the term. You can’t teach somebody to dance and then fault them for getting down. They mean no harm; they mean “my good fellow.”

     And I think sensible young African Americans get this. There was an outcry among some of their knee-jerk elders when Outkast entitled a song about moving “on back to the back of the bus” as a joyous excursion, “Rosa Parks.” The lawsuit went away and the faux uproar subsided.

     Which reminds me that I save up lines in my head, waiting, sometimes years, for the opportune moment to say them. For example, there was a radio hit in the pre-Beatles sixties by Walter Brennan--yes, that’s Grandpa Amos McCoy-- entitled “Old Rivers” which he talks his way though and it begins “Yeah, I remember Old Rivers.” I memorized this song and developed a dead-on Walter Brennan imitation.

     Fifteen years later in the cafeteria at Georgia State University, a friend, we’ll call him Terry Kennedy, introduced me to an acquaintance of his who after a few minutes of lunch table conversation asked—I don’t remember what could have prompted it—“Do you remember a song called Old Rivers?” I, having waited so long for this question, said, “Yeah…”

     I sincerely hope that someday somebody is going to become put out with me and my ragged company and ask, “Just what kind of people are you?” To which I will reply, “We the type of people make the club get crunk.”

     *I had intended to use the plural of “ho,” but there’s no consensus as to what that is.

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