The Meaning of “Negro”

Plaza de España in early February, deserted despite it being 60 degrees

When I was younger, my dad used to call other black people “negro.” It was a term of endearment, like a nickname for a friend, that reclaimed and softened another n-word that African-Americans have heard in less friendly circumstances. My dad would call my sister and I “negroes,” and it would make me feel strange. Being exposed to my mother’s Guyanese culture, my hometown’s white American culture, and being an unaware kid complicated the journey to understanding my blackness. What did it mean to be “negro?”

As I grew up, I realized that blackness in America is a special thing. Right now, in contemporary American culture, blackness is multidimensional and amorphous, growing between and through the very tensions that it causes. From Beyoncé and Black Panther to #BlackLivesMatter and Colin Kaepernick, black culture has come to embody not only its traumatic history and continued strife, but also universal joy and pride that just about anybody can understand; especially young black children. My transition to young adulthood was defined by my coming of age while black culture came of age (again).

This is all to say that I love, celebrate, and understand my blackness as much as I can, even when it isn’t easy. Blackness is a journey, one that asks you to overcome personal and external obstacles to feel pride and bliss, and I take one step every day towards achieving contentment with myself. Moreover, I’ve learned to embrace every corner of my person, synthesizing my blackness with all of my identities to better understand myself, and building my empathy towards identities that I cannot understand. Up until nine months ago, I was confident, open to learning more, and happy to be a “negro.”

Then I went to Spain. I didn’t go to Spain for a cute spring break holiday or a quick winter program romp ⎯ homeboy was in Spain for a solid six months. In January, I began a semester abroad in Sevilla as a student in an immersive program that required me to live with a host family, take classes at the local university, volunteer with a service organization, and complete a research project, all while learning and speaking Spanish. It was the first time that I had flown on a plane alone, my first time visiting Europe, and my first time in a different time zone than my family. On top of adapting to one million changes, I was suddenly thrown into la cultura sevillana, which I knew nothing about. How would my host family treat me? What is the food culture like? Where can I buy hair product to maintain my curls?

Fortunately, I was blessed with a marvelous, generous, incredible host family that took me in like their own hijo. Local cuisine was unlike anything that I’ve eaten before (tapas and sangria, anybody?), and yes, I did find hair product, which I still use to this day, even if it burns my scalp a little bit. Eventually I was comfortable in my new home, but I also found myself rediscovering what it meant to be black. I discovered what it meant to be a black American through discovering what it meant to be African in Spain.

In Spanish, “negro” means black, like ink, the night sky, or my skin. “Negro” is used the same way in Spanish as it is by my dad, but there was something different. Before living in Sevilla, I expected racial dynamics that were distinct from those that I experienced while living in the U.S., but after I arrived, I learned more than I could’ve anticipated. Sevilla is the southernmost major city in Spain, baking in the sweltering sun near the tip of the Iberian peninsula, a stone’s throw away from northern Africa and an inviting refuge for African immigrants trying to enter Europe. Hence, even in a predominantly white city, there were many African and Afro-Spaniard peoples living alongside other sevillanos, although often in very different realities. In particular, African immigrants living in Sevilla have to contend with classism that stunts their social mobility, a lack of resources and opportunity to improve their circumstances, and racism and xenophobia that threatens their lives. Black Americans share these experiences, but in completely different ways. I wanted to learn about the experience of these people, so I decided to research the relationship between immigrant service organizations and African communities in Sevilla, and I gained insight beyond expectation.

For my research I investigated statistical correlations, reviewed studies, interviewed immigrant service groups, and most importantly, spoke with local community members about their experiences as African immigrants living in Spain. Whether it was my barber or a local grocer, I was eager to learn about why they came to Spain, what was keeping them there, and what they believed the future held for them. Honestly, I had trouble grasping these disparate stories, since they were so different from my own experience and those of the black Americans that I internalized. There was a certain camaraderie between us and we tried to empathize, but it was obvious that the world I was coming from was very different than the one that they knew, complicated by geopolitical particulars, socioeconomic status, and more layers of identity that threatened to distance us until we couldn’t relate at all.

For one of my last interviews, I spoke with a Nigerian woman, who confessed to me that it was the African community that supported her family more than sevillano immigrant services. It was in this moment that I understood. Sevilla was where she lived, but it wasn’t her home ⎯ her community was her home, a commonality that resonated with me, reminding me of the importance of community in American black culture. No matter where I am or what I go through, I can almost always rely on my community of black and brown friends that can relate to my experience and help me through obstacles. Even though this woman and I shared little, we connected on the common thread of community ⎯ one that just might unite everyone.

Since that moment, Afro-Spaniard blackness didn’t seem so far away. Our differences don’t divide us, but rather unite us, so long as we remain open to learning from each other. I still don’t fully understand the Afro-Spaniard experience, since it’s one that I’ve only witnessed or experienced as a guest in Sevilla, but I will always try to empathize through our common connections ⎯ we must learn through our racial difference, gender and sex difference, religious difference, and more.

I thought that I understood blackness, but I only understood my experience of American blackness. American blackness is just as unique as Spanish blackness ⎯ there isn’t one universal story, but a collage of experiences that display the richness and diversity of blackness. In other words, we are all “negro.”

About the writer: Joshua Jordan is a senior studying Government and minoring in Education, with hopes to focus on engaging youth in civil action and education policy. Originally from Poughkeepsie, NY, Joshua is passionate about empowering young kids to become the leaders of tomorrow. Apart from his studies, Joshua loves musical theatre, large dogs, and pretending that he’s famous (it’ll be true one day).

About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.

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