when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

NYC Subway, 7 January 2011, 7:42 AM

with 2 comments

Prospect Lefferts, Brooklyn, 5 January 2011

West 4th Street A, C, E subway station, uptown platform

I board the E train shoulder to shoulder with a 50ish black man. We squeeze together because there’s a person—very tall and on the thin side, wearing a high-waisted winter coat—blocking the door. The person doesn’t turn to the side as most people do when nudged, even the average door blocker. He holds his turf. The older black man grumbles as we wiggle our way into a free pocket of space in the middle of the car.

I glance over my shoulder at our obstruction, a 20ish black kid—definitely a fashionista, in stiff, dark jeans, a couture parka, and duck boots. He meets my gaze, not with the classic “you-lookin’-at-me?” NYC glare or the “this is MY train, bitch” expression of the space-hogging subway sultan, but with a matter-of-fact, nothing expression. No hint of defiance, belligerence, or even disdain (much less guilt or contrition), just a resting of the eyes on the object (in this case me) that happens to be in front of him.

“Blocking the fucking door!” The older black man says to no one in particular. This is an engage-or-ignore moment: Do I acknowledge him and possibly get trapped in a barrage of crazy talk? Or do I take a risk and break out the empathy, establish eye contact, flash a smile of commiseration? I wait instead.

“Used to be you lean on those doors and they’d open. Still do sometimes,” the older man says, now directing his words at me. I look at my feet, but I’m smiling.

“People go to school—go to college—to get this stupid.”  I look up at him—I can’t help it—and smile into his chunky, squarish horn rims with lenses tinted the same muddy brown.

“I’m serious. They’d block the door to heaven! Blocking the fucking door.” He doesn’t sound angry, just resigned. I think, maybe he’s performing, using this stupid microincident like a pool of limelight to freestyle in. I hate that, unless the freestyling is good, and he’s good.

I look up and over at fashion boy. He’s in his own iWorld. The rest of us are furniture, uninteresting furniture.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the older man keeps going. It’s about New York City, he says, the tension and the rudeness. “It’s not about black or white.” Now he’s got me nodding, both at what he’s saying and what he isn’t saying. He’s not resorting to the brutal language that I’ve grown accustomed to hearing, in which black folks go racial on other black folks by using that word.

A couple of months ago, I was riding the Q train in the middle of the day. Not too many people in the car, so I had room to breathe, and even read. A young black man, late teens or early 20s, was talking to two friends, a man and a woman, loud enough for anyone else to hear over the train’s rumblings. Smart kid, it seemed, talking about his supervisor at work—I think it was the Gap. But one word popped up so often, I started timing the frequency of usage. During a single 30-second stretch, he managed to use “nigga” nine times. A black kid talking to peers, using that term? It still shocks me. (Then again, it shocks me when white, Latino, and Asian kids casually toss it around.)

It’s just an expression, my high school students, black and Latino boys and girls, would tell me. “We’re not saying nigger,” we’re saying “nigg-uh.” I shook my head. Why not bro or brother? Or dude? Or homey? (They laughed; that’s so 1994). What about “son” or “dog”—rather, “dawg”— two terms I despise, but that don’t carry the malignancy of nigga/er? Group shrug. That’s just the way it is. Even people “old as you” use it, they replied. Touché.

Partly, this is a generational thing. I’m old enough to have been subject to the term (only a handful of times) and to have integrated a neighborhood (we were the second black family to arrive on our Teaneck, NJ, block in 1971). And it’s also a class thing, or at least it used to be. I was reared in a bourgeois nook of town where use of the N-word, in any of its permutations, was simply unthinkable.

Nowadays, kids of color (and some of their elders) from all backgrounds use the term to distinguish themselves from polite adult society and to bond with each other. But they also use it, I think, to keep their peers in check, as if to say, you’re no better than me—just another marginalized, victimized, colored youth. In my view, it’s inherently debasing. History is baked too deeply into the word for it to be benign. I don’t see “nigga” as opposition to mainstream, bourgeois, or whatever culture, but rather as a capitulation to it.

Case in point, the work of Jadakiss, a performer popular among my former students:

Real talk, kill a nigga quick over my hard drive

It’s crazy ’cause I’m gang-related, and I got mob ties

Have your whole family, in the garage hogtied

Maybe I am just too old to understand the libratory power of “nigga.”

Or maybe not. As Chuck D puts it in Byron Hurt’s documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, extreme, nihilistic hip-hop is about corporate music makers peddling black “manhood in a bottle” to folks hungry for something, anything, that represents them, empowers them—in this case in a profoundly corrosive way.

Back in the day, “you had De La Soul, you had Kwamé,” Jungle Brothers, KRS-One, a Tribe Called Quest, and so on, writer-turned-politician Kevin Powell says in Hurt’s film, referring to performers of the 1980s and 1990s who didn’t embrace the language of debasement. “You had a diversity of black male expression.” The market now has been so distorted that hip-hop of that flavor is unsellable. As Jada puts it, “Nobody wanna hear that shit no more.” So he makes what sells—to blacks, whites, and whoever else. And what sells encourages kids of color to embrace a self-limiting identity when adopted to the point of shunning what is usable and valuable in larger society, as unequal and unjust as it still may be. Opposition is a dead end when it’s thoroughly tainted by nihilism and defeatism. (To be fair to the kids, it’s damn hard to avoid “nigga” and the culture of debasement it represents when it’s shoved in your face and down your earholes 24/7.)

Even as my subway philosopher exercised his constitutional right to be grumpy, he didn’t demean the stylish youngster, didn’t put him in his place as a lesser sort of African American. He put the boy in a broader human context, that of all inconsiderate, space-hogging New Yorkers. I appreciated his dyspeptic universality and lack of venom.

“Blocking the door to heaven,” I say back to him. “I’m gonna use that one.”  He nods.

“I gotta get outta this town. Go somewhere with horses,” he continues.

My stop. I get off, but he’s set me up right for the rest of the day.


Written by bxpnyc

2011/01/08 at 13:57

2 Responses

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  1. Excellent essay Brian, you truly are gifted in describing the problems that exist in so many areas today. I felt as though I was actually there involved in the situation, observing it first hand. Well done. Thank you for sharing your work.

    Hank Klos

    2011/01/08 at 16:46

  2. one of the best discussions i’ve read on that word. 🙂
    and I love the photo!


    2011/01/08 at 17:44

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