A couple of people recently promoted my work to their network of friends and boasted about me as “a great African-American writer”. Let me say from the outset that I am extremely grateful for the good will these kind souls showed as they went out of their way to tell people about my craft. The intention of what I write next is thus not meant to rebuke them personally nor to make them feel in any way remorseful. But I will admit, when I read their description of me and the adjective inserted in front of the noun writer, I chaffed at the compliment as it reminded me of how we let labels divide us as people.
These labels of “black”, “African-American”, “white”—and the endless ways we have let others impose an adjective onto us—do nothing more than ghettoize us into cauldrons of “others”. If you want to know one of the sources of injustice that is kneecapping the world, look no further than the playbook of divide and conquer for the powerful few are only able to do their wicked deeds because we the people are splintered into endless pieces. These labels are nefarious for this reason as they injure all; they are especially pernicious for brown people who have imprudently taken on the insulting word “black” as a source of pride (refer to the video below).
Now, I could have presented the compliment through jaundiced eyes and screamed racism while joining the rest of the reactionaries who keep looking outward to assign blame while rarely looking inward to inspect our own transgressions. In truth, we are just as complicit in our present situation as are external forces. When we keep using these same degrading words others gave us, we are doing nothing more than building four walls made of libelous bricks that serve to reduce us instead of connecting us to the true roots of our culture. There is a reason that the public indoctrination system teaches of “black history” almost exclusively through the prism of slavery and rarely mentions the great empires of Axum, Zulu, the academy of Timbuktu nor do they teach us of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture and the rebellions victories of Haiti and Adwa.
As long as we are taught that our history is limited, we end up limiting our dreams. Bob Marley sang that we need to liberate our minds from mental slavery. This man was a prophet who sang music (link), he was telling us all along that self-love and self-awareness was the only way to find redemption. There is no Moses coming for us and we need to stop begging for acceptance and freedom from others. We lift ourselves up or we will remain mired in stasis and regret. By the way, what I write of brown people applies to all regardless of hue; we are all being made to suffer by a global system of greed that is hobbling more and more into indigence. The only way to escape the clutches of subservience that makes us bow before the master of incorporated avarice is to empower ourselves.
But let me circle back to these labels and the ways adjectives reduce us. I am a lover of words; I mean as a writer, there are few things I love more than adjectives. I could write about a flower and present a dull image. Or, using adjectives, I can paint a vivid picture in the minds of readers and present an portrait of that flower in ways that tickles all five senses. Alas, when it comes to humans and the ways words serve to dissect us and put us into cauldrons, I am beginning to detest the very adjectives I adore. I mean why do I have to be a ‘great African-American writer”, why can’t I just be a great writer? Why does Alex Haley have to be a great black author. Why can’t we just say someone is good without ascribing a reductive adjective to them.
By the by, this is never done when it comes to certain folks. No one ever says that Mozart was a great German* composer. No one ever says of Picasso that he was an amazing “white” artist”. It’s as if labels become the handcuffs that follow the accomplishments of some folks no matter what they do. It seems that brown folk can only escape the gravity of “black” when they become great athletes or entertainers. No one ever says “Michael Jordan was a great black basketball player” or “Barry Sanders was a great black running back”. The only way we become whole is when we are seen as entertainers, but when we are thinkers or teachers, we are put into the reductive shackles of adjectives that only serves to highlight us as “others”.
I don’t write this to in anyway separate myself from my culture nor to put a wall up between me and my community. What I am writing of me I am also speaking up for the rest. These labels that we have come to accept and make our own are like viruses that eats away at us without us realizing it. The power of words can never be quantified in a million years; the things we speak of ourselves we become. No matter how much effort we put behind “reclaiming” black and making it beautiful, the root of the word can never be undone. It was imposed to nullify us and to marginalize us as a people, we do ourselves a great disservice by taking an insult others gave us in the past and responding to it as if we are pets.
I hope the day comes where we stop using reductive adjectives and by extension stop letting the modern day pharisees put their thumbs on our temples as we confuse that weight as some type of pat on our heads. We need to understand that there are people who thrive by dividing us and pitting us one against the other. The strength of this global system of injustice resides in their ability to partition humanity into endless labels and categories. Every day, another grievance group is created and yet another class is manufactured—the better to continually stir up conflicts and keep us apart. The weakness of this same system is unity; the minute we accept our common struggles and come together as one, the system of injustices loses all power and the power returns to the people. Here is to unity and togetherness and a prayer that love will one day overcome hatred. One last thing, here is to hope that you can see the author of this article as just a writer. #ReductiveAdjectives
I figure anytime you put an adjective before ‘writer,’ it’s a way of dismissing the writer. Stephen Graham Jones
If you appreciated this article and realize the underlying message, share this article on social media using #ReductiveAdjectives
Check out the Ghion Cast below that talks about the reductive adjectives of black, “African”, “white” and the endless labels we take as a point of pride when these words are really pejorative points aimed at our hearts.
*Mozart was neither German nor Austrian, those two nations did not exist during this time, modern day Austria was part of the “Holy” Roman Empire.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Latest posts by Lij Teodrose Fikremariam (see all)
- First They Replace Your Name, Next They Erase Your Existence - June 10, 2019
- Who is there for Us? When Suffering and Hopelessness Give Way to Tribalism and Hatred - May 26, 2019
- Judge Not… - May 16, 2019