One Little Nigger - The Reykjavik Grapevine

One Little Nigger

One Little Nigger

Published November 8, 2007

“We never [were] niggers, that is a word used to describe our own wretchedness. And we perpetuate it now.”(1) Who said that? Surprisingly to some, the little nigger in question was none other than Richard Pryor. If he were alive today he might have something to say about the recent caricatures and distasteful lyrics to the “nursery rhyme” Ten Little Niggers, which has recently been republished to be read by a new generation of Icelanders. Certain Icelanders are already complaining about those voicing displeasure, in a rather morose manner, whispering, “PC cops.” Because not wanting to scar children’s self image and self worth is apparently akin to being politically correct, whereas the caricatures of Muggur, famous Icelandic artist, seem to be comparable to Velazquez, and are now being hailed as national treasures.

Just about everybody has an opinion on this discussion, especially those who have no knowledge of the matter or circumvent the main point, including Iceland’s favourite pseudo intellectual, Egill Helgason, who quotes the Index Liborum Prohibitorum of Catholic religion and tries, with a sloppy sleight of hand, to connect the dots. I despise censorship and deem it inappropriate – nonetheless there was no reason for publishing this book again. It is easily attainable and its whole discourse is based on racism. However, with that said, I would like to point out that both the Icelandic and English versions are a treasure trove for students of critical theory or literature. The Icelandic version reinforces stereotypes whilst the latter is just absurd and cruel, a grotesque vaudeville feast.

For some the pictures are considered cute, despite the fact they are tainted by perverted (anti) “noble savage” imagery that recalls Kipling’s famous poem, The White Man’s Burden. For example, journalist Kolbrún Bergþórsdóttir (of the newspaper 24 Stundir) says, “I am surprised at people saying the book is racist … some [negroes] have tragic mishaps, but like in children’s books: all goes well. That only leaves the word “negro”, which isn’t a fun word – but it isn’t negative in the book.” So, by that logic if the book were “Ten Little Kikes” and one survives the gas chamber then all is well? To quote Shirley Q, if you don’t see anything deplorable about these images and words, “you sure is ignunt”. This leads into the discussion regarding the book on what “we”, i.e. Icelanders of less melanin, should call people of darker complexion. Obviously, that is one of the problems. Strangely enough, there is always this strange, overwhelming urge to define other people as the Other. Of course I can help these people with a few suggestions: Nigger, Black, Coon, African American, Tar Baby, Spearchucker or even Negro. In Icelandic, magically enough, Negro does not have any negative connotations because you can trace it back to Latin as niger. At the same time there is a tendency to point out that an individual is black. For some in Iceland it is a simple matter of taking the word “negri” back and making it positive or, to paraphrase Randal of Clerks fame, “Since when did “porch monkey” suddenly become a racial slur?”

Nevertheless, some find it astonishing that people don’t like being called negroes or niggers. Just as Asians don’t like being called gooks; or Italians being called wops; or women being called skanks. I do not like being called a negro, being pointed out as different, and I doubt a preschooler would like it. Here in Iceland, I’ve heard almost every tasteless joke or derogative comment you can think of, and said directly to me. Everything from “use Ajax”, “nigger”, “half-breed”, to hearing a very close relative agree with an old man on a television show called “Með Eiríki,” around 1995, that “all negroes are lazy”. So, no, I am not hypersensitive to the word negro, I just happen to know more about the subject and debate than the typical over-worked and not as well-read Icelander.

Despite all of this, there is another issue concerning this debate: Is racial caricature acceptable? I tend to agree with Shirley Q when she states “I am a firm believer that comedy is a way to heal past injustices, prejudice and hate.”(2) She fights racism by invoking blackface, which in itself is a genre predating the silly afros you see people wear pretending to lay claim to this unworldly otherness. The problem, I feel, is that Icelanders have always been isolated and only recently come into contact with other cultures and people, so problematic debates about art like Birth of A Nation (which is a work of art, something Muggur’s illustrations aren’t), Aunt Jemina and racist cartoons like Sambo have not presented themselves. In the States Aunt Jemina lost her mammie appearance and ceased be a female version of “ “Uncle Tom” […] a black woman who is perceived as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.”(3) Even the Golliwog was phased out in Britain. Because racism is a very slippery thing; while some might admit their blatant racism, others feign ignorance or just say, “I liked singing ten little niggers as a child.” Aspects of racism permeate culture without some people even realizing it; how many people know “that it can be argued that aspects of [black] stereotypes were transferred to funny animals such as Krazy Kat, Felix, and later Mickey Mouse?”(4)

Still, one has to ask oneself: is a nursery rhyme about half-naked boys either being eviscerated or multiplying like rabbits a valuable part of Icelandic culture because it is one of the first translated children’s books with illustrations – or because relatives have a stake in the matter, perhaps royalties? Whatever the case may be, I tend to agree with Pryor: “I don’t like them hip white people coming up to me telling me nigger jokes, or calling me nigger, I don’t even like it when black people say it to me.”

1. http://youtube.com/watch?v=AltWj4iAmno
2. Strausbaugh 9:2006 Black Like You. Penguin Group
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aunt_Jemima
4. Strömberg 58:2003 Black Images In The Comics: A Visual History. Fantagraphics Books

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