In this era of misinformation and threats to free expression the ability to speak openly and truthfully is more essential than ever. Concerned for what we view as a recent erosion of respect for First Amendment rights, we’ve commissioned a new series of short essays that will serve as a platform for authors to share their own stories. The following piece is a part of that series. We asked authors to respond to the prompt, “What does the First Amendment mean to you?” and, in the spirit of the First Amendment, we’ve encouraged the authors of these essays to give imaginative voice to what they believe these freedoms mean today. (The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to reflect the Guild’s position on any issue.)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
by Mitchell S. Jackson
There’s my hero Jimmy in Take This Hammer, stylin on they ass in a light-hued shirt opened at the neck and a white scarf knotted around his throat. “What you say about somebody else, reveals you,” he says. “What I think of you as being is dictated by my own psychology, my owns fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you; I’m describing me.” Jimmy gestures, a slim cigarette scissored between his fingers, smoke scrolling cursive into the frame. “I know and I’ve always known. And really always. That’s part of the agony. I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger.”
Here I am, admittedly markedly less heroic than Jimmy, wondering if it’s possible to escape being a nigger, if all it takes is denouncing it.
Wondering what to make of nigificenence, nigtasticness, nigfabulousness, of being niggercalifragalistic, wondering what of becoming more niggerfied.
N-i-g-e-r, n-i-g-o-r, n-i-g-r-e,—first spelled n-i-g-g-e-r in 1608, but didn’t become pejorative, in print that is, till about the time the colonies declared their independence. Throw off an oppressor to become one, now that’s nigger shit.
So says Jimmy moments later in the documentary, “I had to know since I was 17 years old that what you were describing was not me and what you were afraid of is not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something that you were afraid of,” he says, shows his palms, and leans forward. “But if I am not the nigger. And if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger.”
If whites invented the nigger, will the nigger never not be his possession. Is there such a thing, as Norman claimed, as a white negro. Is even a niggertastic nigger ever not for the white negro’s appreciation or pleasure. Who can forget those niggers who jubileed in Congo Square. Who has not witnessed vainglorious niggers performing on a bright stage in Madison Square Garden. Is there such a thing as a white nigger. Is it a white sin to live niggeresque. Could a slain white nigger achieve in death the niggerdom that a dead nigger couldn’t. Could a former white nigger renounce his race and reclaim his privilege. Who is this white man. Who made him so. The same so and sos who made the nigger I say—but this ain’t about that.
This is in part about real niggas. The niggas I know, my niggas—ask about us—are obsessed with being real niggas. Where I come from, we lionize realnigganess and lament its paucity. Where I come from, we tout the number of real niggas we know. Being a real nigger is much like enlisting, one must be all the real nigger one can. The enlisted real niggas I know are niggas with attitudes and for good reason. But also beaucoup niggas I know own specious logic for wanting to be a real one. Real niggas believe usage of the word nigga is covered under their 1st amendment right, though the way their hoods’ are set up, the realest niggas care more about the 5th Amendment and their Miranda rights than their freedom of speech. Plenty authentic real niggas I know invoked their right to remain silent rather than snitch and are therefore serving calendars in state and federal correction.
Some would call that niggerdom.
Is it worth mentioning that whiteness, against its will, once enlarged to include the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs, the Jews.
Is it worth noting that nigger, by intents and for purposes, has expanded to include the Mexicans and Muslims.
This truth I hold as self-evident: there is no such thing as freedom of speech. Each word we utter has a price and what costs more than nigger. What has been a greater expense than whiteness. Is white as an identity any less profane than nigger. Shall we annul the idea of nigger. Shall we annul the idea whiteness.
What’s fair is fair, no.
Fairminded folks, before you get to castigating me extra tough, ask yourself who’s business is the business of breeding niggers. Said elseway, who does nigger business. Who can liberate the nigger business from its symbolic weight. Who can ennoble the nigger. Who determines the value of a nigger. Wherefore art those neo auction blocks.
Dignified, educated, Talented Tenth, Renaissance, Negritude type niggers, Ivy League niggers, niggers with a PhD or an MFA or a JD, niggers destined for John Henryism, niggers who believe themselves exceptional, who’ve called themselves colored or black or African American or a person of color, niggers who believe they can escape niggerhood with a label change or new zip code or refusal to acknowledge nigger’s existence, who would argue till the true manumission that the Asians lack a stronghold on Model Minorityship, niggers who contend that whites like them, might on occasion love them, at the least won’t despair over granting them their inalienable rights, who point to whites assisting them in their pursuit of that other James’ dream, niggers who claim they’ve escaped the fates of average niggers—those niggers, I’d argue, are most apt to denounce this rhetoric as a kind of new age Fugitive Slave Law returning us to bondage, are most apt to label me a disgrace setting us back or else ushering us to fresh ruin.
Oh I can just hear my grandfather, my great grandmother, generations of progenitors decrying my use of the word, asking if I know what prices were paid for the word, reminding me that their amendments were not meant for us only compromises of the sort that reduced us into a fraction of a full man, that we endured Partus and the one drop rule and those maliciousass miscegenation laws, asking if I know about all the myriad discriminatory housing covenants that birthed where we live, where we don’t. Oh I can hear them proselytizing to me about the time the NAACP and an avaricious mayor held a funeral for the word, like they once did for Jim Crow. Asking if I’ve seen images of what they did to Jim Crow niggers, Mamie’s maimed little boy lying in his open coffin, thousands of less notable niggers strung by their necks from sturdy branches or bridges, burned at the stake, their body parts sold in five-and-dimes, pictures of their corpse turned to postcards. Listen close and hear my forebears beseeching me not to use the word, questioning if I know its legacy. The answer is no I don’t. The answer is yes I do. The question is, if niggers stop using nigger would the nigger and his niggerhood vanish from this hallowed land of free and brave.
The white man—again, who invented this white man—or should I say whiteness claims it can make America great again. Who among us can’t decode what that means. Who among us will cite their right to silence while he prosecutes his task.
More Jimmy: “But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary,” he says, and sucks all voguelike from his cancer stick. “But it’s not necessary to me, so it must be necessary to you. So I give you your problem back.”
Here’s the problem back as a question.
Dear leader of the new “great” America, as my hero argued, are you and your acolytes actual niggers. Or is your new great America nigger free.
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years was praised by publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times of London. Jackson is the winner of a Whiting Award. His novel also won The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, the PEN/ Hemingway award for first fiction, and the Hurston / Wright Legacy Award. Jackson’s honors include fellowships from TED, the Lannan Foundation, the BreadLoaf Conference, and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and Tin House. He serves on the faculty at New York University and Columbia University.