“How are you doing, my sister?” “Can you spare some change, my brother?” I hear it often from older African American men who wish to pay me a compliment or are asking for assistance. I hear it as respectful, an expression of social grace as it assumes a relational closeness that could draw a smile or the fifty cents that the homeless man needs to catch the bus. This language of fictive kin is from the Black is Beautiful campaign of the sixties where persons returned to their African roots and its heritage with dashikis and natural hair. It was a collective demonstration of acceptance of who they were and an expression of unity and harmony. They were not enemies but allies, not foes but family. The desire was to stick together as a “race” in order to stick it to The “White” Man.
Needless to say, I wasn’t even born during this time but, my mother was and I grew up in a household where neither was used– at least not in the manner that it was intended. The people that she claimed as her kin and consequently, our aunts and uncles were persons of poor character and principles. They were friends one week and fighting the next. They came together to gossip and gamble, an attempt to increase their social standing in the community by eliminating the competition one dirty secret at a time and to improve upon their government assistance through two dollar games of tonk and spades. They may have been her fictive siblings but they were not a part of my family.
When they came over, she didn’t call them brother or sister. Instead, these words were replaced with the word nigga. Nigga was used so often that I thought it might be comparable to Mister or Misses. The first time I ever heard the word was at home and it came from my mother’s mouth. My mother and all those that she interacted with referred to themselves and each other in this way: “Nigga, please” and “That nigga’s crazy” were common expressions. At times, we were also referred to as such.
Nigga. A common expression for a collective experience that maintained one’s position in society as well as at home. If you thought yourself better than those at home, it was how you were reminded that you were no different from those under your roof. It was a check and balance system, a means by which everyone was kept in their place. We were all niggas and even if we didn’t want to stick together, we were stuck together because of this word.
When I grew up in the eighties, gangster rap had exploded and “my brother, my sister” was replaced with “my nigga.” For many, it, too, was an expression of unity. Persons reunited to share a common memory through the word. The story told among the African Americans in my neighborhood was that the Ku Klux Klan had been replaced by the local police; it was often expressed that they had traded in their white sheets for blue uniforms and badges. But, neighborhood gangs like the Crips and Bloods were becoming popular and no one could discount the impact of the crack epidemic. A police presence was necessary.
Still, for me, the word nigga was and remains today a strange expression of community, membership and belonging. It is a password, a social code, a term of endearment that suggests a common understanding and resolve: a Black nationalist agenda. This is why some can say it and others cannot. I am with those who cannot. I am not a nigga and I don’t have any. I don’t claim to be kin to any because when I heard it for the first time, I didn’t smile. I didn’t feel the bond of a family member or believe that it was synonymous with daughter. The connection felt fictive and I didn’t feel like I belonged at all.