In Anger Once, I called a kid the N-word

It makes me sad to this day

If you are white, then you have spoken the word. If you are saying you haven’t, then there is a very good chance I won’t believe you.

To the letter “n,” we add four additional ones from the alphabet — the “g,” hanging out in the middle, is doubled and adds a little extra hate when said by us. When “they” say it, as harsh sounding as it is, it nevertheless rings much truer, more linguistically valid.

Thanks to my beloved grandmother, Daisy, I never felt the intellectual constraints racism wields against the susceptible — the purveyors. Racism is a sickness. It is practiced by morally weak people; people suffering from issues of inferiority. Having been middle-class and then knocked off that precipice by divorce, I quickly learned that being poor didn’t make me less. Neither had my white skin shielded me from our new-found insecurity nor from the runaway emotions, arguments, parental cascading that almost led to early death for some involved that preceded it. We were still the same nice, white family albeit now only inside of ourselves.

We became poorer really through no fault of our own. I was still the same person from prior to the fall; the same kid, the fourth of five, who descended down into the basement each evening after dinner to play with his Planet of the Apes dolls, secure and content. So when we needed to move out of our house to move in with our grandmother, all of us of except for Dad, crammed into a much smaller physical reality, I hadn’t become bad all of a sudden — despite what I felt in the stares of other parents, other kids.

Living on the edge of the black neighborhood, the safe in-between space between the white section and the black section, I got to see, hear, interact with our black neighbors, fellow townsfolk, a lot more. They weren’t different but there was always something unspoken, heavy that filled the pauses in our play. We kids might not have fully understand it but from time to time the differences would reach us from the back porch of one of the black houses:

“Don’t you be whooping on that little white boy. I’ll give what for, hear me?”

“But Gramma, he hit me first,” my black friend, June Bug was his nickname (never knew his real name), would whine feeling rightly offended.

“Don’t you talk back to me, June Bug,” she’d yell. Depending on how hard I might have hit him, unseen by her, he might cry or just pout and our playing would end. He was being reprimanded because that was the way it was — don’t offend the whites. Neither one of us knew this but something deeper inside of him was catching on fast to the injustice. It was hardening him. It was enabling me.

My Gram taught me well and one day I forgot

I don’t know what my brothers and sisters felt. I don’t know the full effect of this saintly woman on their views on race. Daisy drew attention to what I was beginning to feel. That being poor in America, and we were really hardly poor, was a rough road to walk. When surrounded by so much excess, not having is the bitterest pill when a kid.

My grandmother never had material excess or stability and so the skill-set, how to adapt, how to appreciate others stuck in similar situations through very little fault of their own, became for me like a suit of armor. It helped me see the realness in people beyond the bullshit of the material possessions they acquire and from which they absorb so much faux prestige.

When a black kid stole a Christmas tree from our front porch, Daisy was happy and even cried imagining how the “little babies” in that family would be having their first tree. We had two of them on the porch and one in the front-room — let’s share our good fortune, she said. Daisy put everything that was hard to understand about black and white relations into the context of little babies. It’s really hard to hate when your supposed enemy is envisioned in a diaper, full of innate baby-joy, expectation and love.

Clothes we didn’t wear for more than a few weeks would suddenly vanish and turn up on a black kid from down the street. Their absence only registered when he would be spotted passing by the house — it made me feel aligned with them, not better but just like we were in this poverty thing together. These were Daisy’s teachings. Fortunately also, our parents were never racist, at least from what I can remember, and they discouraged any talking in the vileness of stereotypes.

That is why when the “N-word” sneaked up on in a moment of anger — not even bad anger but more like pure frustration — and passed my lips, it was hard to even recognize my voice. I wasn’t a kid. I was 18 and a senior in high school. The younger brother of my friend Bernard, or “Bubba,” was being a wise ass. He was a freshman. He was a good kid and I had seen him around sometimes when Bubba’s mother would drive us home from school after basketball practice. He was only 11 then and still just a little boy. By the time he had gotten to high school, he had tripled in size — maybe that is what scared me — racism is also fear. His failure that day to respect my status as his older brother’s friend and a senior, forced me to resort to the word that I knew would hurt him the most.

Giggling and mocking me as I walked away to avoid hitting a kid four years younger than me, I turned and let it fly:

“You fat, little n……” I said it. I couldn’t take it back. His white friends told our teacher. We were in shop class and this amazing guy, half the size of me, grabbed me and jacked me up against the wall. He was white and told me that he would not tolerant racist ignorance in his class — I couldn’t believe those words were being applied to me. Then, he made us both come up, shake hands and he went on to tell us about how he’d grown up in a tough neighborhood in the ‘60’s; and, about the race riots.

On that day, I had betrayed Daisy. I had betrayed the love she gave me. I had betrayed the love and respect she had given our black neighbors and the protecting eyes of the older black mothers and grandmothers.

While the “n” word rings empty for me, then and now, I knew one thing as sure as I knew that I was white: the word, when spoken by us, reminds black Americans of a very cold place in our American society, a place not of their choosing but of our making; enforced by generation after generation of us, new arrivals all feeling secure in our whiteness, using laws, money and violence, we reminded them that so long as they are “n’s,” then we will prevail.

That was what June Bug’s “Gramma” was reminding him, also, each time she intervened to protect me. Not because she believed it, but because she knew it would keep him safer and out of trouble.

Daisy never felt that way. I never did nor do I but anytime a white American does utter that word, this is what they know to be loaded into that word. They won’t even admit this darkness to themselves. I liked Bubba’s brother and months later we were chatting again in class like nothing had ever happened but that word hung between us — I had reminded him of how ugly anyone of could be in a heartbeat. The hurt couldn’t be taken back, though.

Later that day, after I said that, an enraged Bubba, with tears filling his eyes, confronted me and wanted to fight — he couldn’t believe that I would say that word. I can still see his eyes before me, filled with disgust, disbelief and pain — because he knew that if I had been capable of saying that, someone he had been certain didn’t feel that way, then life going forward was never going to be easy. I had betrayed his trust. It hurt him deeply. He never forgave me.

Like the loving dog that one day — just once — bites you when petting it, you’ll never pet that dog the same way again. I had become that dog and while I wanted to prove to Bubba that I wasn’t one, there really wasn’t much I could offer to assuage his pain — that left me frustrated. One slip of the tongue and here he was lumping me in with all of the other weak and sick racists, I fumed.

And then it dawned on me years later, Bernard and his brother, and all of the black men around us, spend their entire lives trying to prove to us that they aren’t what that “n” word suggests.

A writer, a father and a student of history, the past holds the answers to today’s problems. “Be curious, not judgmental,” at least until you have all the facts

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