I can’t remember the first time I was called a nigger. Can anyone? But I can remember the first time I was called a nigger and understood and felt what it truly meant. I was 11 years old and it was a friend; someone who lived around the corner; someone I walked to school with every day for nearly six months; someone I played kickball and Atari with on weekends. Until that moment, I never considered him a "white" friend. I never considered that I was his "black" friend. We were just friends from the neighborhood.
We were returning from the grocery store and began to argue over something. I think it was candy. Then he said, “Give it here; you f*ckin' dumb nigger.” I was dumbfounded and went numb. His sister laughed. You know that "Oh shit" stutter of a laugh when people are caught at the beginning of a maelstrom.
It wasn’t the word, but the hatred, the condemnation, the malevolence in his voice that slapped me across the face like a physical blow. Trying to recover, I asked, "What are you talking about? My dad is white." A complete lie; but I was trying not to be the center of such a negative review and looking for a way to connect to him to make him simply "stop." Stop this ugly thing that was about to begin.
I was already swimming in my own negative views of blackness, completely socialized in dominant white culture and struggling to embrace and love the beauty of my own black identity. It would take years and many difficult struggles to "undo" this conditioning and the damage it brought - mental, emotional and personal.
Having recently relocated to a rural setting with a 1% black population, I would find his words were the baptismal into the underbelly of this community. That his words were the beginning of what in contemporary society would be termed race based hazing, bullying and microaggression. And this would be my world for the next 6 years.
He replied, "The black nigger part of you."
I could feel the fire creeping of my spine and responded with furor and hit him several times over the head with the gallon of milk I had just purchased. “Take it back. Take it back. Take it back.”
Take what back?
Innocence lost? The humiliation? The part of my soul he had injured with that one single word, which made me feel less than human, three-fifths a girl?
He started screaming for his sister, who happened to be in several of my classes, "Help me." She stood motionless, watching wide-eyed like a deer in headlights caught between emotions as she witnessed both assaults - verbal and physical. He called for assistance again while he tried to block blows of gallons of milk and now fists. "Are you going to stand there while she beats me up?"
She replied, "Well ,you started it," dropped her head and walked away.
What is it about Nigger?
Is it the word or the intention that counts? I am not sure. But you cannot separate the two. For the word itself embodies the rage and malice that flavored his words toward me. It is a history of oppression, dehumanization and disregard that make the word nigger a loaded gun with a hair trigger. It is the mentality of burning crosses, lynching, Jim Crow Laws and chattel slavery that are the reflection and manifestation of nigger’s intention.
Should we tell Jews to forget the Holocaust and return the use of the Swastika to its original meaning of “good luck?” Can we expect Japanese on both shores not to remember American internment camps and Hiroshima? We as an “enlightened” American people would never agree. The fact that America has paid reparations to camp survivors and provides Israel with economic support is a testament to our national guilt. So why does mainstream society so casually disregard the African-American experience?
Some point to the use of the term nigga among blacks as a term of endearment as validation for using the word. Nigga is not nigger. The changing of the old into the new is a part of the culture of determination and self-reclamation that is a key component of the African-American tradition of survival. As rituals of baptism and marriage are specific and sacred to all communities, nigga is a consecrated cultural idiom for some members of the African-American community to use, define and determine. Others view this word with condemnation and revulsion. And for many, the use and who uses it is situational.
For non-blacks to begin to use and integrate nigger into mainstream American society as acceptable, is to perpetuate mainstream culture’s history of appropriation, misrepresentation and “whitewashing” of African-American cultural icons. Blue grass and jazz is a historical example while hip-hop and rap music are modern examples.
Will the casual use of nigger be the post-modern legacy? It is that people cannot enjoy the fruit and richness of different communities and cultures. But in doing so, one must take responsibility and have sensibility when engaging cultures not of your own.
To use the word and ignore its history is not only irresponsible, but disregards African-Americans and their experience. To ignore the totality of the word is to ignore America’s continual denial to honestly discuss race matters and confront the reality of history. Nigger cannot stop being nigger until the history it entails, one that includes economic oppression and destruction, segregation, continual disregard and disrespect, is addressed with candor and sincerity and we as a nation take responsibility for this history. Until that time, only African-Americans, blacks and Negroes, who understand the complexity and entirety of this word, can determine when nigger stops being NIGGER.
Although I now use my mind instead of my fist to settle these matters, one thing has remained true . . . the hatred and malice that dripped from his voice are a reflection of the constant companions that dances with the word nigger.
The history of the word is complex. But its meaning now, as it has been for countless generations still simply means at its root core less than human, less than worthy to be respected and treated with dignity. If you want to learn more about this word, see this month's resources.
Since my “friend” baptized me to the ignorance of the world that day nearly two decades ago, I have been called nigger many times and in many ways - overt and subtle. In one of the most comical encounters, I was walking down the street in Chicago towards my apartment and gave a homeless man a dollar. It was cold; one of those blistering Chicago winter days where you can feel the icy winds from the lake penetrating your snow boots. I said, "Hi," and told him to have a coffee or something warm on me tonight.
"That's all you got nigger?"
So, here we are again, confronting a situation where someone tries to use racial priviledge to diminish another. For someone that was completely destitute and keeping warm on a sewer grate in his mind's eye maybe this was the only way he could try to exert some type of power over his world. Or maybe he was simply a bigot. What is clear is that his words dripped with the ferocity of nigger as he tried to be little and reduce me to three-fifths a woman.
This time I was caught like a deer in headlights; especially given the pure absurdity of the situation. My mind was not filling we rage, but instead with words such as SERIOUSLY! This is Lunacy! Are kidding me?
My grandmother has always said don't bite the hand that feeds you. So in recovery, I reached out and quickly snatched my dollar back. This time he was shocked and as I walked away, smiled and said, "Maybe; but I am going to be one warm nigga tonight," and disappeared in the cold, windy, winter night that is Chicago. Nestled in my coat, I drank a hot coco then gave the dollar to the next homeless person I ran across, who simply said, "Thank you."
LaShawnda Crowe Storm
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