In the winter of 2007 I, along with two friends, decided to make our first ‘pilgrimage’ to the Town of Saints, Sinners and Students which is colonially and indigenously known as Grahamstown and Rhini respectively. While we were at the university town, we decided to attend a poetry workshop held at Joza township which featured amongst other Professor Keoprapeste Kgositsile and Lebo Mashile. The National Poet Laureate, Prof Kgositsile mentioned the importance of employing words consciously because at the end of the day one has to account for the word usage whether it’s in poetic sense or everyday speech. Words have power and that ought not to be undermined. The professor gave a sarcastic example of how words were unconsciously used and have become acceptable. He asked that when you refer to place known as “The Middle East”, from which direction are you standing? And he had a point. If the region where Israel, Iraq, Iran and neighbouring states are situated is called “The Middle East”, then where is the “Near East” from which we would be able to compare and/or measure the “The Middle and Far East” against? That was one example of bad and unconscious usage of words from a man whose more than seven decades on Earth have been centred around word.
How many times do we use words without giving thorough thought to the message we may be conveying in the process? Through words artists are able to make us part of their world. The 20th century produced some of the most gifted orators in the political arena. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchhill, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Hendrik Verwoed and Nelson Mandela to mention a few. All these great and utterly disappointing men could easily command their audience’s attention by the words they spoke and they understood that very few methods of communication drive a point home more than the use speech. Hitler was able to organize disempowered and self pity drenched Germans into a Nazi machine whose horrors are all too documented. Mandela’s Treason Trial speech about freedom being an ideal for which he was prepared to die if such a need arose was by far one of the boldest statements uttered by a black man facing the gallows of Afrikaner supremacy.
When listening to hip hop we hear African Americans use the word “nigger” a lot and because of the domineering force of American popular culture almost everyone starts referring to their peers by such. “Nigger” was a term that was used by slave traders to disrobe Africans of their humanity and dignity and subject them to the most sordid of the (in)human(e) experiences on the cotton fields and through lynching. Because those Africans were called niggers it therefore meant, at least for the ‘masters’, that they weren’t dealing with people and so they could perpetuate any gruesome deed on them and not lose sleep because it was done to a nigger and not a human being. Fast forward to the present and some in Afro and Latino Americans who continue to refer to each other as niggers, albeit with an “a” at the end and not “er”, say that when they use it it’s in a ‘different’ context. The fact still remains that the word is of cruel origins and whether it’s contextualized or not, it’s still being used and why, if the meaning is ‘contextual’, can’t white people use it too, after all they would be saying “nigga” and not “nigger”, right? Chika Onyeni of “Capitalist Nigger” acclaim has a different take. He says that the value placed on the word will determine the reaction of a person being referred to as such. But because we aren’t the ones who were auctioned on Wall Street and being branded with surnames such as “Smith”, “Johnson” and so forth, we are able to formulate razor sharp intellectual arguments to justify the continued careless use of words such as “nigger”. In his poem titled:”Niggers, Niggas and Niggaz”, Def Poetry featured poet, Julian Curry says:”Here we are centuries after slavery/We are insulting our ancestors’ bravery by shouting phrases daily like, “where’s my nigga?”/” Wadup nigga”?/”You know you my nigga, right?”
In the African community it’s not uncommon to hear people refer, without intended malice, to Indians as “makula” a reference to “coolie” and coloured people being called “bosman”. To the many people who use such terms aforementioned when referring to Indians and coloureds, to them it’s perfectly ‘normal’ and they don’t know, and perhaps don’t bother to know any better, that those terms are equivalent to the word “kaffir”, which its original use is a word referring to those who don’t believe in Islam. Denigrating words become popularly employed in surroundings where ignorance is allowed to entrench itself and dictate human relations of which words are a central part of. I doubt you’d find a Jewish people calling each other “kykes” and it’s probably because they know they are better than that.
During the George W Bush administration tenure in office the words “War On Terror” were accentuated to mean fighting for good. Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded in the pursuit of the terrorists(read Muslim) and with closer inspection and latest Wikileaks(Google) expose of the many civilians who were killed by American led NATO forces since 2004, one wouldn’t be blamed for being confused as to who exactly are the terrorists in this never ending war. The use of the word “insurgents” when referring to the resistors of American led NATO occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan is a convenient ploy to strip those resistors of human sympathy. Even when innocent civilians clad in non military clothing are killed it’s always reported as “insurgents” and obviously an “insurgent” has no face or membership to the human family and therefore isn’t a cause for concern but when NATO “counter insurgents” are killed their identity is promulgated and therefore receiving hero like status because they are in pursuit of ‘democratic’ ideals. The same treatment is accorded the term “communist”, during the Cold War years the word “communist” was associated with terror and evil and all kinds of methods were devised to eliminate the communist threat. It has been widely reported that drugs were allowed to flourish in American ghettos in the 1960s and 70s and the profits were used to fund the fight against the communist “threat” and dictators sympathetic to Washington were installed in Latin American states just to derail the “bad” communists from governing their respective countries. In fact, the very Taliban “insurgents” who are giving Washington sleepless nights were trained by the America in order to fight against the communist Soviets in the 1980s.
The power of words is immense and everytime we use words we ought to think of the meaning of the words. Like numbers, words can be manipulated to heighten emotions that give insidious governments the authority for many unjustifiable wars to be pursued in the name of an unaware citizenry. Racial intolerance, xeno and homophobias are peddled through words and manifest themselves in deeds and then we read in newspapers of lesbians who were raped in order to be “straightened out”. Once we use words like “Us” ,“Them”, “Ours” we explicitly begin to accentuate one’s human membership over another’s, we begin to march down the path of destruction because we will say so and so is a Mozambiquean and isn’t part of “us” and therefore who cares if he is burnt alive.