The MoMA screened a crop of new Canadian feature films all last week, and I skipped out on responsibilities for an evening to go see the latest work by one of my favorite (or in this case, favourite) directors of all time: Denys Arcand.
In the recent future of his “L’Âge des ténèbres“, the n-word has been banned. Some of this is lost in translation, lost in the nuances of Joual, and perhaps complicated by Arcand’s awkwardness with racism, racist lead characters, and supporting characters-of-colour that never quite seem to stand up for themselves (all of which may be on purpose). But, delicacies aside, any and all applications of the n-word in Quebec are inexcusably, unforgivably interdit. In one scene, the word nègre slips from the protagonist’s lips (dull, disillusioned, trapped in a lifeless and bureaucratic job, he says it during a snarky confrontation with his white boss), and he’s nearly sidelined by a workplace intervention. They are very serious, they explain, about enforcing legislation. When the sole Black man in the room tries to step up, they dismiss his opinions — what he thinks doesn’t matter. There’s no room for discussion.
But there *is* some discussion here.
The good folks at Cyberkrib alerted me to a recent TV piece by poet and style icon Clifton Joseph, where he explores the use of the n-word in Canada by way of hip-hop. (For those of us currently not based in Canada, the video can be accessed here — Windows Media Player alert.)
Clifton brings up some interesting and valid points, and I was happy to see that he went beyond the Usual Suspects(™) for his interview subjects, but I feel as though there was a huge chunk of the story missing: the context of the n-word in Canada. Tristan touches on this in his interview, but Clifton really only gets into it himself in the post-script to the segment:
I was born and raised, until adolescence, in Antigua & Barbuda, in the West Indies. I had never heard the word “nigger” there, and had no idea what it meant, until moving to Toronto in the early 1970s. Then, I was introduced to it thru books, popular culture and black comedians, especially one of my all-time favourites, Richard Pryor, as exemplified on his 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy”. I didn’t use the word myself, but listened to it and laughed at the jokes it was in.
But the frivolities around the word were wiped out for me in 1975, when white supremacist Ronald Steven Ryan shot and killed 15-year-old Michael Habbib around Fairview Mall in Toronto after declaring that he was going to kill “the first nigger” he saw. Habbib was working a part-time job in a merry-go-round set up in the mall’s parking lot, and me and my friends realized that it could have been any one of us, that we could have been that “nigger”.
There is no one central, unifying, dominant narrative of black identity in Canada, at least not in the way that one exists in the United States. Among the most distinct and prominent histories, though, is that of Caribbeans who migrated to Toronto and other urban centres in the 60s and 70s. Clifton fits somewhere into that story, as do many of the second generation friends I grew up with, and their parents.
I would have loved to hear the story of the n-word as seen or felt through that context, through that history. I would have loved to see an exploration of how elements of a dominant American black narrative have clashed with and influenced identity in Canada, how those clashes are affecting intergenerational relationships, how young people find justifications and reasons to relate, and how all of this plays out through music, art, activism. This goes far beyond simply discussing the n-word, it’s history, and its potential merits or offenses. Far, far beyond.