By Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D.
Recently, a University of Ottawa professor used the N-word during an art and gender class to discuss groups who “re-appropriate” or reclaim terms previously used to disparage or oppress them. Weeks of controversy followed among politicians, academics, people on social media and others. Haitian-Canadian author Dany Laferrière waded in, suggesting that people think twice about removing the N-word from the literature.
I have to commend Laferrière for saying so eloquently what I felt. In my opinion, this re-appropriation of the word “nègre” is being done in French, but not in English. When we call ourselves “nègre” among Haitians, yes that means a man, and even more, a combative, resilient man. And yes, it is a source of pride.
The reason is that in 1935, Aimé Césaire, the poet, playwright, and politician from Martinique, deliberately incorporated this derogatory word into the name of his philosophy to create the Negritude movement. Césaire and his fellow Black students in France at the time — Leopold Senghor from Senegal and Leon Damas from French Guiana — were filled with dissatisfaction, disgust, and personal conflict over the state of the Afro-French experience in France.
These students were influenced by Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin, who wrote De l’Égalité des Races Humaines (On the Equality of Human Races) in 1885. Firmin’s work was a rebuttal to French writer Arthur Gobineau’s essay about the inequality of human races.
Césaire, Senghor and Damas were also influenced by the Haitian ethnologist Jean Price-Mars, who also developed the concept of Indigenism. Thus, Césaire considered Haiti the place “where négritude stood up for the first time” as the first black independent nation.
As a result, the word “nègre” tends to be more accepted in French and has about one century of historical use in the literature, although it is still not mainstream.
In the U.S., the derogatory and controversial use of the N-word has existed for centuries. However, there has been no historical attempt at empowering it. That is why the cultural cleavage exists between the French-speaking and English-speaking countries between “négre” and the N-word, respectively.
In recent decades, younger Black Americans have used the full N-word among themselves in this empowerment spirit. For this same re-appropriation to happen in English, however, the black elite in the United States would have to start a movement in this direction.
This means that the famous black athletes of the NBA, black men and women in professional associations (medical, legal, economic, etc.) or in chambers of commerce would need to stop working as individuals and start working as a collective. They need to show their pride in being a Black community by first pronouncing or writing the entire N-word in English. This shift would further highlight how far the black community has come and might even motivate other black people in marginal situations.
Such a movement would obviously take a long time, but we have to start somewhere. It would be a bit like the “Me-too” movement that has empowered many women to share their stories of sexual assault. Black Anglophone writers could start with an essay titled “The Elite and Proud Niggers of America.” That essay would be in the same anti-colonialism vein as “Nègres blancs d’Amérique” written by Pierre Vallières in 1968. It would showcase the success stories of many Black Americans, U.S.-born and immigrant, while indicating the path forward for marginalized Blacks.
At the end of this journey, which will be very long, this N-word could be used by anyone, in English or French, as long as it is in the empowerment spirit. Given that it is fairly easy to know when someone uses the word in a derogatory way, that person would pay the consequences, as it is the case today.
Ariste is an adjunct professor at Université Laval in Québec. He teaches in the Department of Operations and Decision Systems.