(NOTE: I have been surprised by the number of people (All white people so far) who have completely missed the point of this essay. This is not a justification for the use of the word, especially in context of demeaning people. A white person singing the lyrics of a rap song that contains the word "nigger" may or may not be using the word with prejudice. There are other contexts in which someone who is not black can use the word with absolutely no prejudice intended. The point of this essay - and I will spell it out since some people don't seem to get it - is that we have become so focused on making sure someone never says the "n word" that we overlook the most insidious forms of prejudice. In my opinion, focusing on the word can serve as a distraction. No word - no matter what it is - should ever be used to degrade or demean another human being. The point is that the word itself does not define prejudice which is often insidious, polite, and subtle. It is far more lethal in those forms than in the use of a word. Personally, I would rather someone tell me they hate me to my face than to deny my rights while they smile, patronize, and undermine.)
When did “nigger” become a bad word? Perhaps the first time it was used to demean and degrade another human being. However, the use of this word does not necessarily imply or present prejudice, nor does it automatically mean that the one who speaks it is prejudiced. We seem to have forgotten context in our society. With this particular word we have focused so much on it as a symbol of black oppression that a white person dare not utter it, and we do not consider that there could be any benign intent behind the use of it. It has become like any other swear word that polite society deems unusable. Yet, I propose it is not the word that is the problem but the context in which it is used that is the problem. I do not dare to pretend that I understand the deep cultural and emotional wound the demeaning use of this word has created for black people but I have learned something about prejudice.
I grew up in what I thought was a snow white environment. My parents had separated before I was born, and before I was five years old my mother died in an accident. I was then taken to raise by my grandparents in the mostly rural and isolated Ozarks. When I was as child of the Ozark hills, a person of any color other than white was seldom encountered. I was an adult before I realized that Cherokees had dropped off the Trail of Tears to intermarry among the people here. With the exception of a Korean boy adopted by a family at church, I did not know then, of a single person who was not white. In fact I was thirteen years old before I ever encountered anyone of Negro race. That occurred on a summer trip to Kansas City to spend a couple of weeks with my aunt and uncle who lived there at the time. It was the first time I had ever been more than 40 miles from home, and it just happened to be right after the Kansas City race riots that occurred in April of 1968. My aunt and uncle lived outside of Kansas City in Liberty, Missouri and for some reason decided that I needed to see the destruction caused by the riots. My uncle, who most assuredly was prejudiced, emphasized to me how “those stupid niggers” had destroyed their own community.
I sat in the back seat with my cousins as we were driven around the rioted area. I don’t recall anything of unusual interest about the burned out buildings, but I recall two things in particular. First, my aunt called into the back seat as we were nearing the area, “Lock your doors and roll up your windows.”
Because I was growing up in a rural community of such trust and safety that we would leave the house with nothing but an unlocked screen door blocking the entry, I asked, “Why?”
“Just do it.” She replied.
So I locked the door on my side of the car behind the passenger seat where my aunt was sitting, and rolled up my window in the days when few cars had air conditioning. I’m sure there must have been people on the sidewalks, and in cars, but I don’t recall any singular notice of them. It was when we sat waiting for a light to turn green that I first interacted with someone black. I looked up to see a little boy of about six year’s old leaning out of a second story window. When our eyes met, I smiled and waved at him, a friendly gesture, a greeting I would have given to any encounter with another child. His response was to stick his tongue out at me with obvious anger and disgust. I was confused. I couldn’t understand why he would respond that way. I didn’t get what was happening in America at that time. I had seen broadcasts about the Kansas City riots, but I paid little attention to the news at that age, and I had not considered any reason for mass hatred.
It was not until I went to college that I began to have any understanding of what black people had endured for hundreds of years. Yet, I had heard the word “nigger” my whole life, and the only time it was uttered with the intent of prejudice was from the mouth of the uncle who married my mother’s sister and lived in Kansas City. My grandparents used that word any time they referred to black people, but they never said it the same way that my uncle did. To them it was merely a label for someone who was black and I distinctly recall my grandfather saying, “There ain’t no difference between a nigger and a white man except the color of the skin.”
When I went to college I began relationships with blacks for the first time in my life. I had trepidation, but not really because of my prejudiced uncle or growing up in the land of whites. It was caused by watching more broadcasts of riots on television, and perhaps further fueled by the fact that my only previous experience had been receipt of black resentment. I had an erroneous fear that black people were automatically going to hate me and want to attack me. That fear very soon dissipated.
I made several college friends who were black and my dorm roommate was black. I brought black friends home to spend weekends on our farm. My grandparents greeted them into their home the same as anyone else was ever greeted. They sat at our table and dined with us. My grandmother cooked and served food to my black friends just as she would have served any of my friends. She made absolutely no difference between them. Yet, my grandparents had always used the word, “nigger.”
It was not until my sophomore year that I began to understand what prejudice was really about. Only then did the realization come upon me that prejudice could be “polite.” In the middle of my sophomore year I was called into the administrative offices of my college and informed that there was a widow of a former college president who was looking for a male student to live with her as a help mate and companion. She was in her eighties and feeling less secure than her previous years. Room and board would be provided and all I had to do was live there and occasionally help her around the house. Administration had selected me because they thought I might make a good companion for her. I’m not sure exactly why.
The idea intrigued me, so I went to meet her. She lived in a beautiful Victorian home with lattice work accenting the wrap around porch. A small separate screened porch sat off the back side of the house near the dining room. The house was large, painted white and sat within the parameter of mature trees that amply shaded the front yard. In the summer, huge cedar green ferns hung in baskets around the porch. It was beautiful, and compared to the four room farm house where I was raised it was definitely grand. The lady’s name was Myrt, short for Myrtle I’m sure, and she seemed to be very sweet, so I agreed to the deal.
Living there was a stark contrast to my upbringing. There was a formal dining room with French doors off a living room that was almost as large as my entire childhood home. Myrt’s bedroom was off a hall near the living room and stairs ascended from the foyer to the upstairs bedrooms. Myrt had a part time maid who came to clean as well as cook some meals. When the maid was there, I felt strange having someone serve food to me then leave the room rather than joining us at the table to eat. Meal time felt more like eating in a restaurant than family dining.
One evening when I got home from class Myrt told me the maid was off and asked if I would like to go to Colonel Sanders (now KFC) and have fried chicken for dinner.
“That sounds great.” I said. Then Myrt handed me the keys to her car and asked me to drive.
My first assumption was that we were going to go in and have dinner there. However, when I parked the car by the restaurant, Myrt handed me a twenty dollar bill and said, “Here, you go in and get it. I don’t go in places like this.”
A moment of shock ran through me. I thought, “You don’t go in places like this? A family restaurant?” However, I didn’t question her. I went in, got two orders and came back to the car.
When we got home, I made my second assumption. I thought we would sit in the living room, open our boxes of chicken and eat while we watched television. I anticipated it as a welcome break from all the formality, but as soon as I turned on the TV and sat down I was informed that this was not proper. Instead, we would be eating in the dining room.
I then made my third assumption that we would sit at the table and eat from the boxes. I had no sooner set my box on the table when I was informed this also was not proper. Myrt had me stand there holding the boxes of chicken while she took out imported British china and formally set the table with silverware and linen napkins. We then took Colonel Sanders chicken out of to-go boxes and placed it on imported china before I was allowed to eat.
These were certainly strange ways compared to my upbringing but it was her home and her rules. Rather than argue with it, I saw it as an opportunity to learn formal etiquette as well as observe customs that were unfamiliar to me. In time, I relaxed with the rules. There were days when the maid came to prepare meals for us, and on other days I was allowed to cook. I had learned from my grandmother how to prepare a good meal and I enjoyed cooking. I also enjoyed Myrt’s house, not only for its beauty, but for its antiquity and history. As well, it was a quiet retreat from the active dorm.
At the time I had made friends with one classmate who was fascinated with history and loved Victorian homes. There had been occasions when we had driven around town together looking at, and commenting on the beauty of the many older homes there. Since she loved Victorian homes, I wanted to have my friend Janet visit and spend an evening with me and Myrt. It would be an opportunity to socialize in a way that was not available in dorm life and I thought Janet would enjoy touring Myrt’s house. I asked Myrt if I could have my friend over, and explained that I would cook, clean and take care of everything. She said it would be fine, so I went about planning the dinner. It never occurred to me to tell her that Janet was black.
When the evening came, I was in the kitchen busy with meal preparation and didn’t know till later what had happened. Janet informed me that when she knocked, Myrt opened the door, looked at her and politely said, “Excuse me a moment.” She then gently closed the door and left Janet standing on the porch confused about what was happening. I had to go out to the porch later to explain to Janet what happened in the house.
After leaving Janet standing outside, Myrt came to me in the kitchen and told me, “This will not do. I cannot have a black person in my house.”
I said, “Myrt the maid is black.”
Myrt firmly replied, “The maid is a servant. I will not have a black person sitting at my table, and furthermore if you have any black friends who visit, you will meet with them on the side porch away from view of the street.”
My jaw dropped. I could not believe what I was hearing. Janet had visited with me at my grandparent’s house on a couple of occasions and never had they pulled me aside to tell me I was not allowed to bring black friends to visit or that blacks would not be allowed in the house. Yet, my grandparents used the word, “nigger” and Myrt never said it a single time.
I told Myrt, “If you don’t accept my friends, then you don’t accept me. It is not like I am hanging out with trouble makers. My friends are good people, and I will not hide them from view of the street or tell them they’re not allowed to eat with me.”
Myrt informed me that those were her rules, so I informed her that I had to move out. When the first opportunity came, I moved back into the dorm and continued my education with the friends of my choosing.
It did not occur to me until a couple of years later why my grandparents were different. I recalled them saying that when they were young, they used to go to “the bottoms” to pick cotton. I had no idea what “the bottoms” were when I was a kid. I didn’t think about it, or ask about it.
There had been a few seasons when Grandpa had grown crops of cotton on the farm, so I had the experience as a child of chopping and picking cotton. It is not a chore I would recommend. When it is dry and ready to pick, the cotton balls are sharp, so pulling the fibers will nick and cut your hands making them sore, and it is not really a chore you can do with gloves. It is the kind of work you do when you have to have work. Grandpa only raised cotton for a couple of seasons and stopped, maybe because it was hard to grow there.
One of the reasons the Ozarks is mostly white is because it wasn’t plantation land like the Mississippi delta. The Ozarks was scrap land and forest. Farms here were hard fought from a soil where rocks seem to grow better than potatoes, and clay often is found very near the surface. Farm work is hard work anywhere, and when my grandparents were young it definitely was hard work as well as scarce work in the Ozarks.
When my grandparents first married back in the 1920’s they didn’t have much. They were not able to buy their own farm until the early 1940’s. Grandma and Grandpa went to “the bottoms” to pick cotton because they were young and poor. They went to “the bottoms” because there were few if any farms in the Ozarks big enough or rich enough to have hired hands, especially during the great depression. They did whatever it took to put food on the table and they taught me to respect any job I could get.
After I graduated college, I took a job as a caseworker for a community mental health center and moved to Searcy Arkansas which is about an hour’s drive from Little Rock. The catchment area of the mental health center spanned ten counties. Some of those counties were Ozarks hill country and some were delta. This was the area where the Ozark hills melted into the Mississippi delta. This was the area where hill culture mixed with delta culture. This is where I came to know the meaning of “the bottoms” and finally asked Grandma and Grandpa about it.
“The bottoms” is what hill folks used to call the delta. When Grandma and Grandpa went to “the bottoms” to pick cotton, they went down around Jonesboro and West Memphis, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s they would have worked those fields right beside black people. They were not prejudiced because they did not see themselves as superior, but rather as equals. They did not see “nigger” as a bad word because they never used it to demean or degrade another human being.
It is not the word that demeans but acting on any thought that it is possible to be superior to any other human being, or harboring belief that someone could be worth less than you. The intent of the heart is much more important than the sound of a word.