POETRY February 7, 2020

Bin ich dein Neger?


The 1990 Duden-Oxford German-English
Großwörterbuch will tell you that
Neger (masc) means
         a) Negro
         b) (Fernseh./television) gobo, nigger, cue card
all of which requires some explanation.

Negro: a most problematic English word.

Gobo: not what you think when your lips curl around it
somewhere between negro and nigger.
No, not a lazy, racist epithet conjuring
images of tribesmen chucking spears
at pith helmets, howling “gobo gobo gobo,”
marked abwertend (derogatory) in the Wörterbuch,
included for accuracy
but with regret.

No, a gobo is, in fact, a dark plate, a screen,
a word derived from “go between,”
a shield to protect a lens,
or a filter placed over a spotlight
to project a stenciled design.
Just like a cue card,
it’s a maker of illusions
a tool
a thing men use,
which begins to make sense
when you recall
that in the Wörterbuch
just before Neger (uppercase)
comes neger (lowercase)
as in: neger sein
as in: to be broke
and now you are perfectly clear
about the sanctioned uses of capitalization
and light and darkness
and tools.



Negerin (fem): Negress

a word which—according to
the doorstop Wörterbuch you bought
when you decided you loved German—
needs no definition,
coming just after Neger
and before Negerkrause: frizzy hair
and Negerkuß: lit. Neger-kiss,
a confection of chocolate-coated marshmallow
also known as Mohrenkopf: lit. Moor’s head,
as in: “Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan,
der Mohr kann gehen,”
as in: “The Moor has done his duty,
the Moor can go,”
not to be confused with Mohr im Hemd
as in: a steamed chocolate Bundt cake
cloaked in chocolate sauce.

Your Wörterbuch didn’t mention
Negerbrot: chocolate with nuts,
but you saw it behind confectioners’ glass
overseas, and you hate to admit
that you loved it,
just like Mohr im Hemd,
which you tried not to hear
yourself order.

More than two decades later
it still bothers you
that you never liked Negerküße,
too sticky
and too sweet.



You’ve been thinking about
Redewendungen (turns of phrase)
ever since that night twenty-five years ago
when you sat in an Austrian dorm
on your boyfriend’s bed,
and you joked that he should
go down to the basement
to get your Wäsche (laundry),
and he laughed and said

“Bin ich dein Neger?”

which to one scholar would have meant:
“Am I your negro?”
while another would have heard:
“Am I your nigger?”
and both would have meant
the same damn thing.

Your boyfriend’s cheeks flushed,
his hands covered his lips,
then apologies flowed
but you marveled at how
that question had shot from his mouth,
unconsidered yet fully formed,
primed like a common expression
fired from a

Neger: a torpedo-carrying craft used by the Nazis
between 1943 and 1945, notably in a series of attacks
on the Allied troops off Normandy in July of 1944;
as in: swift
as in: stealthy
as in: destructive

You didn’t know this meaning at the time,
but if you had, you would have answered:

“Ja, ich glaube schon.”

Tara Campbell (http://www.taracampbell.com) is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She's the author of a novel, TreeVolution, a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe's Bicycle, and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in 2019.