Naughty Words

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Dred Scott

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.

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Medgar Evers

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…

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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.

Buffalo Kelly Rides Again

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As a kid, I packed heat.

I wore a sidearm. Strapped a big iron on my hip, just like Marty Robbins, one of my idols of the day.

As a little boy, nothing made me feel so vital every morning as getting dressed, putting on my cowboy hat and strapping on my gunbelt.  A few birthdays and Christmases and I owned quite an arsenal.

Toy guns, of course.  Cast alloy replicas of authentic firearms of the Old West favored by the good guys and bad guys portrayed on TV and in the movies.  Modeled after guns made by Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson (which I mispronounced Smith & Weston without any adult correction) all made in the scale of a child’s hand.  Some of the metalwork was scrolled along the barrels like they were engraved and finely tooled.  The handles either had some kind of rough grips or were mother of pearl smooth.  The trigger and hammer mechanisms worked with varying smoothness, depending on toy manufacturer – I seem to recall Mattel as being of high quality and most realistic to a discerning kid under eight years old.  And there were the holsters, stitched leather and snug against the hip, belts tooled with cowboy baroque designs and cinched with big bold buckles.  Some holsters had ties for the thighs to facilitate a quicker draw.

How can I reconcile American gun culture without confessing my own complicity?

My earliest TV and movie heroes carried guns.  Hopalong Cassidy.  Gene Autry.  Roy Rogers.  Wild Bill Hickok and his old pal Jingles.  Cisco and Pancho.  The Lone Ranger – my heart still stirs when I hear the 1812 Overture.  Wyatt Earp.  My namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody.

I most liked the ones who favored pistols.  Bat Masterson carried a trick cane.  The Rifleman lacked a certain savoir faire.  Yancy Deringer – not to be confused with Henry Deringer – relied on a sneaky little pistol that reminded one too much of John Wilkes Booth.  Josh Randall the bounty hunter carried a sawed off Winchester carbine, a little overhanded for my taste but kind of cool aesthetically.

Above all I admired the ones who righted wrongs and came to the aid of the downtrodden and the victimized.  Yule Brenner and Charles Bronson’s Magnificent Seven.  Paladin for hire, who dressed as a gentleman in the city and embossed the image of a chess piece on his calling card – for all I knew about chess it might as well have been the jack of spades.  The Maverick brothers, Brett and Bart in nice suits, reluctantly distracted from their livelihoods playing poker to help somebody unfortunate.  John Wayne and Gary Cooper and every epic drama based on a theme called Shane.  Destry Rides Again – a crush on Marlene Dietrich – “and don’t be stingy baby.”

Nothing like a shotglass of Pepsi at the Long Branch Saloon of my dreams after confronting the bad guys of my fantasies in a shootout on the streets of my own personal Dodge City.  Good guys came and went, but every week of every year there was Matt Dillon the US Marshall, the plain spoken righteous quintessential good guy standing tall against the forces of bad in Gunsmoke.  The star, James Arness, was from my own home town.

“Hey Buff, let’s play guns!”

Didn’t have to ask me twice.  Me and my friends, as we used to say before we were taught good grammar, shared for a time a common fanaticism for gunplay.  Dressed in cowboy hats and gunbelts we chased each other around the neighborhood, hiding behind garages and taking cover behind birdbaths, swingsets and sandboxes, all pulling triggers.  We shouted pow-pow-pow and blam-blam to enhance the ambient sound effects.  Then there were caps – paper spools of dots of gunpowder threaded through the chambers of some toy guns like a movie through a projector or like an old school computer punch tape that synchronimously detonated with the impact of the hammer and made a loud explosive crack like a firecracker, obviating any need to verbally pow-pow and bam-bam.  Caps also emitted the burnt aroma of what Francis Ford Coppola in another weapons context would later describe as Victory.  Caps generally annoyed grown-ups and became forbidden long before we were discouraged against pointing our guns at each others faces.  So it continued blam-blam-blam until we all finally gave up our puny pistols for Daisy air rifles and their hefty pump action pop when we evolved to more sophisticated games of combat.

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From the early days we did not play Cowboys and Indians.  It was always cowboys and cowboys, or just cowboys.  Nobody wanted to be Indians.  Up north of where we lived we encountered real Indians living in teepees on reservations, and among us guys there was a tacit understanding it seemed wrong to play at persecuting people so obviously picked on and bullied – like picking on someone not your own size.  We weren’t interested in being cowboys either, or cared about horses, saddles, or acting out the humdrum routine of herding cattle.  It was all about posses, and chasing rustlers and thieves and no ‘count polecats and bank robbers.  It was about hideouts, forts and territory, somebody’s back yard.

From there it progressed to cops and robbers as the themes on TV changed.  Gradually the westerns diminished and detectives and private eyes came into vogue, and I acquired a snub-nosed .38 complete with shoulder holster to wear concealed under my Sunday sport coat like Jeff of 77 Sunset Strip – wondering if Kookie would ever graduate from parking cars to getting a license and solving his own cases.

There were experiments with forays into galactic space gunfights with ray guns that generated sparks, the forerunners of phasers, but they didn’t catch on.  We had some fun with water pistols crafted in the designs of Lugers and Berettas, but they had to be refilled with water all the time and we were too impatient to take time outs.

Then came the war movies and TV shows like Combat.  John Wayne went military.  The focus of entertainment went from winning the wild west to refighting and redefeating the nazis in World War II.  Audie Murphy.  That’s about the time me and my friends took up Daisy air rifles.  Me and them, playing jungle war in the wild woodlands of the nature preserve along the swamp they called the lake, that last summer playing guns.  Man that was fun.

I don’t remember any grown ups strictly forbidding us from playing with toy guns.  There was no event transforming our behavior – no one shot out an eye, even though it got darn close when somebody discovered you can pack the barrel of an air rifle with dirt and shoot little mudballs, a practice we made a pact to disavow except at inanimate objects and squirrels.  I don’t recall any formal decree from a parent or authority person telling us to stop playing guns.  Looking back I would hope somebody saw through the fun we were having and saw the crazy violence we imitated and said, we have to stop this.  We just stopped.

Maybe it was like St Paul the evangelist who wrote about putting away childish things.  For me, I cannot point to any transformative revelation.  Nobody said to me, look at what you are doing – you are entertaining yourself pretending to kill people.

Maybe it was sports, or rock and roll.

I never went hunting – men in my life didn’t hunt, except for an estranged grandfather who never got to know me.  The first time I fired a real gun was at summer camp, under strict instruction and supervision.  It was a breech load bolt action single shot .22 rifle fired from a prone position on the ground.  It was scary to shoot a permanent hole in something at a distance, even if it was a paper target.  Later I fired shotguns at cans in the woods, and then at clay pigeons.  I was awed by the force and scared of what could go wrong.  I never got comfortable with the responsibility.

Along with the rest of the toys of my youth, my guns disappeared.  Today they would probably be illegal because they were such faithful replicas and so similar to real weapons.  Whether I chose not to keep them or I just let them get tossed out, the timing coincided with a phased awareness of firepower and death.

Even in my musical soundtrack I can trace awareness of the futility of the life of a gunfighter, from the lessons of the ballads of Marty Robbins – how come the guy from the West Texas town of El Paso sings the song if he ends up dead – and the most blunt cautionary tale from Johnny Cash, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.  My mom likely presumed I would grow out of it, playing with toy guns, and I did.  By the time the Beatles White Album came out I was ready to be transfixed by the John Lennon song that goes, “Hey Bungalow Bill / What did you kill? / What did you kill?”

In the movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought the Old West into the 20th Century by deglamorizing gunplay.  On TV the western genre went away in a puff of Gunsmoke.  Doctor shows took over.  Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons cozied in.

And hard news journalism.  There was a bloody war in Southeast Asia.  The whole world watched.

Somewhere in there I got delusions of peace and love.  A yearning for a society and a world without violence.  Seemed doable.

So in my life I never owned a real gun – an admission these days which could cause me harm, I suppose, from somebody who knows I’m unarmed.  Not owning a firearm seems to run counter to the demographic trends that show more and more people are armed with guns in their households and taking advantage of conceal and carry permits.  Do I feel left out?  Not when it comes to having the right to choose not to make up reasons to own a gun.The sense that everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right for me.

It’s a dangerous world.  Agreed.  Cars crash and we are allowed to treat them like toys.  We use cars for transportation and we regulate and license their use.

Violent crime exists, and wars.  Gun crime occurs with appalling frequency.  People arm themselves for protection, I get that.  Fear is a basic motivator.  Self defense is a basic instinct codified as a right and doctrine of law.  If you outlaw guns, the saying goes, only outlaws will have guns – and the police, our hired peacekeepers.  And the armed forces who defend our country, of course, against regimes who would kill us all and trash the Constitution with its Second and all Amendments, all of them armed with guns to use against us supplied by who knows who of the worldwide arms trade.

Like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee I feel responsible for the gun craze, and I can’t take it back.  I think of kids today and the allure of video games that simulate the killing of human beings more graphically than any kid of the 1950s could imagine, yet there is no proven causal relationship between video games and violent behavior, and this is a free country.  The same could be said of toy guns in my day.

There is a serious worry about the allure of real guns.  The allure of real bang-bang pow-pow.  The illusory intoxicating smell of victory.  Real caps, as in cap your ass.  The empowerment of solving a problem impulsively and with an aura of impunity with guns.  Joining up with others to solve perceived wrongs, take territory, impose ideas and creeds, and change the world with guns.

I look at succeeding generations, and the next ones, and I wish I could reset my example.  Our culture has defined itself repeatedly by legends of the Old West, and what sticks is the image of the gunfighter.  Are we so ignorant that we are doomed to repeat it?  Can this be altered without denying the past?  In the age of Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino?

What comes to mind is advice from Leonard Cohen’s song about the Old Revolution:

“Into this furnace I ask you now to venture/ You whom I cannot betray.”

I know, this brings us back to the beginning.

The other day one of my neighbors held a family picnic, and there were kids all over, sometimes playing in my yard.  One little girl about 8 had a toy gun.  It was bright blue and had a boxy stock with a bright red barrel, and she kept peppering a younger boy with orange nerf bullet projectiles.  At a pool party I recently attended I observed kids shooting one another with colorful toy water guns called Super Soakers, and I heard one kid cry out, “Not my face!”  There must be something primitively hard wired into sisters to torment little brothers by any means at hand.

It was interesting to observe these modern toy guns were conspicuously designed not to resemble in any way a real firearm.  Whether manufactured voluntarily or mandated by some state law or federal regulation, you cannot mistake these toys for the real thing.  The days of little boys running around with replica Colt .45 Peacekeeper Army pistols appear to be over.

If a consensus can be achieved to regulate toy guns for a greater good, rather than try to take them all away, then real grown ups ought to be able to negotiate meaningful regulation of lethal firearms, as if regulating a well regulated Militia.

There Are No True Stories Here

What may ring true or seem true commingles with the creative suppositions of the reader and the subjective sublime of the writer.  There may be facts presented or maybe a pack of lies offered, but no truths.  Just stories.  They may seem realistic.  Or not.  They may evoke fantasy or belie imagination.  Could emote rantings like a false religion.  Might seem to make sense out of no sense at all.  No promises.  There will be stigmas, and stigmata.  Graphomania, apophenia, ekphraisis, pareidolia perhaps, and maybe a smattering of agoraphobia.  Some serious kidding, and maybe a little folderol.  But no true stories here.  Suspend disbelief at your own risk.  Nobody is stopping you from critical thinking.  Welcome to the website of Buffalo Kelly.

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