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April 05, 2005

Mark Anthony Neal, Naming Oneself & The Troubling Word

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In some regards this whole "ThugNiggaIntellectual" stance is about black intellectual etiquette. Many of my elder black academics had to shovel Brazil nuts (what they call "nigger toes" in the south) and displace the rage of witnessing undercover, closed door name calling and credential scrutinizing. For sho', a bunch of us new-breed younguns butt heads with these cats all the time. I was a brand new, ready for the exploitin' Ph.D. when I trekked down to a little Negro school in Louisiana (nicknamed "the little engine that could" for the number of students they send on to medical schools). I was full of the belief that I would impact young black minds. As one of the youngest folks on the yard, I relished the rapport I had with my students, some of whom were less than a decade younger than me. It was my first real experience teaching classrooms filled with black students and I loved having a space where I didn't have to translate every nuance of black ghetto vernacular to audiences that on some level would never get it. It was during this time that an administrator at the university tugged my coat, yanked it really, to query me about my rather . . . hmmm, how shall I say it . . . "gleeful" use of ghetto vernacular in the classroom.

He reminds me of my boy Jim back in my first days of the corporate corridor. Jim called himself a 'nouveau nigger'. I imagine it was because nobody, including Jim, knew what to call a man with a degree in Physics, who had done two tours of duty in Vietnam, owned a Computerland store, drove a red Ferarri and dated only blondes just to see the look on everybody elses face. Jim looked like Jim Kelly in a three piece polyester suit with a 6 inch afro, in 1987.

It is some manner of etiquette between those who would claim title to HNIC as to what the existential model is going to be. I like brass rails and cigars as much as anyone, but I think I would be most impressed by someone who takes the Einstein approach. Buy 15 pairs of identical black suits and dress the same way everyday, so as not to draw attention to anything but your ideas. At the same time, as lovely as it must be for Professor Neal to hum a few bars in the dialect and have the mellifluous harmonies exude from the Young, Gifted and Black, there's something about his label that annoys me.

Part of the problem is that I've kind of experienced my own Afrolantica. There has arisen an island in my mind that has liberated me from the despair of continually measuring myself against the ever changing profiles that black and white Americans would subject me to. I don't need to declare myself in such a fashion, even though I Represent from time to time. In the end, I'm happy with the name my parents gave me. At least I know that its definition and melioration are not going to be the subject of any debate. I can be true to it without fear.

Like the people in Derrick Bell's book, the Island never fully materialized and I never actually got there, but the idea rescued me. Part of this idea was that someday I would be responsible for the well-being of people who had no idea who I was. They wouldn't understand my metaphors or my well-wrapped universe, but they would respect my wisdom nonetheless. I will have not only overcome, but become, and in becoming I had to spread the word far and wide. Wider than America's shores. Wider than America's names and terms and metaphors and mythologies and ontologies.

How do you guess what your name would be in a language you never heard before? How do you name yourself in such a way as to respect the true self before you have even become that? This is the task of someone who expects harmony at the end of the rainbow, but to be a black American is often to be embattled with an endless line of intransigents. Sometimes you gotta battle. Sometimes you gotta jump out of line.

Posted by mbowen at April 5, 2005 06:52 PM

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Tracked on April 8, 2005 05:57 AM