O-D-ing on the N-word

My children have heard the word nigger more the past few days than I’ve heard it my entire life.

I guess that comes with the territory of being in the South, getting immersed in the civil rights movement, and seeing archival footage of the era. It comes with the unforgettable privilege of meeting foot-soldiers in the movement who have shared their peronal stories of enduring and fighting racism.

N. The word just slips out in nearly every account of the treatment of nearly all African Americans faced from nearly all whites.

“We don’t serve niggers here.”

“Nigger, give up that bus seat.”

Nigger this and nigger that.

We’ve heard it so many, many times that I’m noticing the word is losing its sting. It’s still ugly as all hell but I’m not cringing in horror every time like I once did.

When I moved to the DC area 18 years ago, I remember a meeting with my African American boss. She wanted me to make a decision about something.  I jokingly started reciting “Eenie Meenie Miny Moe…” Somehow, looking into her eyes, I had an epiphany that the next line, “Catch a Tiger by the Toe” was probably the polite/northern version of nursery rhyme. I was horrified and embarrassed and have never repeated this childhood rhyme again.

This week’s trip is supposed to enlighten my children to some harsh realities of American history. I want them to leave inspired to be agents for racial justice and equality and peace.  I want them to recognize that the movement continues and now belongs to them. Their eyes and minds are open. But so are their ears. They are hearing the n-word ad nauseum. I just hope they aren’t being desensitized to it.

This calls for a conversation. If not now, when?

Tonight at dinner, I asked my daughters if they noticed the “liberal” use of the n-word over the last few days. Jasper, my nine year old, said before this week she had never heard that word. She learned it was a bad word when Shirley Cherry, our tour guide at the Dexter Parsonage, warned us she’d be using the n-word because it’s what she heard all the time growing up. Ruby, at 13 said she knew it was a bad word; just how, she doesn’t recall. But I’m guessing she absorbed it through fiction and not from life. Although, she goes to a very diverse school and it’s more likely that she’s heard it roll off the tongues of African American peers than any others. Still, she admitted that hearing it so much this week was taking some of the power and punch out of the hateful term.

I wonder if anyone else on this trip is having a similar experience. Can I get a witness?

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Julie Drizin, Silver Spring

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