I truly hate to use the word nigger, even in my personal journal, but there’s no way to talk through the word without using it. Just calling it the N word doesn’t do it justice.
We were not allowed to say it at home, and it was not allowed in the neighborhood where I grew up, or at school. Not at home for very good reason because it was offensive to people we were close to, and it was a naughty word. In the neighborhood it was almost as bad as fucker (you put a mother in front of that one and you might never see the light of day again) but worse than shit or asshole combined, and any kid who said it could get called in or sent home for a licken and a virtual mouth wash with soap, and the rest of us forbidden from playing with that kid for a while.
At school you could get expelled, or at least slapped. The nuns at St Simon of Cyrene tried to teach us basic civility. One nun cleverly baited a notorious badboy in class by using the word niggardly. When the badboy predictably snickered, sister asked him if he knew what niggardly meant, and he replied, “To be black.” For the whole class — we were all white, of course, and properly shocked — the nun defined the word, and I recall thinking, oh great, now there’s license for the local knuckleheads to go around referring to stingy people as niggards. You know how kids seize new words. But nothing more came of it. That nun knew exactly what she was doing.
When referring to race, out of respect, we were encouraged then to refer to black people as negroes — a term now reserved for that baseball league where their great players played before Jackie Robinson made it to the majors. Some still used the word colored and insisted they meant no disrespect, only being descriptive. We were race conscious then, our biases were challenged, and we grew up aware of how privileged we were to be white. How lucky we were to be northerners free from the stains of slavery that corrupted the white people who lived down south. (Never mind Dred Scott.) We were proud that black people could move up here and escape the hate, like we could share desegregation as if sharing our abundant water supply.
Of course we were very naive. Few of us really knew any real black people. I did — my dad had connections — and I could vouch for their positive character. There was every reason to imagine they were every bit as cool as the Four Tops or the Supremes. Willie Mays. Sidney Poitier. It seemed only charitable to give a helping hand to those less fortunate who were just starting out in our Great Society. Some of us speculated that Dr Martin Luther King Jr would be president by 1980. Maybe that’s why he got shot.
There were no gangs back then shooting up the streets with guns. Not here. As if we knew. From the perspective of our Roman Catholic parish where I grew up, it looked like a sure bet by the time we grew up and got jobs, got married and had our own kids, the whole subject of racial discrimination and segregation would be settled forever in our future culture, and America would be way advanced in leading the world (as opposed to the commies) in matters of peace and justice. There was every reason to believe the conflict of race relations we saw in the news would be solved in our lifetime, we shall overcome.
What went all Robert Burns gang aft a gley can best be attributed to the magnitude of forces unforeseen and unintended that clash and contend endlessly for righteous power in this complexly indifferent universe.
In other words, the real world is composed of elements that cohese and conflict, realign and repel, and no social order ever emerged is perfect. With adolescence came encounters with contradictions, awareness of conditions subversive of my privileged kumbaya.
Bob Dylan sang, “A bullet from the back of the bush took Medgar Evers’ blood.”
It was appalling to see race riots. One was forced to examine the point of view of people so outraged they burn down their own neighborhoods. Weren’t things going well? I guess not.
Venturing into the real world I heard that word nigger again. Used with the same defamatory pith as the kid who called me one because he thought in the heat of the moment I was worse than a shitty asshole, almost a fucker. Used it the way we imagine nazis spoke of Jews.
Later, liberation language co-opted the word to symbolize anybody oppressed, as in the thesis The Student As Nigger, or the phrase I ain’t your nigger. Comedians jumped on it for discomforting laughs. An ex-Beatle and his Japanese-born spouse recorded a song called Woman is the Nigger of the World. Cavalier work crews might refer to the foreman as the HNIC — Head Nigger In Charge.
Meanwhile Amos ‘N’ Andy and Disney’s Song of the South were withdrawn from public view as entertainment that shamed their white producers and predominately white audiences as well as the black characters portrayed in the stories.
There was Black Like Me, a confessional written by a white guy who used a pharmaceutical to darken his skin so he could pass for black to go undercover to experience being black so he could write a book. Norman Mailer published his essay the White Negro to describe the phenomenon of white hipsters counter-assimilating black culture. This accounted for Allen Ginsburg and Elvis Presley, and presaged Eric Burdon and Eminem.
How do you expect people to react when Charles Manson interprets the Beatle song Helter Skelter to predict a race war?
Ralph Ellison became highly visible. To Kill A Mockingbird placed the onus of racism on the heads of white education. Does everyone know by now why the caged bird sings? Cornell West reminds us Race Matters. Malcolm X urged people to do liberation by any means necessary. Muhammad Ali fought the system. With his Soul On Ice Eldridge Cleaver reminds the persecuted to know where your shoes are at all times. FUBU came into fashion.
The term African American emerged as the preferred moniker for common polite discourse. Polite discourse remains possible. People of color replaced colored people. Negro — that baseball museum in Kansas City. Black is most common. Black is ever the new black.
Rap music and hip hop reclaimed ownership of the word nigger, as in NWA — niggers with attitude. Sometimes you see it spelled niggah. The word is locked in a tabernacle of niggardly utterance. Maybe it’s good riddance, but not to the point of censorship of Mark Twain in public schools.
What now, and what next?
A legacy of organized street narcotics marketing, dramatized in the mafia conference scene in the Godfather, has fostered lost generations of career criminals, addicts and prison lifers. Any wonder why some call us white devils?
Some law enforcement officers behave with deadly force as an extension of the mentality of bring the fire hoses and sic the dogs. There are bad guys in the bunch. The rest attempt to keep the peace in the face of defiant criminal exceptionalism, facing death.
Black gunslingers spray bullets all over the place, and it’s not for a righteous cause or to prove black lives matter. It’s hate on hate — hate crimes, not even crimes of indifference or ignorance, or accident of birth.
Lawless defiance, vigilantism and brutal police tactics, along with palpable disregard for life by individuals within black communities, have made black lives madder. And madder.
All this from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and all the indignities of disparities, despicable repression, cruel history — add it all up and who wouldn’t have an attitude?
Say it loud…
Black people, please don’t be mad at me. How I was brought up I would have gladly given up my seat on the bus to Rosa Parks, and probably have, countless forgettable times but didn’t take credit for doing an obviously courteous thing. You know what I mean.
I’m a white guy trying to live right and do right by my fellow human beings. I try to atone for wrongs inflicted in any way by me, bearing in mind the core of the Serenity theme of knowing the difference between what is my own responsibility and what is not. I vote.
I’ve tried to raise my own kids to embrace an open humanity and live by codes if integrity and justice.
I am sorry for the conditions that provoke the confrontations and the antipathy based on race.
No words can express how bad I feel.
My desire is not to shush anybody.
I want an end to the madness, a cease in the fighting words, a civil dialogue to replace the need for civil disobedience.
I want to feel more than a sense of Dred when the race card is in wordplay. We’re all players. Everyone at the table has a stake. Let’s begin with a code of civil conduct that does not justify reprehensible behavior.
What you see is what you get. Say what you will. Tell it like it is. Address the violence. Stop disparate treatment.
(I know — cure the sick, raise the dead. Or raise the sick, cure the dead.)
Or damn us all if we don’t listen to our own profane words of retribution. Are we doomed to keep repeating ourselves?
Kids pick up this kind of stuff.
I’m just saying.