Let me definitively state from the outset: I am going to use the word “nigger” throughout this piece. I know it offends the sensibilities of some. Oprah for one has banned the use of “nigger” for understandable reasons: “You can’t be my friend and use the N word.” Fair enough. That’s her choice. Let me also state that I am deliberately using “nigger” and not “nigga”. Recently Rachel Jeantel, of the Trayvon Martin murder case fame, took Don Lemon of CNN to school with respect to the use of the work “nigger” vs “nigga”. Jeantel clarifies that “nigga” is an affectionate greeting between black youth, rather like “dawg” and is acceptable in today’s culture. “Nigger” remains a slur word, most offensive when used by anyone other than a black person. I am using “nigger” today as a descriptor of an attitude, a mental and emotional stance that some black people adopt as they navigate life. In my definition, it is not in any way a complimentary descriptor…without apology. A la Chris Rock (from Rock This) I am seeking to differentiate between black people and niggers. Rock sees “niggers” as a subset of the black community, a group he opines that glorifies ignorance and sloth and brags about fulfilling any minor responsibility.
Now please turn your mind to the character of Stephen, in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The movie is not without controversy, and again, understandably so. Full disclosure: I enjoyed it immensely! I laughed at all the politically incorrect moments (remember the Klan portrayal with the pillow cases that had the eyes misaligned so the wretches couldn’t see properly?) and left the cinema having been thoroughly entertained. But the character that stood out for me wasn’t Django, that fantasy composite of avenging negro, whipping the white slavers into submission. It wasn’t the Oscar winning Dr. King Shultz. It wasn’t Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda, trembling lower lip and all. Stephen, the house slave, played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson stayed with me long after the movie ended. I despised him from start to finish. His instant resentment of the free black man Django was the prelude to exploration of his craven and yes, niggardly character so perfectly portrayed by Jackson.
Stephen was the house slave who had served the senior slaver, Mr. Candie and was now head cook and bottle washer on the plantation run by the junior Mr. Candie. He managed to maintain a servile posture (limp and shuffle intact) while exerting his seniority, even as a slave, by summoning Mr. Candie to the library to discuss his doubts as to the true intent of Django and Dr. King Shultz. He freely expressed his dismay when Monsieur Candie communicated his intent to have the free black man, Django sleep in the Great House:
Calvin Candie: Well, good. They’re spending the night. Go open the guest bedrooms and get two ready.
Stephen: [mortified] He gawn stay in the Big House?
Calvin Candie: Stephen. He’s a slaver. It’s different.
Stephen: In the Big House?
Calvin Candie: Well, you got a problem with that?
Stephen: Aw, naw, naw. I ain’t got no problem with it. If you ain’t got no problem with burnin’ the bed, the sheets, the pillowcase, and everything else when this black-ass motherfucker’s gone!
It was Stephen, the Head Nigger in Charge who spotted the vulnerability in the situation when he sensed that Django knew Broomhilda, another female house slave and somehow knew that he was there to rescue her (in fact: Broomhilda was Django’s wife, and she was the reason why he came to Candie Land). Stephen sensed that weakness, if you will, and alerted Monsieur Candie and the script flipped from there. A free, independent black man somehow threatened the existence and identity of this Senior Slave and in order for this comfortable, albeit far from optimal, status quo to be maintained, the Head Nigger in Charge felt obliged to get rid of this affront to his own existence. You see, the primary objective of the Next Willing Nigger is for him to gain entry to the Great House, to be recognized by those in power, to be identified amongst those he perceives as important, to the exclusion of anyone else. His aim is not independence. Rather, his aim is to profile alongside those who rule.
Dr. King Shultz was killed and Django was captured, tortured for a bit by said HNIC, and sold off to work in mines forever and ever amen. Of course, you know how the story ends. Django escapes his captors, goes back and kills a couple white men, rescues his wife and naturally, confronts Stephen before ending his life on earth:
Stephen: [singing] In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore…
Stephen: In the sweet…
Django: [Django appears and starts singing] By and by… Ohhhhhh!
[Stephen, Miss Lara and everybody else in the room jerks up to Django, who is standing on the top balcony lighting candles]
Django: Ya’ll gonna be together with Calvin in the “bye-and-bye…”
[Django pauses as Billy Crash walks up]
Django: … just a bit sooner than ya’ll was expecting!
When Stephen realizes that the jig is up, miraculously, his limp and shuffle disappear. He cusses Django out. He rails some more. Even when Django kneecaps him, in the midst of his pain and impaired state of being, that HNIC chooses to berate Django, evidence of his resentment of the free black man standing proud and undefeated before him.
Here we are, 52 years after independence from Britain. And things are not good. The IMF is now our economic master. We glory in “passing their tests” because to fail will mean that New Massa won’t dispense money and we won’t be able to handle our affairs. We have set aside our own vision for ourselves, our Vision 2030 and all attention is placed on our performance with respect to New Massa’s agenda. We are smack dab in the middle of an environmental crisis. Raw sewage in our streets and in our seas. gullies chock full of plastic waste, uncollected solid waste is a reality in communities across the island. One may argue that our national debt, high crime, high unemployment, widespread poverty, the decline in our public education and health systems is as a result of poor leadership. Dig deeper. What does poor leadership really mean? Why do we have it? We took charge of this island in 1962 with basic infrastructure and systems of governance in place. Fast forward to 2014. Stop and think. “It pap dung” would be a fair assessment. But to simply explain our failure away by “poor leadership” doesn’t offer a precise enough diagnosis. “Political corruption” as an answer gets us closer to a more accurate diagnosis. But what is the motivation that drives our leadership to make decisions that enrich them at the expense of Jamaica’s development? That motivation is, simply put, part of the Next Willing Nigger construct.
Think of that promising young politician who comes to prominence on a ticket of change. He promises to operate differently, to emphasise education and empowerment of the next generation and comes up smack dab against “The Way We Do Things Around Here.” The Old Guard puts him in his place, and because his desire to be part of the Great House establishment supercedes his articulated desire for change, he becomes the Next Willing Nigger and plays ball with the Old Guard. Empowerment of the next generation dies as he charts a certain course towards the Great House.
Think of how decisions are made in this country, a nation in the throes of economic hardship. Brand new SUVs are procured for representatives of the political hierarchy, while schools lack water tanks, fire engines are absent in key areas, pit latrines are the status quo in many rural schools and the elevators in the KPH remain in need of repair. The Next Willing Niggers are all standing in line to enrobe themselves in the trappings of the Master en route to the Great House.
Think about this some more: we see Stephens everywhere on this island, every day of life.
Think of that co-worker who refuses to be guided by principle and instead chooses how he dispenses discipline, the final decision depending on who the subject is. That over-riding dimension of “loyalty” instead of “principle” informs every single decision. The result is a promotion of mediocrity in an effort to remain in the good books of the perceived power brokers in the organisation. That Next Willing Nigger now rests easy in the C-suite. Well done.
Prominent dailies are grabbed up and even that day’s headlines play second fiddle as readers turn eagerly to see the Beautiful People captured on page 2, living The Dream. Oppressive car loans allow the Next Willing Nigger to sport the latest luxury model, even though he parks it in a rented house, simply keeping up the appearances that he is certain will take him into the Great House.
As long as the Next Willing Nigger exists, as long as a system which rewards the Next Willing Nigger exists, those who operate on Principle will forever be marginalized, and Jamaica will never realize its full potential.