Language and Black Identity …

Much of what we consider to be our identity can be found in the language that we use. We can learn so much about who we are from how our language is constructed. It is actually quite interesting how language shapes our perception and experiences of the world. There’s a term for it, it’s called Linguistic Determinism.

Here’s a simple example:

When an English speaker greets, they will say, “Hello. How are you?” The response would be, “Hello. I am good. How are you?” A person speaking isiZulu would say, “Sawubona. Unjani?” The response would be, “Sawubona. Ngiyaphila. Wena unjani?”

Now, hello and how are you are pretty straight forward. Sawubona is different. Directly translated, it means “we see you”. This is based on an understanding that every person is a representation of all the peoples he/she originates from. “We”, as myself and my people, see “You” and all your people. This, first and foremost is an acknowledgement of your very existence and an acknowledgement of those who have come before you. This speaks of a reaffirmation of belonging, that even if you are a stranger to me, I know that you belong.

The reply, “ngiyaphila”, means “I am alive” or “I live”. This, as part of greeting, means that I am acknowledging the fact that above all that may be happening in my life, first and foremost I am grateful to be alive. In Setswana and Sesotho, names that begin with an “O” make a reference to God. What this reveals is that a belief in God does not just make up an aspect of spirituality but the fact is, spirituality is a part of our lives from birth. Now, if you consider that all languages have an origin, this greeting gives you an understanding of sociology and how people related to each other in ancient times. When they say African history is oral, they don’t just mean sitting around a fire and telling stories; the knowledge is actually embedded in the language itself.

As guys we’ve come accustomed to calling women b*s or iifebe. How does linguistic determinism works in this context is that if I, as guy, see a woman walking down the street and, in my mind or to my friend, I call her a b*. The connotations of these terms are pretty open to interpretation; I could mean a whole host of things. But bare in mind, I am just looking at a woman walking down the street. Importantly, by calling her that, I put the onus of those definitions on her, which is HER title.

Yet, it is only a reality in MY world, not hers. Now, if by some miracle, in that very instant, that word was to be erased from my mind. I couldn’t “write her off” with one word. In that moment, because b* is an unnumbered collection of perceived behaviours, I would actually have to list them in my mind. In listing them, I have to go through a list of MY prejudices. Why? Well, because in that moment, all she did was walk down the road. This means that I took my reality that has been conveniently shaped into a word, forced her into it, and made her responsible for my own thinking process. Reason being that in that moment, b* only exists in mind, every filthy connotation that I am projecting on her, all the disgusting things I think she does, I have had to dig within my own self to find them.

Language (through Linguistic determinism) has shaped our history. Consider Apartheid in SA and slavery in the US and the advent of Kaffir and Nigger. In the thick of Apartheid and slavery, no black man or woman could deny being a k* or a n*. This was the identity that black people were given, virtually by law. Yet, back then (as today) any white person could deny being a racist, and they would even be given the benefit of the doubt.

With the use of those two words, merely seeing a black man and for him to be referred to using those terms, a white person could beat them down on sight. Why? Because of the collective connotations of those words, connotations that need not be true to that specific man. Why? Emmett Till was 14yr black American who in 1955 was mutilated for speaking to a white woman. Is greeting a crime? No, but if you throw n* at him, you create a reality whereby you are allowed, and entitled, to assume that he is a viscous, sadistic rapist on the prowl. Both these terms put the onus of the meanings of these words on the person being called them. People who came of up with these terms had this belief that black people had a supernatural ability to be bad. But, there’s nothing that any black man has ever done that a white man cannot do. Also, there is nothing that black people have done that white people have not done, and far worse. Yet, k* and n* only describe what black people were perceived as.

Here’s the irony, a farmer could brutally rape a cotton picker woman in front of her husband. Thereafter, then walk about town with his head held high. Why? Because she’s a n*, she is lewd and disgusting. In SA, innocent children could be shot DEAD in the streets and the guy would attend church on Sunday with a clean conscience. Why? Most definitely because they are k*s. Up till this very day, there has never been a word to describe what white people did to black people. A word that so fully captures the realities of their actions that it is even banned. A word so frightening that the mere mention of it gives one a glimpse into what it feels like for the human spirit to be bludgeoned to waking death. Apartheid just meant keeping people apart. It refers to a piece of government legislation. But it does speak of what ordinary citizens did. It does not speak of what ordinary, God fearing, loving mothers and fathers did to other human beings. Racism is, as a term, tragically limited.

I mean really, because this word does not exist, and most likely, it never will. Some would even suggest it never should. Nonetheless, because this word does not exist, the realities of what black people went through can be written off as figment of their imagination. And, as memory fades, the deepest wounds will be blamed on the bluntest knives, the most harrowing of traumas blamed on lesser slights.

Photography: Steven Onoja