I hear my student say that word and I’m not surprised. I knew this student was going to say it because this student is clueless to the world; he knows only what he has been brought up to believe. He was raised in a world I am way too familiar with and so I knew he’d say it because in his country and in the country of his parents, the word “n*gger” doesn’t exist. He is from one of the Latin American countries where boys are men and women are girls because somehow that’s how it was supposed to be because it was always like that. He is from a country where there is no color only country, which means how they treat people who look like me is a common as breathing, which is to say you don’t apologize for filling your air with lungs, which is to say it’s natural. And to be dark in Latin America is to be lower than the starving strays in the market place begging for food.
At least that’s how my sister and I are looked at when we visit our family in Central America. Our skin, both sideshow and repulsive.
Since there are so few of us on campus, the Latin Americans, and because I speak Spanish, I get a pass and I’m included.
“But it’s in the story,” he protests. The story being “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
I’m only slightly relieved that this encounter is contained in my office. I don’t have the bandwidth to have that conversation in a formal classroom setting. I’ve created my office to be a safe space. For me. I’ve kicked out the harsh light in exchange for the soft glow from lamps. There is a throw pillow on the chair that says: “Live your wildest dreams”. There is a huge photo of Paris and the Eiffel Tower at dusk from an unconventional angle because one day I’ll go, maybe if I save enough of my teacher’s salary. Maybe when I go I can catch the break I’m not getting now. On the streets of Paris is where James Baldwin was allowed some humanity. It’s where he felt the most American and where Black was different, somewhat allowed. In my office there are pictures of my favorite writers hung on the walls and my desk is clear, open, and ready to help students with their writing while my own is stuffed at the other end of my desk, waiting for me to pay attention.
In class, I make them read Dr. King and they say that what happened during that time is so far away. That that’s not happening now. They say this while Atatiana Jefferson was shot in her home while watching her nephew. They say that when Ahmaud Arbery was shot getting exercise because he “looked” like a burglar.
They say and have said all of this while being okay with saying the word “n*gger” to an Afro-Latina educator.
My student, bless his heart, says the word in an apologetic tone. He stumbles over the “ni” and holds out the “ger” a little too long. His eyes lock with mine like a puppy who knows they are doing wrong but is waiting for my reaction. I don’t react. I’ve already braced myself for the impact, the questioning, the defiance.
The actress of Puerto Rican origin, Gina Rodriguez, said the word “nigga” while singing along to The Fugees and then quasi-apologized for doing it before re-apologizing for it in an Instagram story. And the world knew she’d say it one day so they braced for it and prepared for the public dragging, Black Twitter being more efficient at assassinations than snipers. She was easy work. This wasn’t her first time.
She said it because it was in the song.
This wasn’t the first time she used words like grenades, apologizing for the shrapnel after. She’s not the first one to do the same, others just say it under their breath. But she is more like another category of none white people who have made a home in the word, gentrified it. Gina offered her family as collateral, saying her father was part of the community and by extension, she was also part of the community and that gave her permission. Because her father was dark. Dark skinned. Darker than her.
But he is not dark. He is not dark like my Cuban dad was, negro, prieto, a mix of African ancestry and sugar cane suns that had darkened him even more. Her father was nothing like my father and her skin was nothing like my skin. Dark, black, negra like a shout.
Gina has claimed a blackness as dark as a mid-day sun. She has, by extension, taken my identity and wears it like a cape, protection, a justification. But in Latin American culture, you take what you need to justify your needs. A brutal gentrification. Colonization without the gun, but just as effective.
And so Latino media begins to call her Afro-Latina and by extension, she is baptized Black. She has taken from me in one sentence what has taken me years to earn — a complete and unapologetic blackness.
Through the years, I have found myself in the word “n*igger”; how it’s home and hurricane, how it’s welcome and slap, depending who says it. I found the familiar in the space between the first vowel and the double consonant sound, an entire world, a culture, a language, a respite. Beyond that, I found permission, not to say it or to be it, but to claim it as an experience.
The history of the n-word and the Spanish word “negro” has the same etymology, the Latin root word “niger” meaning black. When the first slaves were kidnapped to American shores in 1619, John Rolfe called them “negars” and perhaps that is the first time that word is documented on American soil. Negars. Not slave but not really nigger either. Through the centuries that word and its descendants have been written through sales papers, journals, newspapers, and other documentation in several ways including niggor, negers, niger. The evolution of the word, the heaviness of it, didn’t come until later but the ugliness of it was always there, almost since its inception in this part of the continent — chains, forced travel, subordinate, not good enough, not light enough.
But let’s not forget that the word came from the Spanish and Portuguese languages, just like my family name, Fernandez, and that the ancestor of the n-word was to mean a member of the “black-skinned raced of Africa”, according to entomology online. Incidentally, Fernandez is derived from Fernando. FARO meaning journey and NANO being brave. Brave journey or a brave traveler.
My ancestors and I bask in the irony daily.
In Latin American countries, where so many things stay the same for so long, the same place my student was from, the word for Black stayed close to its origins. Negro. Negra. Those words have different connotations but they all mean the same thing, black and therefore other. What’s more interesting is what the connotation of other means — thief, rapist, sex-starved, sex-fiend, dumb, sly, exotic, property.
Property doesn’t always mean body.
You and the culture of your ancestors belong to the big label, Latinos. You belong to the label but the label doesn’t belong to you.
You do not belong in their circle despite the language you speak and the customs, originally of your ancestors, you practice.
To be Afro-Latino you need a couple of things. You have to have come from Latino ancestry, African ancestry, Indigenous ancestry because Cristobal Colon was un hijo de puta, come mireda of the highest caliber, and, here’s the thing people forget, you have to be Black. Like capital B black, like if you don’t open your mouth folks be thinking you from down south Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi, like Black like you go to the hair shop and folks be thinking you know what you doing, like Black like if you walk in certain spots in this country you could be shot, beaten or lynched or all three if you’re not careful.
Black like Ahmaud, like Sandra, like Freddy, like Philando, like…like…like…
That’s the part that people like to play with, hopscotch around, gentrify.
The first time a student denied me my blackness, I wasn’t ready for it so I couldn’t brace myself for the impact.
“I’m blacker than you.”
He said I’m like he owned this, like it didn’t belong to me, like I should be ashamed. And so he made me feel ashamed because I didn’t know something that he believed Black people should know.
Who gets to decide blackness? Who gets to tell me that black beans and rice isn’t Black? That salsa and mambo isn’t Black? Who is the person or committee responsible for telling me that my Black isn’t valid because my ancestors came from haciendas and not plantations? Am I invited to the cookout? Do I need a special pass?
I went home that night with the student’s voice in my ear. He claimed blackness because he was mixed — Black and Italian — but denied me mine. His voice taunted me; it tasted like sick. He wasn’t the first to deny me my blackness, just the latest in a long string of people saying I wasn’t really Black or not even Black enough. Students, classmates, sorority sisters, co-workers. All of them had something to say, all of them wanted to chime in.
“You are not Black, Black but you’re black enough.”
That was the last time someone was going to have an opinion on my existence.
Back in my office, I react to the student.
“You don’t get to say that word,” I said, poking out each of the words in mid-air.
My student from Latin America was confused, but not really. He was challenging it. He thought that because we had the same word for cat, and mouse, and dog, that he was home.
“But it’s in the text.”
“You haven’t earned the context of that word. And you will not say it in front of me, in front of the class, or anyone else ever.”
“I’m not done talking,” I interrupt. “He used it in an effect for an argument. You are not questioning its use, you are using it to see if I’m going to react. I am. And I am offended. Do better.”
N*gger is the other side of home, the full weight of someone else’s bastardized blackness stereotype and in the process the denial of what Black is. It is a question mark but the question isn’t whether it should be said with an “a” or “er” but how much of blackness are you vilifying with its use. Specifically, when it is said to me, this Afro-Latina, the word “n*gger” takes the blackness I have struggled to reclaim, soils it, and then returns it me defiled. And thus I am defiled. And thus, sometimes, it’s when I feel the most Black. Because whether the Black is American, Latin American, French, Spanish or other, what is common is having our identities defiled. The common language we all speak fluently is rage. Anger and frustration are our homes.
I feel the most Black when I let my Cuban rise to my ears and let it boil. I feel the most Black when my hair is wet with product and my satin cap is on during bedtime. I feel the most Black when my wide hips hit every salsa beat, resting on the 4s and 8s. I am blackest when my tongue rolls the “R”s in my name AND I hit a Biggie verse in my own version of Carpool Karaoke. That’s what I do as I drive home, putting distance between me, the conversation with the student, and his apology.
But home is not where the apologies are.
Kennedy, Randall. “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” The Washington Post, 11 Jan. 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/nigger.htm.
“Negro (n.) .” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/negro.
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