National Identity, Authenticity, and Going Native: Fanon’s Nigger

I enjoyed the TED talk posted in our class blog this week.  I really appreciated her bringing up the idea of women and oppression or “pseudo-oppression” (as I will call it) as it relates to dress.  Cait, you and I have had this very same discussion about what women from other countries wear (as well as female circumcision).  As Westerners, we simply assume that women whose faces and/or entire bodies are covered must, quite naturally, be oppressed, must be told that they should cover up due to the male gaze, due to shame, and because the female body must be concealed rather than enjoyed and used as a vehicle for free expression.  Because we are so sexually liberated in America (as compared to third world countries, at least – Europe is far beyond us in this department), we understand how to admire the female form without doing violence to it (although we have, in many forms, A LOT).  We also, then, have the tendency to interpret women covering up their bodies as negative, uptight, and sexually oppressive.  Many American women, I think erroneously, believe that if you are proud of your body and feel positively about what can be seen as flaws (i.e. stretch marks, cellulite, etc.), then you should place it on display.

However, I can completely understand when this speaker tells us that we have choices.  Where one woman finds vulnerability another may find comfort or self-esteem in what she puts on her body, and vice versa.  After chatting with Cait about this idea, I realize that many women enjoy wearing their burqas, just as this speaker tells us that the Japanese woman is free to wear her kimono and the Indian woman her sari – I would also argue that these women should be able to adorn themselves with these cultural symbols without being labeled as simplified, cultural stereotypes.  Like the speaker here says, “We don’t want to have what there is in the west,” so let’s leave these women be.  Rather than a woman’s dress signifying submission and feminine oppression, such women may simply long to express pride in where they come from, and are perhaps more comfortable in long, loose-fitting layers than the image of the powerful American business woman sporting a tight skirt and stilettos.  Perhaps it is this “national identity” which some women choose to express when dressing themselves.

In the film Sex and the City 2, the ladies travel to Abu Dhabi, and they giggle and watch in fascinated awe as the native women momentarily push aside their niqabs (I think this is the correct term?  I looked it up – it is the veil which covers women’s faces, with the exception of their eyes) to eat french fries, an obvious and comically ironic scenario as french fries symbolize America.  What the Sex girls here may have missed is that these women are not terrified of sex or their own flesh, but rather insist on their national identity.  It is also in this film that, in private, the women of Abu Dhabi unveil and disrobe to flaunt to these American women that they are wearing all the hottest trends from the most elite designers worldwide.  Although this is meant to be a bonding experience amongst women, a moment meant to transcend culture, it is just a slap in the face to multicultural sensitivity.  Many women enjoy covering up and prefer to do so, perhaps because they can wear pajamas underneath (as suggested by our TED speaker), but not because they are forced to conceal that which they long to display for others.  Whatta load of crap.

Now that I got that off my chest:

Regarding national identity, I am still (happily) stuck on this concept of authenticity.  What is authentic?  who says?  Our Post-Colonial Studies acknowledges “the danger of ignoring the possibility that cultures may develop and change as their conditions change” (17).  Fantastic!  I had not thought of this before.  As cultures inevitably change, evolve, and progress, an outsider simply cannot grasp a stagnant, outdated concept of what it means to be, say, black or French or Middle Eastern, or gay, transgendered, or a woman.  As we have all agreed within our own blogs, we simply cannot gather these notions and images up in a tidy pile and stuff them into a little box for our own personal reference and bias.  In high school, my friend Tiffany was harassed because she was one quarter black – she had traditional black traits such as a flat nose, her full, beautiful hair was curly and kinky, and she had a nice round bottom, but her skin was freckled and white as snow.  Our classmate Tanya, who herself was mulatto, pressed the issue of what Tiffany considered herself to be:  black or white.  This was her choice…choose one and embrace it.  I would like to think that we have progressed beyond this type of thinking today, and that we encounter such people as Tiffany and Tanya as the marriage of two very different cultures and races, and that is okay.  I hope that people like these girls I knew come to understand that their identities are a lovely mixture of cultures, and that they owe no one an explanation or apology.

Césaire (yes, I can accent the E – go here to learn how!) writes that “colonization = ‘thingification’” (62).  Wow.  Yes, this is exactly what colonizing a group of people accomplishes – they are transformed not into a herd of cattle as some would argue, but just things, things we use as “an instrument of production” (Césaire 62).  Let’s see.  After we dragged the Africans back here in chains and used their labor for our own profit, and over 200 years later, we can now turn on the television and watch the NBA in action to witness this same phenomenon.  Does this sound familiar?  noticing a pattern?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m also completely blown away by Fanon’s words about “nigger, not a nigger like all other niggers but a real nigger [my emphasis]” (207).  The concept of returning to one’s own people is what makes one a real or true nigger because it means that you have sullied yourself, sacrificed your new identity and chosen to grow in a different direction.  This means that a black person with African roots who returns to his or her “mother land” and/or adopts a new, authentic (careful, now, with this word!) African name, that person is an authentic nigger.  This, to me, explains why black culture has reclaimed this poisonous word; if black people are continually labeled as such, then that is what they will be.  However, the word may take on an entirely new, more positive, meaning for them.  And it is here that we can reference back to the suggestion that authenticity is a dangerous and contradictory idea because cultures must grow and change.  This unrecognizable-ness Fanon speaks of may also have links to colonizers’ “thingification” of the colonized.  If you do not look familiar, you do not exist.

In any case, I think it is unwise to get too caught up in this idea of “authenticity” because it seems stifling to me.  Was my friend Tiffany an inauthentic black person because she looked white or was she an inauthentic white person because she had a mulatto father?  I think it is important to remember that her experience, both tragic and positive, is authentic.

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. cturn215 says:

    Jenny,

    You are right on in your comparison of the NBA to slavery. There is an excellent article in last year’s Atlantic which analysis this particular phenomenon with regard to collegiate athletics, and it is very, very troubling,

    What I love about Fanonism is its merging of materialist and psychoanalytic theories. F.F.’s theory of the “muscular contradiction” occurring when the colonized intellectual absorbs Western history and views it “throughout the continent which he wants to make his own” essentially posits that the natural reaction of the “native intellectual” to the hypocrisy and racism inherent to Western intellectualism is to embrace violence, both literally and figuratively(206). This flies in the face of colonial theories which suggested that colonized races would never be capable of “self rule” because of some deficiency within their genetic makeup (Aschroft and Griffiths, 83). The reason that Fanon stresses the importance of materialist violence–“hand to hand struggle”–rather than simple cultural awareness is to avoid the the trappings of nationalism at the expense of liberation, to avoid getting caught in a “banal search for exoticism”(207). “The intellectual…wishes to attach hold of the people”, Fanon laments, “instead he only catches hold of their outer garments”(208).

    I think your friends Tiffany and Tanya–although as an Irish-Catholic American, I am certainly in no position to speak for or about P.O.C., so I am only furthering your anecdote to the extent that it can be situates within my analysis of Fanon’s text–that it is only due to the false binaries created by American capitalism that your friends felt pressure to choose one identity, one race, and one “authentic” expression of self: white or black? Fanon states that “there can be no two cultures which are completely identical. To believe that it is possible to create a black culture is to forget that niggers are disappearing, just as the people who brought them into being are seeing the breakup of their economic and cultural supremacy. There will never be such a thing as black culture because there is not a single politician who feels he has a vocation to bring black republics into being”(211). Your biracial friends, instead of being encouraged by their educators and their society to explore histories and the meanings–political, cultural, and psychological–behind their experiences of “mixed” ethnicity instead bought into the pressure to choose one identity, just as Fanon bemoans the fact that Kenyans and Senegalese and Tunisians choose to “leave off shoes that come from Paris or Italy in favor of pampooties” instead “taking their place{s} in the struggle for freedom” (210).

    Also, I remember that Burka conversation. Here is a video for a song which I think may fit the timbre of our discussion.

  2. cturn215 says:

    I should add that the trio itself is quite the cultural hodge-poge, consisting of of “London-born, Sri Lankan songwriter and front woman Sasha Perera and two beat-freak producers/multi-instrumentalists—Teuton Robot Koch and Tel-Aviv born Oren Gerlitz”(Wikipedia).

  3. cturn215 says:

    Oh dear god, please excuse my grammar here. The “analysis” should read “analyzes”, and in my first comment there are two “ofs” where there should only be one “of”. Yeesh.

  4. lotusgurl says:

    Perfect! I love it – she takes it from behind, she takes it from below! I actually wrote about black barbie for Dr. Mahoney when we took Rhetoric – I even pointed out that she was just barbie’s marginalized, ghetto friend who barely counted (because she probably listened to militant music and collected welfare). Black barbie wasn’t even black! Her body and features were all identical to white barbie, and her hair was soft as silk! Fuck you, Mattel.

  5. clutzclemens says:

    What a cool connection. I think you will really like (if I do say so myself) the lecture I posted that you will watch in a few weeks in which I discuss the rhetoric of veiling. You are both touching on important issues having to do with representation and meaning. And as for that last comment, I am just praying no one gives Ev a Barbie doll for her first birthday. I think everyone knows me well enough…I hope.

  6. clutzclemens says:

    Oh, and fantastic use of images. They really elevate your ability to convey the message.

  7. Sean Weaver says:

    I find it quite odd that Fanon would choose to use Nigger as away to reconnect to his past. How can he argue that in order to become a nation one must dig into his or her historical past. Wouldn’t you think he would choose some other word as a way to promote nationess, considering Whites used it as a callous and extremely hateful slur against slaves? It would seem that Fanon is not taking his own advice because he is using a name colonizers gave slaves. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for Fanon to research an ancient name in some form of tribal language? It just doesn’t make sense, other then the fact that he’s trying to appropriate the word “nigger” for the sake of authenticity. I think he should have practiced what he preached because his argument seems somewhat hyprocritical.

  8. Sean Weaver says:

    sorry for the typo’s its hard to comment properly from a smart phone :/

  9. lotusgurl says:

    Sean,

    I totally understand where you’re coming from. I can’t speak for Fanon, nor do I know anything of his history, heritage or culture. However, aside from black culture reclaiming the N-word as a casual slang term, I somehow think that the move he’s making is subversive. I don’t think his piece is about his neglect to “practice what he preaches”; it’s about suffering and the manipulation of language to work in one’s favor. Some can say, after all, it is only a word…but words have power for both good and bad. Think of Fanon’s use of the N-word in the same context in which modern feminists have reclaimed and shifted the meanings of the words “bitch,” “cunt,” “pussy,” and “dyke.” There’s a reason that there’s a feminist magazine called Bitch, a feminist memoir-ish (how to classify?!) book called Cunt, and an artistic, lesbian-run project called “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

    Maybe Fanon assumes that along with the history of the N-word come the deep roots of slavery, humanization, and oppression. Fanon is not using the word in a derogatory sense, but rather as a way of acknowledging what took place a long time ago. I think it’s also important to remember that what one may find offensive, another will find liberating. I would never use the N-word, and I don’t think any of us would, but we must remember the different meanings it has to those outside of ourselves.

    On a final note, I respectfully disagree with you about digging into one’s past. Not that I know what it’s like to be black, I know what it’s like to be marginalized. That being said, I think that for one to entirely embrace one’s national identity and blackness, it is necessary to read about slavery and to read authors such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs, just as it is imperative that women today read Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir.

  10. Sean Weaver says:

    I see how I was misunderstood. Instead of saying “I find it quite odd that Fanon would choose to use Nigger as away to reconnect to his past. How can he argue that in order to become a nation one must dig into his or her historical past” I should have said “How can Fanon argue using the nigger is a way to reclaim the past.” Because I whole heartedly agree one needs to use the past to understand ones nation. After your explanation I understand Fanon using the word nigger a little better now. By the way, I also know what it’s like to be marginalized. I mean I may be a white privileged male, but I think being gay totally defeats any idea of social privilege. Gays do not have equal rights, and sometimes I feel like we never will. However, I could never see myself taking a word like faggot, stool pusher, or flammer to reconnect to my past. All are extremly hateful words and I would never call myself or fellow gays such names. What would Harvey Milk’s sacrifice meant if I were to choose using such words? He was a man, simply a gay man who made it possible to pave the way for gay rights, NOT a faggot. He fought against such stereotypes. The idea of appropriation is great, but behind those words are people who fought long and hard to undo such representations. You can be as radical as you want, but the meaning of any hateful word will never change as long as there are people who are still willing to use it to put others down.

  11. Sean Weaver says:

    Achebe chose to forsake all stereotypes and decided to reconnect with his nations past through the idea of mbari–a ritual that works through celebrating artistic expression. Mbari was special to the Igbo nation, and as such held a high position in such culture. I think reclaiming this mbari is much more beneficial then taking a word like nigger and using it as a rallying word. I’m sorry, I am just adament about not using such a word. I hate every sense of what that word stands for, and I guess thats why I am sort of upset for Fanon for using it.

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