Last weekend (well, multiple weekends ago when this is actually posted, but last weekend at time of writing (which I am doing while sat crosslegged on the floor of the tube because I’m a normal grown up lol)), I ended up working at a South London arts festival aimed at a celebration of the cultural acheivements of – to use the event’s language – “the African diaspora”. I saw beautiful short films and poetry readings, heard songs and debate and engaged argument, and a lot of the conversations that were being held – both within the artistic works and in those I overheard people having about the works – centred on the importance of language and its relationship to race, to ethnicity.
I, as a white man, have never stopped to consider the simple associations of the generally accepted words we use to describe melanin levels. I use the word “white” to describe my own skin, rather than the more accurate phrase “burnt pink”. This isn’t a decision I have ever consciously made, but it is one that has been made, at some point, by some people. “Burnt pink” is the most realistic way I can think of to describe my skin tone and the skin tone of other non-Nordic, non-Celtic Northern Europeans. “Burnt pink”, though, makes my skin sound like flesh, like meat. It is far more visceral than the word “white”, which I think is the only descriptor I have ever heard anyone else use to describe what is commonly known as – skinwise – “whiteness”.
White, actual white, as in the actual colour (not as in the skin colour), is ephemeral, is [day] light… white has associations of purity and safety. Pinkness is not a pure colour: our insides are pink, whatever the colour of our skin; the raw flesh of meat is pink or red, pink has associations with lust, with sex, with genitalia, pink and red have associations with blood and meat and death and war. Black, the colour (not the skin colour), is similarly associated with darkness, with the night, with risk (and thus with passion) and – on an allegorical level – with evil. Labelling all who are not “white” (and what is meant by “white” has shifted over time) as “black” sets up diametric opposition between races, between people and between peoples. But we – humanity – are not opposites: inside we are all the same.
Language is a simple tool that can be used to build barriers between us. These barriers start as psychological but can quickly become physical. We – en masse – want to define ourselves by what we are not, not by what we are.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes in detail about the Nation of Islam (NOI), the black Muslim church run by Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed that lobbied in the 1960s for free land as reparation for slavery, as well as the eventual distancing of all “white devils” from black people, creating two separate nations in the lands that are still known as the USA.
NOI believed in the importance and the power of a black God – Allah – for black people, whose worship would unite all those who have been wronged by centuries of oppression and colonialism and slavery. The Nation of Islam was an affluent and influential organisation that received funding not only from rich black people trying to help their peers, but also – allegedly – from filthy rich white oil barons down Texas way who similarly thought that complete ethnic segregation was what America needed.
The Nation of Islam failed to convince James Baldwin for the same reasons, and amongst the same conversations, as the speakers, thinkers and filmmakers I encountered in South London were also discussing in a different place, at a different time. Repeatedly, in discussion, questions were raised and explored about the importance of nomenclature, of how an individual or a group is named and the associations held by that name. Due to the mass cultural (as well as geographic) displacement that occurred as a result of slavery, hundreds of millions of people (if not more) lost their ancestral names and languages and identities. Attempting to amalgamate all of these identities into a singular “black” identity is understandably unsatisfying, as well as inaccurate.
Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time about his name, Baldwin, coming from either a slave owner or a slave dealer, and this is why many people within the Nation of Islam replaced their “slaver names” with an X, to indicate the loss. A short drama I saw at the arts festival centred on an argument between a middle aged black immigrant to the UK having a bitter argument with her millennial daughter who had decided to change her name to something she believed – following research – was more appropriate to her ancestral identity. What Baldwin writes about, and the elder character in this drama spoke about, was the validity of feelings related to “lost” names and lost histories, but how this makes a second erasure, of the names of the generations of people who suffered, hugely, during the last four or five hundred years.
Baldwin writes about this being a risk, a removal again, of the lives of the people who suffered the most. The fact that this is contentious still is a sign of the debate’s validity. To take away the name of someone who did what they had to do to survive, slowly slowly slowly changing things, improving things, living horrible oppressed lives, is that judging them for allowing their previous proper noun erasure? I don’t have an opinion on this, because it is not my issue to have an opinion on, but it is a hugely emotive issue for many people for understandable reasons.
There is a power in denying the label foisted upon the oppressed by the oppressor – and not just family names, but supposedly PC terms like BME and BAME – but with this comes the risk of implying a judgement on those who came before. James Baldwin was able to become the lauded international literary figure that he was because of the Baldwins who came before him, he argues, not in spite of them. Seeking a name that is closer to an ancestral, African, self detaches oneself from the immediacy of the previous generation and – as depicted in the drama I saw – it is not difficult to imagine a real sense of hurt for a parent who feels their child is denying the name that has described their family for their whole lives.
This book is beautifully written, it is moving and it is intelligent and poetic. I highly recommend it. Am too stressed at the moment to write any more.
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