Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Awful N Word

A few friends were discussing the N word with me a day or so ago. It was an awful, disjointed and unproductive conversation, but it left me thinking and trying to put something constructive together about the subject.
by Charlie Leck

The conversation started this way. I was sitting around with a few guys I consider sensitive, thoughtful and kind. We had been chatting about the movie 42. I told them the little narrative that a white lady-friend of mine from Georgia – a high school classmate -- had told me only a few days before.

“Charlie,” she said, “it was so embarrassing. I went to the theater in Cairo with a black neighbor-friend of mine. We both wanted to see 42, the story about Jackie Robinson. Well, we lived so near it, why not go to a theater in the town where he was born to see it. Oh, my, it was so embarrassing.”
My friend actually turned bright red as she told me the story. She shook her head and laughed nervously about it. I sat patiently, not wanting to break her train of thought, and waited for her to continue.
“Well, that Philadelphia manager,” she said, “was so terrible and he stood outside the dugout there and kept shouting out that word. I felt so awful about that and I was so embarrassed that I wanted to disappear down through the floor. Well, my friend sat with me, you know, and there were other black people throughout the theater. In fact, most of the people were black and I felt so terrible that I just wanted to get out of there.”

I’d seen the movie – a couple of times. I knew what she was talking about, but I wanted to broaden our discussion and wanted to hear her say it. Don’t ask me why! I just thought it would be important – you know, cleansing and more honest.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she said. “You know! The N word. He just kept shouting it and it was so embarrassing.”

I remember hearing the word as a child. There were times that my old man used it. He didn’t seem mean-spirited about it. It was just a common vocabulary word that he, from time to time, used – and that was almost always when a black man wasn’t present to hear the word spoken.

“A nigger stopped in yesterday afternoon,” my old man would say (or something like it), “and wanted to buy a copy of the New York Times. They were all gone by that time of the day – like they always are – and he looked so damned disappointed. Imagine! The New York Times.”

My old man had words for all kinds of people – wops, kikes and spics. He never seemed to use the word pejoratively, you know. It was just the way he was brought up talking. I remember occasionally seeing a bit of a flinch in the eyes of some of the people to whom he was speaking when he used this terminology.

Yet, even then – at ten or eleven years old – I knew there was something wrong with the words and that it just wasn’t right or proper to use them. I wished quietly that my old man wouldn’t let them slip off his tongue so easily. I remember my brother angrily chasing a guy down who had called his friend, Oliver Brown, a nigger – and with a really bad intonation on the word. My brother caught the guy and gave him a number of painful raps and smacks.

When I’d grown a bit, at the age of 23, I was sitting in a colored waiting-room at a railroad station in Mississippi. A white sheriff’s deputy came into the room and looked at me and the three other white gentlemen with whom I traveled.

“You don’t belong in here,” the deputy said and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice! “This here room is for our niggers.”

Now, there is was and it was used differently than I’d ever heard it – with that possessive article attached to it – our niggers. Frankly, that made it sound far meaner and uglier than I’d ever heard the word. It shook me to my core that day and I remember trembling as I looked over at the angry and red-faced deputy. He grew angrier when the kind and brilliant older man with whom I was traveling told him that we had no intentions or desire to leave the waiting room – that “we prefer it here to the waiting room for white folks.”

It was as if one of us had spat upon him. He was shocked at our lack of decorum and manners – at our total disrespect for the customs of his community. He told us we were entering upon dangerous territory and we were doing so with a terrible attitude. Why, I got the idea that he was regarding us as the least mannerly people he had ever met. Yankees!

He threw a warning out to us – one to which we should give serious consideration.

It was then – at that moment – that I first heard of the disappearance of James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

“You don’t want to end up like those boys, you know – those civil rights workers what apparently disappeared in the dark of the night last evening. Why, they’ve sent us alerts about them bein’ gone – missin’ – and it don’t sound right good about them. If I was you fellas, I’d not only get out of this waitin’ room but I’d go in there to the station master and buy yourselves tickets for the next train travelin’ north through here. Our niggers don’t need your help. They’re doin’ just fine here on their very ownselves.”

It was nearly fifty years ago that I stood there, in that waiting-room, trembling, so I don’t know the exact way he warned us – word for word; but I do remember it was a very close to the way I’ve described it above.

It was the Philadelphia Phillies (baseball) manager, Ben Chapman (played quite well by Alan Tudyk) who delivers the shocking and hateful attack on Jackie Robinson that was depicted in the marvelous movie we’re talking about here.

Freedom of speech? Well yes and no! The Supreme Court explained that we really couldn’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there was no fire.

Yet, my friend had to sit there, next to her African-American companion, and hear it shouted at her (as well as at Jackie Robinson) over and over and over again.

For you baseball buffs, remember that it would be ten more years after that day playing the Phillies before the team that played in the City of Brotherly Love would put a black man on its roster – 1957. And, by that time, Jackie Robinson would already have retired from the game.

Ben Chapman wore on Jackie Robinson that day in Brooklyn; and the pain he inflicted by shouting the word out, over and over again, was worse than a physical beating. He wasn’t screaming out the N word. My lordsy, no! He was shouting out nigger, nigger, nigger!

Of course, the word ought to disappear from our vocabulary, but we must never let it disappear from history; for it is a reminder of the fear, the hatred and the meanness that can lurk in each one of us.

It is a word that negates personhood and personalness. It objectifies and depersonalizes! It defines one as an object that can be possessed, abused and misused at one’s pleasure. It is one of the cruelest, vilest words ever spoken in America and it shall forever be a part of our history.

I remember sitting in the theater that afternoon, watching the extraordinary film, when Tudyk began shouting the word out. Again and again he intoned it with such vile hatred and dislike. It made me so edgy that I wanted to mute the theater’s sound system.

As a boy, I regarded Jackie Robinson as one of my heroes. My dad and my grandpa took me to the remarkable old ball park in Brooklyn to see him play. He’d been playing a few years when I first saw him and, by that time, he’d become a hero in the eyes of all kids in general (white or black) and he was regarded as a man of extreme stature and talent. And, he was his own man. He belonged to no one. He had bright sparkling eyes and a chin that he proudly held high.

And you could call him anything you wanted cause it wouldn’t matter; for whatever you called him, he and we kids who loved him knew he was just good-old Jackie. He had done something no other ballplayer in history had. He faced down hatred, bigotry and racism and kicked them in the ass.

My favorite scene in the movie (and I don’t have any idea if it is fact or fiction) took place in Cincinnati and shows Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger shortstop and local hero, walking all the way over to first base to stand with Jackie when the Cincinnati fans had begun to boo and scream at Major League Baseball’s first black player. Peewee put his arm around Robinson and just stood there until the fans began to quiet down. Before going back to his position, he turned to Jackie and said: “I think all of us on the team ought to wear number 42 and then they wouldn’t know which one of us was you.” It was an extraordinary comment and it left me thinking.

Now, on one day each year, every Major League player in baseball wears number 42 in honor of the game’s first black big league player. There were so many black men before Jackie who should have been allowed to play because they were clearly good enough. It will forever be one of the great, shameful facts that the sport must carry upon its shoulder.

When you hear someone talking about the N word, let the real word reverberate inside you, so you can feel and sense and taste its awfulness – so that you can fully understand how awful and negative and hurtful the word was and is.

The news in the last few days about Riley Cooper’s drunken expressions at a Kenny Chesney concert is a good example of how the world is changing and how the N word has become one of the most embarrassing and shocking expletives that can come out of the human mouth when used as a pejorative. Cooper, himself a modest celebrity as a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles football team, got far too intoxicated at the concert and began a boastful rag that was caught by someone’s ever present cell phone video recorder. Cooper embarrassed himself and his employer and now must suffer the consequences as he tries to rebuild his relationship with his football team, which includes many black players.

I’m pleased when I hear black folks use the word among themselves. It’s a grand and pleasing term when used properly and positively by them. Few whites have earned the right to use the word in such a way, but African Americans can use it in a distinctly different and friendly manner among themselves. Their usage of the word actually mocks the term’s terrible history, by rendering it incredibly endearing and flattering.

It was good thing that four white guys sat around trying to understand the power of the N word and its history. The movie about Jackie Robinson was a perfect sub-topic for the conversation.

I told my friends how shocked I was to be sitting at a dinner-dance at my high school reunion, only a few days before, when from across the table I heard one of my classmates use this awful word in reference to our President. Using the word in such a way went beyond political disagreement or difference. It showed incredibly bad taste and it smacked of hatred of more than just the President, but of a race of a people who are good and loyal Americans. I felt more than embarrassment. A momentary sickness swept over me and I suggested to my wife that I had to leave. She calmed me and I remained, but I withdrew as a conversationalist for the rest of the evening – far too shaken to make any contributions.

Barack Obama’s presidency shows we’ve come a long, long way in dealing with racism in this nation; however, incidents like the one involving the Philadelphia Eagle’s football player and the comment at my evening dinner party show that that we have a long, long way yet to go.

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