When Ghettos Become Verbs and We Concede Our “Wrongness of Being”

Originally published in Issue 3.


We change nouns into verbs. But they still things even when they mere words. Is that what I heard, or is that what you said? Are those just words, or your voice in my head? Get out of my head! Get off my mind! You been in there a proper long time!

“No, I cannot. I will go, and I will come. For I am not only in your head, I also live on your tongue.”

…the structure of Platonic discourse itself forced those who used it to accept a particular concept of social order. … In the very syntax of our speech as we learn the English language, the justification of our ‘inferiority’ is embedded, and, what is more, we accept that fact as we ‘master’ the language. -Dr. Marimba Ani, Yurugu

I will argue the negative. I dare not utter ghetto. Gently the ancestors remind me. Each time I hear “that’s so ghetto” I am resolved to never repeat it thus prolonging its life, one oriented toward the iniquitous. Yet, somehow we know this. It whispers to us, but in a still small voice, its malevolence. The historical memory of our past glories and present indignities inform our moral consciousness of its hostile subjectivity. We engage in escapades of white liberality hoping to expedite the dolor and shame, telling ourselves that “these are just words; only words.”

But the provenance of this instinct places it outside of us. We have learned it from anoth- er: “an” – “other.” We have adopted collective coping strategies to dismiss the shame of our imposed degradation while all the time forgetting— or never knowing—that a ghetto is not merely a term but someone’s creative project of oppression. When and where we can no longer hide the shame, we deploy discursive maneuvers of misdirection. Despite the fact that we are so often turned away from imaginatively construct- ing freedom for ourselves, as a community we must continue to actively produce new potential futures. Colonizers imposed their languages on us and with them, inextricably, their ontologies, their ways for us to be. We are now what we think we are. We are not what we think we are.

We take flight in hopes that we shall evade their vitriolic imagining of us. But still, we are afraid because we know that for 500 years they have written that vision on our varied and beautiful bodies.

“That’s ghetto,” we say. This statement is truncated in the audible. It is rarely complete in its speaking. For really what we mean is “That’s ghetto! That’s not me.” We do not remember Africa, …but we remember the plantation. And when we left the plantation we stepped into something called the ghetto. But then we find the ghetto, like the plantation before it, so very hard to leave—or do I mean escape? When we live in nice places and move, we say that we “left.” When we live in ghettos and move we say that we “got out.” One does not leave a ghetto, one must “get out,” right?

G-h-e-t-t-o… G-h-e-t to… Get to… GET TO! As in GET TO another place! But where?

Any place is better than here!

To say that something is “ghetto” is to suggest, indeed directly imply, that it is the cultural progeny of an obstreperous and debased group. We imagine that this group, uncivilized and immodest, has taken normative codes of behavior bequeathed to them by socioeconomic superiors and bastardized them. Thus, one can look ghetto, talk ghetto, act ghetto, and conclusively be ghetto. In this way, we continue to allow ourselves to—as my indigenous ancestors would assert—speak with the tongue of the white man. The master’s language is the master’s tool. It will form for him what he has desired and work only in his interest. It was designed for this purpose.

Like Africans “singing” in Congo Square, like African “songs” in the cotton fields of despair. In d e s p a i r. For Africans the English language has always been a New World lexicon to facilitate our soul’s expression. We have found it woefully inadequate to express our humanity—if only English could capture the heart of Ubuntu (i.e., I am human through the acknowledgment of the humanity of others). However, we fight within it. We use it to create our Ebonic. We play with it. We morph it. We assign our own meanings. And try as we might, the colonizer’s voice yet ric- ochets inside our heads like a 500-year-long echo. Like the Lion King, we have forgotten who we are; content only to be not that… that… “ghetto” thing.

Occultation of the conflicts of interest is gained in their reduction from being struggles of highly complex matrices of power to comprehensible categories of ‘natural’ difference. The overbearing motif of this occultation is the exclusion of the African from the space of Western history, and the marginal inclusion of the Negro as negativity. -Ronald Judy, (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular

For Judy, occultation exist as a binary. It does much more than hold two divergent ideas at opposite ends of a spectrum; rather it conceals the one to displace the other. The occultation hides Black lives, not merely in its aims to conceal our humanity, but also in the overdetermining of our social context. Here the essentialized Black American never escapes the ghetto in the minds of the white masses. “Ghetto” becomes a reinscription, ever recasting African descended people into the classifications created for them. What is more, they are obliged to fit themselves into lower social orders designed to maintain higher ones.

Anyone can be a blacken-faced minstrel in the show.

At least you get paid. Ask Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen, they know. Ask commercial hip hop artist who sell out, show after show… because they have to sellout in order to sell out.

Anybody can perform the ghetto.

By constructing Sambo as the negation of responsibility, the slave master legitimated his own role as the responsible agent acting on behalf of the irresponsible minstrel. By making sure that the social process and legal structures deprived the slave of any decision-making power over his environment, the slave master created as far as possible a dependency complex in the slave, needing this opposed complex to constitute his own autonomous and responsible role. -Sylvia Wynter, Sambos and Minstrels

Spatial politics, that is, a group’s perceived social ownership of corporate space, is germane to any discussion of ghetto naming. Fundamental to the ownership of slaves was the concomitant proprietorship of their material environments, intellectual lives, spiritual epistemologies, and progeny. Historical examples are legion. This is why Special Field Order #15 (forty acres and a mule) would never materialize. The notion of turning land possession over to a former enslaved population, indeed a population who just prior did not own even their very bodies, was anathema to the ideology of ruling class whites, a mainstream ideology in Anglo-American thought. It is no mistake that few flinched when minorities began losing their homes during the mortgage crisis at a shocking rate. American banking institutions made sure, very sure, that Black soldiers returning home from WWII could not take full benefit of their G.I. Bills the way white soldiers had. This is why redlining became the de facto law of the land. White American social cosmog- ony, as if peering through a telescope, could imagine no space for black bodies, save that of the ghetto. And these ghettoized spaces become exotic, voyeuristic playgrounds for non-ghetto dwellers. Like visitors at a zoo, they gaze upon the tiger, marveling at her strength, astonished by her grace, in awe of her dignity, stunned by her natural beauty, all the while imagining that this zoo is somehow an appropriate place for her, and that she is happy there.

…white people understand this. If you cannot understand what is like to be a tiger in a zoo, I don’t know how you eva gon’ understand what it’s like to be a nigga in America. -Kat Williams, It’s Pimpin‘ Pimpin‘

When someone utters, “that’s so ghetto,” real- ize they are issuing a proxy accusation which is embedded with meaning similar to the dehumanizing colonial ideas Fanon theorized so powerfully. The speaker, in effect, declares People of Color…

…insensible to ethics; he represents not only the ab- sence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil. He is the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him; he is the deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality. -Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

And when they do, simply recriminate:

-What is the “ghetto”?

-Who created it?

-Who owns it?

-How is its existence perpetuated?

-Who lives there?

-How did they get there?

-How do they leave?


Follow Marco McWilliams on Twitter @Black_Studies

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