Book Review: Nigger for Life by Neal Hall, M.D

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Nigger for Life is an insightful anthology of poems that both document and articulate Hall’s experience as a black man in the U.S and in an uncompromising and unapologetic style of delivery, asserts that you cannot escape the confines of race, hence the title of the book.

When I first glanced at the book’s cover I wondered why a successful, Harvard-educated eye surgeon should view the black experience in the US in such negative terms, when by all accounts he should be living the American Dream.

The ideology of the American Dream is enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence that proclaims: “All men are created equal” and have a right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In the Hollywood version of Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith, may have overcome adversity to achieve success and wealth through sheer determination and hard work; but Hall’s perspective is more akin to Malcolm X’s assertion of the “American Nightmare.”

For Hall, money and fame does not shield African Americans from being branded niggers, denoting that they are slaves for life in the eyes of white America, and are treated as lesser human beings.

This is expressed through the unnamed poem:

“You can rise up

beyond the hood

but masa will never let you

leave his plantation.”

And the named poem First and Foremost:

“White people will always perceive

us as niggers first and foremost.

though we may like to think otherwise…”

When you consider that in February 2009, President Obama was depicted in a cartoon in the New York Post as a chimpanzee; it’s clear that Hall is not exaggerating.

There is a long history of African Americans and people of African descent in general being depicted in animalistic terms in racist imagery. And during the time of slavery, the American Constitution declared African Americans to be 3/5ths of a human being. In a sense, Hall is saying that nothing has changed.

Hall’s poems are presented sequentially in the order that they were written, and span over 20 years. They articulate his disaffection with white America and express the ways in which African Americans are oppressed, especially within the criminal justice system. In the poem By Reason of Blackness, Hall writes:

“I am unnerved by the enormous burden of proof put on me to evidence my innocence in a judicial system where my guilt has been institutionalized by reason of blackness.”

As I delved deeper into his anxieties, frustrations and observations, it became quite depressing. I hoped that as I drew closer to the present time, that I would find hope for the future, but instead, the poem True Savior, seemed to be saying that there was no escape …

“I have lived long enough in this world to

realize that the best life has to offer

is that you live long enough in this world

to realize that death is the one true saviour

the dark prince of peace that is my eternal

salvation from life in this world.”

Thankfully, this was followed a few pages later with Breakdown, which speaks resolutely of resistance:

“Can’t break me down…

I am not bending

not breaking down

won’t go down.”

Nigger for Life is the revelation of Hall's innermost thoughts and his astute observations of life’s contradictions.

But beyond that, I sense that documenting and publishing these poems has been both emancipatory and self-empowering.  It is the only means by which Hall could liberate himself from the perpetual state of inequality that is imposed on African Americans.

I found it reminiscent of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, in the genre of liberationist writing that speaks of the black experience in the white world. Fanon’s writing speaks of a crippled colonial mentality within western culture, where the coloniser can only see the colonised as inferior.

Hall’s anthology speaks of a twisted mentality at the heart of white America that cannot conceive of African Americans as full human beings and confines them to a perpetual state of slavery.

ISBN: 9780972973045

Publication Date: 2009

Publisher: http://surgeon-poet.com/

 

 

 

Deborah Gabriel

About Deborah Gabriel

Dr Deborah Gabriel is a former journalist and PR specialist who completed her PhD in 2014 and now is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture & Communication at Bournemouth University. She is also the Founder of People With Voices and the Founder and CEO of Black British Academics.

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2 Comments On “Book Review: Nigger for Life by Neal Hall, M.D”

  1. I, too, have read Nigger for Life. Thank you for your thoughtful, analytical and emotional review. Your review so well depicts “life’s contradictions” described in many of Dr. Hall’s poems.

    For one man to be supreme (as is the history and current times – documented by unequal pay, disproportionate political and senior management positions, and disparity in healthcare delivery and education) another man must be “treated”, as you pointed out “lesser”, “oppressed”, with “inequity” which is or is akin to “slavery”. One of the definitions of slavery is submission to a dominating influence.

    Dr. Hall’s observation of “institutionalized by reason of blackness” is pervasive beyond the judicial system; it is the superior man’s system of living (his dominating influence), only it is not “twisted mentality”; it is intentional greed and self-superiority for self (individually and as a group of peoples).

    I hope the anthology has been self-empowering for Dr. Hall. “Self”-empowerment is one mentally empowering way to combat being a Nigger for Life.

    Thank you for your review and for sharing this wonderful work of literature with us. It is a book for all to read, regardless of race.

  2. I have never thought about racism until I read Nigger for Life. Not only does Dr. Hall share his feelings and thoughts by publishing his poems, but he also has the great ability to pass on his anger, disappointment, and pain to the reader. The book opened my eyes and changed my view about this subject entirely. I am glad you took the time to review Nigger for Life because I think that a great majority of Americans need a reality check. I see it happen everyday! It makes me sad and angry when people deny the fact that racism still exists by using the statement that the president of the United States is African-American. I recommend this book to everyone, because it will not only open your eyes but also change your entire thought process.

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