Sunday, August 12, 2007

The "N" Word

I was raised in a home that was pretty much devoid of racism (and religion). If I could look back and say that there was any racism at all in the household of my parents, it would be of the condescending type—as that exhibited by many white progressives of an earlier era that they would take care of black people and help guide them.

The first time I heard the “N” word (that I can recall) was when I was about five years old. I was at the home of some distant relatives and saw two kids at the split rail fence separating their yard from the one next door. Two kids about my age were at the fence so I went over to talk to them. Soon, we were chatting away, and all I cared about was making new friends. Quickly, though, the resident kid at the house we were visiting walked up. He was a distant cousin a couple of years old than I.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m talkin’ to these kids,” I told him.

“These are niggers! What are you doin’ talkin’ to niggers?” He turned to the little kids on the other side of the fence. “Go on, niggers!”

I’ll never forget that the kids smiled and then turned and ran away into the shade of their own yard. Even then, I was upset, not understanding what was going on, and I had never before heard this word that my cousin had used on the other children.

“My daddy says your family are all nigger-lovers.” And he walked away to vanish into his house.

For myself, I quickly located my father and was only too happy when I discovered that he was ready to leave, having conducted whatever family business he was about, and we climbed into his pickup truck and headed home. Along the way I asked him what a “nigger” was. He told me that it was a very nasty and evil word and told me never to use it. “Never,” he repeated.

I never did, except later in life, when I found I couldn’t get around it in portraying the language of certain fictional characters. You can’t bury the damned thing, any more than you can delete any number of hurtful and nasty ideas. All you can do is ignore it when possible and vow not to use it as it was intended—a way to dehumanize another person.

As I grew up, it almost became something of a badge of honor that my family were often referred to as “nigger-lovers”. My parents were always outspoken on civil rights for all people in a time and place that made such speech very dangerous. That my dad ran a local business that was dependent on the goodwill of the community made their speech all the more courageous. On that issue, I am quite happy to have grown up in such a home.

In recent years, as I have become more and more focused on the destruction of the ecosystems that support all of the life of our planet, I have often been accused of being a “tree-hugger”. As if this were a negative thing. And I was reminded immediately of the days when my parents, and myself, were labeled with that earlier epithet, and how similar in sound are the two terms.

I accept the sentiments of both.

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