Everywhere you go, some shit word will collide with you on the wrong side of the road. — Dambudzo Marechera, The Black Insider
I have a profound respect for language. Words dream us into being and knit together the world around us. Think of this passage from your trusted King James Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In short, the scholars of the biblical times were well aware of the power of words — even a singular word — and language. The world doesn’t exist without language, without the words that create, define and describe it. While words are signifiers, it would be unfortunate to think of them as innocent. Words have history; they produce history and in turn are produced by it.
Think of the word “faggot”. Originally used to refer to “a bundle of sticks”, it has since been wielded to attain certain ends. In late 16th century English it was used as a contemptuous term for women. The understanding was that a “bundle of sticks” was something awkward to carry, just like baggage, or a worthless woman. The word was first recorded as a pejorative term against homosexual people in 1914 in the US and was later, in 1921, shortened to fag.
It isn’t hard to imagine that this word has been spat out many times as a deluge of fists, boots and bricks break on a person’s face because he or she happens to be attracted to someone of the same sex. One day you wake up a human being and go to sleep a faggot, through a word. A word made visible by the violence it perpetrates to those subject to it. A word that leaves painful bruises in its wake. That is if you’re lucky. Some people aren’t as lucky. The 21-year-old man from Ceres who was allegedly tortured and killed, recently, for being gay is just one of many of the unlucky ones. We cannot speak of homophobia without taking into account its vocabulary and the violence it instigates.
Another word that comes to mind is a South African favourite — “kaffir”. Originally, an Arabic term used by Muslims to describe those who did not believe in the word of the Qur’an: infidels or non-believers, if you may. But in South Africa, this term took a dangerous turn as it propelled the Afrikaner to commit the worst acts of violence in the name of racism. The worst terrors in our recent history were spurred on by the word “kaffir”. Massacres and murders were soaked with these five letters and two syllables. It reduced blacks to something less than human, something of no value except as cheap labour, where the state police machinery could easily mow down hundreds of thousands of people, children included, without thinking twice. Here, we begin to see quite clearly that words carry the burden of history, they are themselves burdened by it and are also the contents, components, constructs as well as producers of history. In this instance, we can’t remove the word “kaffir” from its historical violence and humiliation.
On May 28 2014, an Eyewitness News cartoonist, gave new subjects to the word “clown”. The Oxford dictionary offers us a few definitions: one is that of a comic entertainer; the second is a playful person eg a class clown, and then the last (the one more relevant in our argument) is that of a clown as a foolish or incompetent person. In a stroke of a pen or a pencil “clown” became a noun for blacks who vote for the ANC.
If you haven’t seen it, the cartoon shows ANC leaders in clown costumes, “clowning” about and a gallery of voters, depicted as clowns, watching on. The caption reads: “A congress of clowns (ANC) … And the clowns who voted them in.” I stated earlier that words aren’t innocent. And we must take into account that the majority of the ANC vote comes from black voters so 11.4 million people were interpolated into a single word and a single narrative — that of foolishness and incompetence.
How is this cartoon different from the racist narrative of blacks as lazy, foolish and incompetent? Some invoke the “freedom of speech” argument when talking of this cartoon; others demand a little sense of humour. For a people who’ve been massacred, violated and called names, you must understand Mr Cartoonist that “clown” takes on a different hue, a racial hue, considering all the elements in your cartoon and the elements of our history.
Since it appears that blacks are still fair game in this country, we must, then, address a number of things pertaining to the pejorative language used against them or any other community. Speaking any given language requires tremendous creativity. And since language implies great inventiveness and power on the part of the user, we must be responsible for the words we use. Especially the derogatory words we use to hurt others. If we look at the reference to the King James Bible: the word is the creator and the creator is the word. So logically, he who calls another person a “faggot” must be a “faggot”, first and foremost. And the person who calls another a “kaffir” must own up to the fact that it is he who is a “kaffir”. And the cartoonist who calls others “clowns” — foolish and incompetent — must be the “clown”.