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The Waltz of Words

Written by

Laurent Maurice Lafontant
November 6th, 2020

Categories


Tout simplement Noir

Directed by Jean-Pascal Zadi and John Wax, the movie Tout simplement Noir follows a struggling actor who attempts to organize a march in Paris to protest against anti-Black racism and the under-representation of Black people in media. As he struggles to get his march off the ground, he encounters a number of Black French celebrities, i.e., actors, comedians, and activists. His endeavour reveals that, while all support his cause, everyone’s personal notion of what Black identity represents (shaped by gender, African or Caribbean origins, social status, etc.) makes it difficult to achieve cohesion between the various groups. The film also addresses the bias-laden relationships between Black communities and other racialized groups like Arab and Jewish communities. The latter are all victims of racism introduced by the White Western system, but they fail to come to an agreement and each group leverages its privileges from this very system to try and place themselves above the members of another group.

The title Tout simplement Noir refers to a scene in which a White woman uses the Anglicism “Black” as a noun to refer to the Black protagonist during a visit to the museum. He encourages her to use “Noir,” explaining to her that this word is not pejorative, that there is no problem in using it, and people need to tell it like it is. In France, the English saying “un Black” entered common parlance in the 1980s to replace the French word “Noir” when referring to Black people. Imported from the United States by French anti-racist movements, “This use of ‘Black’ refers to the Black American civil rights movement. While ‘Black’ was previously considered derogatory, it became a symbol of a claim and an expression of pride.” [1] American hip-hop culture which influenced and inspired Black and racialized populations in France helped popularize the saying. Thus, the qualifier “Black” in French is used to make black people more “neutral,” more acceptable by disconnecting them from the colonial history of slavery and its traumas. In the words of Maboula Soumahoro, a well-known expert on the African Diaspora, “When we say ‘un Black,’ we mean a certain kind of Black man: a cool, evolved, civilized one. A desirable Black person, emboldened by the cultural power of the United States. He or she is not the Senegalese hustler, the undocumented African, the Caribbean doudou.” [2]

In French, the English word “Black” used as a noun is intended to erase a past considered too painful or complex (colonization, slavery) and the issue of current racism experienced by Black peoples. Moreover, using another language allows one to accentuate the distance of one’s own history. Speaking the word in another language creates the impression that one is not invoking its true meaning, which in turns denies that, in the French context, skin colour has been at the heart of a system set up to discriminate and dehumanize individuals.

Poster Tout simplement Noir

The discomfort one can feel when uttering a word, I have personally experienced it with that of “masisi,” which means “sissy” or ’faggot” in Haitian Creole. Through my involvement with GRIS (a community organization that demystifies homosexuality and bisexuality in educational institutions), I was intervening in a Montreal high school class mostly made up of students of Haitian origin when I used the word “masisi” to talk about the bullying I experienced growing up. The students started laughing immediately—a reaction I had not anticipated. For a minute, I was brought back to my own high school experience. To nullify the word’s comic element in the students’ minds, I told them that it was as if a White person was to curse at them using the N-word. Their reactions changed instantly at my remark. I still remember the angry look on a student’s face when he said he would hit anyone who insulted him that way. Following that incident, I sometimes avoid saying the word “masisi” in a class with students of Haitian origin for fear that it will trigger laughter, bring back bad memories or increase my discomfort. I sometimes choose to use Quebecois French pejoratives instead, like tapette or fif depending on how I feel at the time.

Using another language, in this case Quebec French, helps reduce the impact of violence and initiate a dialogue. However, I came to realize that saying the word in a different language allowed students of Haitian origin to not fully appreciate the violence of the Haitian word they were using. The same occurs when White people talk to them about homosexuality: it doesn’t “shock” them as much as when they see a gay man who happens to be Haitian like them. Especially when we know that homosexuality is often presented as a “White man’s disease” in the Haitian community. I have not stopped using the word “masisi” in front of Haitian students so that they can understand how the word has hurt and ostracized me.

I currently serve as the Executive Coordinator for Massimadi Festival, which takes its name from “masisi” and “madivinèz,” two Haitian Creole word meaning dyke. The name Massimadi is the reappropriation of these two derogatory words as a way of restoring pride to individuals and encouraging their self-affirmation. The name of the festival was not coined by a Haitian person, but rather by a Rwandan woman who did not have the same experience with the negative charge of these words. As a matter of fact, the non-Haitians I meet always find this term endearing—childish, funny, etc. They struggle to understand the weight of social exclusion that accompanies this smirk-inducing name. In 2016, however, the name of the festival generated a real outcry from Haitians, including a number of gay people who felt that the term was too sullied to be reclaimed.
And this even though the Haitian organization Kouraj who advocates for gay rights calls for the reappropriation of the terms “masisi,” “madivinèz,” and “makomè,” by choosing to unite the LGBT community and gathering these three terms under the emblem of “M community.” In Haiti, certain LGBT people belonging to an affluent social stratum prefer Western words such as “gay” and “homosexual,” whereas the word homosexual is often considered as obsolete in Western countries as it references the scientific and medical environment that discriminated against LGBT people. Many Black people within the Montreal LGBT community reject the term gay, deemed too western and White, and prefer the word “queer,” which is perceived as more inclusive.

Words change and evolve according to cultures and societies, eras and socio-political or geographical contexts. Words are rich in history and contain many paradoxes. The same word can provoke laughter, pain, sadness, shock or trauma. Words weaken and strengthen in turn. Even the word “nigger,” a distant derivative of the Latin “niger” (“Black”), was once a neutral word, as was the word “negro.” Although it was used to describe Black people, in the first half of the 19th century it was used as the equivalent of “dude” among the mountain men who participated in the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains, and it did not only refer to Afro-descendant men. In Haiti, the Creole word “neg” simply means “man” and refers to all men regardless of their skin colour. It is anti-Black racism that has made the word “nigger” pejorative and transformed it into the “N-word.” It did not reach its strongest negative connotation during slavery, but after abolition, as if to tell Black people that although they were no longer in the fields, they were still slaves and would never get rid of their skin colour socially.

To deem a word taboo is to silence a part of its history. It is to make a word prisoner of an era, of a context. The taboo is what deprived me of knowing my sexual orientation, because the word associated with it was considered dirty; a reality that society at first opposed and which ignorance transformed, at best, into an object of “comedy.” This same taboo denied the existence of my family members who died of AIDS. Even today, things left unsaid deprive me of knowing my entire family history, because of the discomfort that can be tied to a poorly handled social ascension. Everyone carries their wounds and scars and passes them on from generation to generation. Too accustomed to silence, we lose some of our origins by erasing parts of our history. Our identities become prisoners of terms generated by the oppressor, whoever he may be, such as “masisi,” “poor,” “Black,” “misery,” words that evoke the shame we seek to escape.

Photo from the film Tout simplement Noir

As can be seen in the film Tout simplement Noir, Black French activists have been trying for several years now to put an end to the lexical borrowing of “Black” and encourage the use of “Noir”: “The problem is not the word, it’s the thing,” continues sociologist Eric Fassin. In other words, the problem is the way people are being treated. Better to name it than to silence it or euphemize it.” [3] In post-colonialist societies, when everyone fears being labeled a racist, including all the Trumps of the world, many White people claim to not see colour—as if it is revealing that seeing someone’s skin colour is enough qualify as a racist! Unfortunately, racism is an integral part of society, and the discomfort surrounding the use of the word Black is a powerful indicator of its existence.

This discomfort with the word ”Black” is also a reality in Montreal. A person is often uncomfortable using skin colour to describe another, even though this adjective would make things easier in some cases. I remember when a customer, in a store where I worked, would point to a colleague and make superfluous descriptions to describe said Black colleague when the other employees next to her were not. It was clear that if she had said “the Black lady,” I would have known right away who she was referring to. This awkwardness was somewhat hypocritical because it was impossible for her not to have noticed my colleague’s skin colour. I agree that if the objective is to describe a person, one cannot limit oneself to skin colour, but in certain circumstances, it is obvious that the person sees colour and avoids revealing that he or she noticed it because of the inherent taboo and prevailing racism in society. All the more so since, in the absence of Black people, White people do not hesitate to mention colour. For example, a friend told me that when I called her house, her family thought of me as her “Black friend” (at least during the first year). Colleagues or acquaintances who brag about not seeing anyone’s colour constantly refer to my Haitian culture or community. They probably mean that they “don’t make a distinction,” yet their behaviour is a reminder that they often do.

At a time when the debate is raging over the use of the “N-Word” or “nègre” in French, it is clear that it is not so much the word that is problematic as the reality and history attached to it. As mentioned above, in Haitian Creole, there is nothing pejorative about the word “neg” (“man”). In contrast, the word “nwa” (“Black”) can be negative because colourism is very prevalent in Haiti.

A Black person with a slightly paler complexion is favoured over a Black person with darker skin. It is in this context that saying to a person “ou nwa” (“literally translated you are black but meaning, in that context, “you have dark skin”, because in creole black is not used as an identity mark as in western societies.) is an insult. The word “chabon” (“coal”) is even used as an insult to people who are considered too dark. As long as discrimination against Black people exists, as long as racism is a daily reality, there will be no “good word” to use. No matter what word we choose to use, the reality of history eventually catches up with us. “Negro,” “Black,” “person of colour,” “cultural/ethnocultural communities,” “diversity,” “racialized”…! None of these terms will fully suit everyone. Each one works for a little while and eventually gets replaced. We look for new words to escape the past, the pain. But the taboo and discomfort felt towards history remains. Words are criticized for not adequately defining the reality they are intended to describe, for being pejorative, demeaning, too vague, too imprecise, too inclusive, too exclusive… How could one word be universally accepted when it applies to a multitude of cultures and communities? The fact is that Black identity was created by the White man using his racist ideology. He referred to different African peoples and cultures under a single word “negro” to render them slaves or submissive peoples. Cut off from their cultures and denied the right to define themselves for centuries, Black communities remain prisoners of this White man’s gaze.

Modèles noirs, regards blancs

Directed by Aurélia Perreau and Élise Le Bivic, Modèles noirs, regards blanc questions the place of Black people in art and culture (paintings in museums, cinema, various media). Many featured in the documentary describe how representations of Black people in the media have stayed with them because of their reductive, derisive, and degrading nature. Also highlighted was the reality that positive images often stood out solely by sheer contrast to negative ones. What is striking in and of itself is that, as a Black person, one so rarely has the opportunity to be represented that, on the rare occasions when it does happen, there is easily a sense of frustration due to high expectations of perfection. Because of this invisibility, there is often something to criticize about the representation, because it is not as ideal as one would like it to be.

In Modèles noirs, regards blancs, the author of the book Trop noire pour être française Isabelle Boni-Claverie visits the Louvre museum with her two children. They come across the only portrait of a Black woman, titled Portrait d’une femme noire (previously named Portrait d’une Négresse). In the painting’s description, they learn that the name of the woman depicted is Madeleine. Isabelle is happy to see this painting, but cannot help but be also disappointed. Yes, the painting accurately depicts the woman and Isabelle recognizes the feminist aspect of this work, painted by abolitionist Marie-Guillemine Benoist to celebrate the emancipation of Black people. However, Isabelle Boni-Claverie is disturbed by the exposed breast, which she believes emphasizes the nudity of the sitter rather than the person. And whatever the era, the title of the painting reduces the woman to her skin colour. It does allows Isabelle to initiate a conversation with her children. She asks her daughter how she would feel if she were named “little brown girl”, to make her understand how her individuality can (or cannot) be reflected in a name. Isabelle’s son then asks her about the meaning of the word “Négresse”. She explains to him that this term used to designate Black people in the past, but is now racist. It should be noted that that the title was only rectified to Portrait de Madeleine in 2019 for an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay.

How can all Black women, each so different, recognize themselves in this unique portrait from the colonialist era? Doesn’t this amount to reducing the millions of Black women to their skin colour, to the status of slaves—even freed slaves? As Black people, we are forced to search for ourselves in this skin colour, to identify with it, even if it does not fully represent us. We have been so defined by colour that it is difficult to do otherwise. We have been so invisibilized that we are almost forced to see ourselves in what little we are offered. This lack of meaningful representation keeps us trapped in outdated models.

I remember the first time I saw Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire’s documentary Des hommes et des dieux on the lives of LGBT people in Haiti. They were Black, were called “masisi” or “makomè,” were subjected to insults similar to those I had experienced, lived in the same country I was born in, and yet I did not feel represented at all by their stories. I identified more with the White character Zachary and his journey in the Quebecois film Crazy. Admittedly, the documentary had the merit of deconstructing the prejudice that homosexuality is not Haitian and allowed me to discover that, to a certain extent, voodoo could serve as a safe space and a place for LGBT Haitians to thrive in. But I did not see myself in the people interviewed; their social class differed from the more privileged environment I had grown up in and their experiences corresponded more to a Trans* reality (even though in Haiti all non-heteronormative sexuality is associated with the terms “masisi” and “madivinèz”) than mine. I was even troubled by the image displayed of homosexuality, replete with effeminate characters who dressed as women and conformed too much to the “gay stereotype.” My perception of the documentary later evolved when, no longer trying to find myself in the film, I was able to recognize its sociological value.

Joséphine Baker

All realities have their place insofar as they are part of history, however clichéd or demeaning they can be perceived to be. They have existed and sometimes continue to exist. Through a kind of internalization of oppression, we often condition ourselves not to be seen the way our oppressors see us. We want to remove from ourselves the habits and behaviours that have been used in the past to belittle us. We refuse to look kindly upon those in our communities who exhibit them. As if to prove our oppressors right, we rush to condemn these behaviours. Consider, for example, the way some Black people perceive Josephine Baker; the sisters Paulette and Jeanne Nardal, intellectuals and, according to some, precursors of the Negritude movement, criticized this artist who performed wearing a banana belt. They argued she was reinforcing stereotypes of African and Caribbean people by endorsing a role to which Whites confined Black cultures. And yet Josephine Baker inspired many individuals and was much more than a simple entertaining character to please White audiences, a fact exemplified by her participation in the resistance during the Second World War and her involvement in the fight against racism.

The Nardal sisters

As evidenced by Tout simplement Noir, there is no one answer to the emancipation of Afro-descendant individuals. Given that their identities are manifold and have been reshaped throughout different eras and social structures, we cannot fully grasp or contain them in a single definition. By and large, all want justice, freedom, consideration, and respect, but not everyone follows the same path to get there. History is complex and whether you’re Black or White, you don’t experience it in the same way. Representations dating back to colonial eras, informed by the racism of their time, may have played a significant role in the fight for the emancipation of Black people, however problematic these representations may be today. If we want to know our history, our identities, we must also understand how the words and images that define and have defined us change over time. My October article broached the subject through the word “Creole,” associated with Afro-Caribbean cultures despite having been created to refer to White people of European descent born in the colonies.

Life is ever-changing; in societies in constant evolution, the best way to reach one another is to be in a constant dialogue where words serve the needs of human beings and not the other way around. We cannot let a fear of words give them ascendancy over us and bias the understanding of our realities. We are more than labels and static images. Our identities are nomads who travel time and space. Our life depends on our ability to communicate with others. Being able to open up to others and rely on their goodwill is important. If we have to withdraw into ourselves for fear of our neighbours, we trap ourselves. Our freedom can only be built collectively.

Paulette and Jeanne Nardal

See the trailer for Tout simplement Noir

*This film was presented in Montreal as part of the FNC: Festival du nouveau cinéma, which took place virtually from October 7 to 31.

Excerpts from the documentary Modèles noirs, regards blancs: Excerpt 1, Excerpt 2

*This documentary is not available in its entirety for people living outside of France.

Notes

[1] See this link

[2] Idem

[3] Idem

About the author

Laurent Maurice Lafontant is born in Haiti and has immigrated in Quebec in 2001 where he has been living since then. He has graduated in Fine Arts from Concordia University after achieving a double major in Film Studies and French Literature. Laurent has been involved in the LGBTQ+ community since 2008. He is a volunteer for Gris-Montreal an organization that raises awareness against homophobia. Laurent has been a volunteer and an employee at African Rainbow, an organization that worked with Black LGBTQ+ people in Quebec. He directed two short documentaries Be Yourself (2012) and Beyond Images (2014). Both films talk about Black LGBTQ+ people in Montreal. Laurent is now president of Massimadi Foundation, the organization behind Massimadi: an Afro LGBTQ+ Film & Art Festival. Laurent is also a self-published writer who launched his book “La dernière lumière de Terrexil” in spring 2018.

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