Our racial fault lines stay with us. They run all the way under the ivy-covered brick buildings, past the meth labs in the mountains and the Amish horses and buggies. They run all the way, this chilly spring, to the White House. By GLEN RETIEF.
An early February Sunday morning, in Selinsgrove, rural Pennsylvania. About 80 Susquehanna University students are partying in a residence common room. Most of them are white, but at least three are black football players, Jersey homeboys: Cam and CJ study communications. JR is up from the city for the weekend.
Let’s call what happens next a parable of race and numbers. At most South African universities, including the historically white, English-speaking ones, white students are now a minority.
Open white racism hasn’t disappeared. Yet at my own alma mater, the University of Cape Town, the biggest single racial controversy over the past year involved a black student photographed wearing a “Kill All Whites” T-shirt in a UCT dining hall.
Susquehanna University, however, where I now teach creative writing, is located in Trump country, white-working-class-backlash country, land of “Don’t redneck lives matter?” and “If you think I’m not marginalised, come check out my drug-addicted trailer park.”
Music plays. Alcohol flows. Tonight, as it happens, is Cam’s 21st birthday – his liquor is, for the first time, legal, not that anyone here cares about the drinking laws.
A rhythmic thump comes on the loudspeakers. And now everyone – everyone! – knows the next song, Caroline by Aminé. It’s a goofball, camp-misogynistic, bubblegum breakout hit from, so it happens, the 22-year-old son of Ethiopian immigrants.
Don’t blame the mother continent. America nurtured Aminé, gave him his formative years making diss tracks about his high school’s rival teams, in Oregon. Is Caroline satirical, or just plain silly? In the Youtube video, with 113-million views, Aminé wears two vertical man-pigtails in a drive-through fast food joint, as he tells his “fine as hell” girlfriend, among other things, to use knee pads if she wants safe sex.
But it’s neither the song’s stupidity nor its sexism that now causes Cam, CJ, and JR to make eye contact. Rather, it’s the chorus, which contains the N-word.
“DON’T SING IT!” the three of them yell out, now joined by other black students, including several women. “Cut it out! STOP!”
One black man, preppy in a collar shirt, ignores his fellow African-Americans and plays racial gadfly. He encourages his friends to sing and dance along. But a clear majority of black students make an unambiguous request.
The crowd disregards them. Alcohol makes you cocksure. It’s a weekend night – why are you all such killjoys? Just a song, too, for Christ’s sake. This is what happens when the powerful are also the numerical majority: they do what they want.
“Kill-a!” they chant with joy. Then: “West Side – !”
In a much-cited 2016 interview, rapper Ja-Rule made an argument for why society might consider relaxing about white hip hop fans’ singing along of the N-word. Citing concerts where thousands of white audience members filled in the term when it was faded out on the sound system, as well as the pragmatic tolerance given to white, Asian, and Latino rappers who grew up in rough urban neighborhoods, Ja-Rule stated: “It’s hard to determine who can say the word. [It] has a different meaning now.”
In his 2005 book,Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, cultural commentator Bakari Kitwana makes a similar case. Pointing to the dramatic impoverishment of white youth relative to their parents, Kitwana imagines hip hop as a progressive cultural movement that can unite disillusioned youth. While admitting the use of the N-word by whites gives him pause, Kitwana nevertheless speculates about its use as a pan-racial, positive affiliation.
I’ll admit this argument makes a weird kind of sense to me, living, as I do, in the neighbouring working-class town of Sunbury. Until it burned down two years ago, on hot summer afternoons young tattooed white people in rusty Cadillacs, with Confederate flag bumper stickers, parked next to the county jail and blasted liberation anthems by Kanye and Lamar for their friends inside.
Cognitive dissonance, sure. A flag associated with slavery and black protest music speaks strongly to white working-class youth. Yet at some level surely the anti-bourgeois anger of hip hop also offers a space for political coalitions focused on economic justice.
Be that as it may: this morning Cam, CJ, and JR aren’t buying any complicated post-racial reclamations of the N-word.
“You just can’t be my nigga,” CJ will explain to me, later. “The N-word implies a shared bond from facing racism.”
At the party JR pulls out his cellphone. He films the singing group. If these kids are going to blatantly defy a request for racial respect, he is at least going to document it. At the end of the video he captures CJ’s face, deer-in-the-headlights horrified and confused, a kind of black Everyman.
JR posts the video on Twitter, with the comment: “Trump hasn’t even been in office for a month yet.” Later, CJ will confirm Trump’s election has encouraged all manner of campus bigotry to crawl out of the woodwork, such as a group of fraternity brothers calling each other “faggot” and telling a liberal student who complained to “go to hell, because Trump is president now”.
JR’s video gets 33,000 likes and 26,000 retweets in a matter of days. This counts as “viral” for a 2,200-strong university in rural Pennsylvania.
The administration sends out a strongly worded e-mail, noting its awareness of the video and promising “appropriate action” against the singing students. The e-mail states, “[The N-word] has a long legacy of pain and oppression, and its use is not in keeping with the mission and values of Susquehanna University.” In doing so, as one hip hop scholar points out later in a faculty presentation, the e-mail arguably also prohibits black students’ positive reclamation of the word.
Monday morning, everyone goes back to class. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference of all between higher education in Trump’s America and Zuma’s South Africa, between a country where numerical supremacy balances economic and cultural power, and another where the two forces line up. No mobs punch our university president in front of the administrative building, as happened to UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price after black students became enraged about fee hikes. No militant activist groups set fire to our libraries.
Yet our racial fault lines of course stay with us. They run all the way under the ivy-covered brick buildings, past the meth labs in the mountains and the Amish horses and buggies. They run all the way, this chilly spring, to the White House, where a billionaire prosecuted for housing discrimination in the ‘70s crafts executive orders limiting non-white immigration. Then he tweets about how the nation’s first black president listened to his phone calls in his gold-plated penthouse on the top floor of his Manhattan skyscraper, there, where only birds get up high enough to watch him through his windows, and only snow floats by his line of vision as it drops to the street below. DM
Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lamda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump attends a meeting on healthcare in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 13 March 2017. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
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