this one word

thinking

I am 65 years old. In my lifetime, I have been referred to (and I have referred to myself) successively as Negro, Black, and African American. Throughout my lifetime, there’s another word, whatever my age, to which I have been referred, though never by me about me (and, here, I will not use the pseudo-polite euphemism, the n-word): nigger.

I can remember the first time I heard (or perhaps more accurately stated, I can remember the first time I recall hearing) this word. I was 13. On a crisp autumn Saturday, my St. Louis Boy Scout troop was on a 5-mile hike near the town of Hillsboro, Missouri. On a remote backcountry road, passing by a lone house, four white children standing on the porch called out, pointing, laughing, “Look at the niggers!” All of us were angry. A few of us doffed our backpacks, preparing to race toward that house and confront those mean-mouthed children. Our Scoutmaster, Willie Chapman, surely mindful of where we were and alone against whoever might be in that house, commanded, “Keep marching!” We did.

I can remember the last time I heard this word. Early September, a bit more than a year ago. I stood in the checkout line (all those well acquainted with my “indoorsman” housebound tendencies might be surprised!) of one of the local hardware stores; my cart laden with tools for some garden projects. A young man was in the adjacent line; his head swathed in a sweaty bandana, his shirtless sinewy frame draped in bib overalls, the cuffs, hanging over scruffy steel-toed boots. A construction worker, I reckoned, inspiring my instant admiration for one, far surpassing me, skilled with the use of his hands to build. Leaving the store, we crossed paths, our carts nearly colliding. He grunted, “Nigger.” Surprised, I looked at him. “Yeah,” he snarled, “that’s what I said.” As calmly as I could, I answered, “I heard you” and walked away.

Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, violent skirmishes broke out between white nationalists staging a “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstrators, leading to multiple injuries and, as I write, one fatality.

I believe in the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I also decry the hatred embraced, embodied in the principles and practices of racial supremacy. Whenever the two collide, as they have in Charlottesville, in countless incidences in the past, and doubtless in times to come, this one word, nigger, ringing in my consciousness of history and my experience, offending my every righteous sensibility, and reanimating my passion for the justice of equality summons me to stand against any and all who dishonor humanity by claiming any inherent or inherited superiority.

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22 thoughts on “this one word

  1. Thank you for writing this post Paul!! I had to take some time after reading it before responding. In that time, two more people (police officers) have died in a helicopter crash they say related to the protests.

    I wish none of us would have to admit that we remember the first and last time we were called the N word BUT we all have them!! I’m so sorry about the incident you endured last year! It’s just heartbreaking!!! It’s so hard to try to explain to my camping friends why my family & I practice our escape routes from campgrounds in the event of what I call a “racial emergency” (where we’ve encountered an emergency solely because of our race). Of course they can’t possibly understand because they aren’t African American.

    I pray for everyone in Charlottesville tonight AND for this country! May there be peace on this earth! Much love to you for sharing your words with us on such a difficult day!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Loretta. I am grateful to you for your always encouragement and support.

      At this moment, I am saddened beyond my capacity to articulate. Tears cloud my vision. This – Charlottesville – hurts in a way I could not have imagined…

      Perhaps because I always had hoped that we, America, had progressed past the point of lauding racial superiority…

      Perhaps because it took an event like this on this scale and notoriety to slap into reality my naïveté that things, that we are better than we are…

      Perhaps, doubtless, for reasons beyond my conscious grasp.

      I am sad.

      Tomorrow, I shall strive to carry on. Right now, I am sad.

      Love

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I woke up this morning feeling something dark stirring in my Spirit and then proceeded to check out the news for the day. As I followed the horrific happenings today in Charlottesville, I cried out to our mighty God to come and heal this nation! Your Vorgang family (your sister Linda writing this) stands united with you, my dear brother. So proud you are such an important part of my family! With great love and admiration, Linda

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    • Linda, let us weep and pray and stand together. We, America, are better than we have shown this day, though, in demonstrating what we did today, we are not better than any other people at any other time or place. In this renewed humility, may we be open to God’s gracious Spirit-movement/empowerment in our being and doing for good. Much love

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  3. I am profoundly sad to read this post from such an honorable and exceptional human being as you are. Your humility and patience to endure that situation is simply remarkable. Education always begins at home. Nowadays Many young men and women are not being taught how to respect others, especially how to show gratitude for older citizens (being myself 50 now I know that I can be perceived as old by many youngsters) since we inherited this world from the hard work of our parents and grandparents and owe them so much. I cannot even comprehend why some people have so much hate in their hearts. I wish I could have been there with you to confront him and let him know that it was wrong and unacceptable. He would have heard some other words in Spanish to put him to shame too!!
    I am with you about great countries and empires rotten from within. The Roman Empire rotted from the top, its government becoming less and less efficient. But the decay continued and it became harder and harder to deal with a problem. Eventually the people at the top looked for their personal interest and abandoned their citizens. Although the American empire is a global empire present in every continent like the world has never seen, history will repeat itself again. It always does. Much love and God help us.

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    • Pablo, your words, surely and sadly, I believe, are prophetic. America, given the movement of history, as other peoples and nations, will suffer decline. When? God knows. For all nations, trusting in their righteousness and wedded to self-preservation, thus, rejecting the necessity and reality of relying on the universal league of peoples and nations, fail and fall.

      My sadness arises today for we have seen afresh that we are not better than we thought we were and, perhaps, we are as good (and as bad) as we desire to be. Neither state is one, I believe, of righteous aspiration to reach for our greater calling.

      And thank you for your earnest, honest support. As I reflect on that confrontational moment of last year, I realize how afraid I was of risking an escalation of a potential conflict as well as sad in feeling, being denigrated as less than equal.

      Tomorrow, God willing I awake and arise, I will strive again to love all people.

      Love,
      Paul

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      • Dear Father Paul,

        I am always CAUTIOUSLY optimistic of the future because we have to be cautious but also optimistic. We have come a long way as a human species.
        My great-grandmother whom I never met, had 16 children, but only 6 made it to adulthood. and I was lucky to have met them all. One summer she buried 4 children due to the flu. Those who survived (and only the fittest did) actually lived a very long life.
        If my grandparents came back to life today they would be in absolute disbelief and would have cried out loud: Why wasn’t I born just 50 years later?? We take for granted our fridges full of food, our nice cars and houses with A/C and heat, our TV with 300 channels, computers and Iphones, etc, etc.
        My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the fields as a land-owner and he also owned cattle. Life was harsh and scarce (from food to material things). Most of his existence was confined to a territory of a 30-50 mile radium (never saw the ocean, let alone travel overseas) and his means of transportation was on foot, by horse/carriage, but he owned a small truck that used for commercial and business purposes.
        If my grandparents came back to life today, they would also notice that we live in a very MULTICULTURAL society than they had never imagined that existed or cared for. I wonder how my dear and beloved grandparents will have dealt with “the other” (people who don’t speak their language and look like them…pretty much the rest of the world beyond the national border). Probably they would have branded “the others” as shockingly weird/odd/different, distrustful, and many other negative accolades.
        As an educator, I have had the privilege to teach students from pretty much every country in the world, but as a child I was never exposed to “the others”. The first person of color that i saw in the flesh in my classroom was during my high school years during the early 80s, and that student was from the only African country that speaks Spanish: Equatorial Guinea (former colony of the Kingdom of Spain until 1968). Spanish is still the national language, but there are other recognized languages spoken. Very few foreigners lived in Spain until the beginning of the 80s.
        Oddly enough, 3 decades later, Spain is a very diverse society and a very tolerant country at least by European standards.
        I completely agree with you in your final point regarding multiculturalism. Inevitable, as globalization draws people diverse cultural meaning systems together, we must open our minds to embrace diversity…and it needs to be done VERY FAST because the world will continue to change at breakneck-speed.

        Much love,

        Pablo

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      • Pablo, you are a sensitive and sage friend and brother. Your reflections on your familial history, viewing life as it was through the eyes of the experiences of your prior generations and how your grandparents and great-grandparents might have viewed this day and time speak great truth to me…

        One of my immediate thoughts in reading your words is how might I, too, imagine the yesteryears of my family, indeed, my own days gone by and, remembering those times of less enlightened or, perhaps more fairly stated, narrower worldview (for one, in one’s time, only can know and act on what one knows) in relation to now and, thus, seek to modify or balance my sometimes pessimism as I behold the cultural and racial tensions of today. Surely, we have come a long way, though, yes, we have a long way to go (for I think with every step forward in knowledge and with every expansion of the awareness of human possibility we need adjust our sense of accomplishment and, verily, failure to achieve that possibility by new measurements)…

        This said, I remain if not stuck, then settled in an uneasy sense that America, as a nation, has some inner rotting elements that are less than healing, indeed, sickening for the whole body. One such element is the notion, the belief held by some of cultural and racial supremacy. Long have I believed that America – having come into being as a people (or peoples) of immigrants and having rooted out and banished the native peoples and having built a social and economic structure via the institution of human slavery – ever has and always will have at heart and in the soul cultural and racial discontents, thus, making unconditional love and universal equality forever beyond reach. In this light, Charlottesville and Ferguson, Missouri, and the assassination of MLK are but three historical moments among countless that reveal, expose our ongoing national illness.

        Always and in all ways, dear brother, my love and peace,
        Paul

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      • Truer words were never spoken!!!!
        It is always so refreshing to read all your comments to put everything on perspective. I read some Africaln-American literature to expand my knowledge of the history of America. W.E.B.Du Bois absolutely nailed it in his collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folk” by stating that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”…and the twenty first century too.
        I met a German student when I studied in Britain in the early 90s who said to me: “Wherever we (the Germans) go, we are going to be branded as Nazis no matter how hard we try. It is the easiest way to hurt the morale of a German citizen.” I will never forget those words.
        Obviously, you cannot compare 400 years of slavery with a horrific regime that “only” lasted for 12 years, but that brutal legacy can affect the psyche of its citizens that will have to carry that shameful burden for generations. Germany is today one of the most peaceful nations in the world and the admiration of Europe.
        To make matters more depressing, I read in last week’s supplement of the Washington Post the depressing statistics of the price of inequality that is dividing our society and will indeed endanger our future.
        It is mind-boggling to believe that the average salary of the 1% in NYC is more than $ 2 million bucks a year (1.5 million in DC). The income threshold of the 0.1% in Connecticut (rank 1 in the Nation) is almost $19 million dollars a year. DC ranked number 2 with more than $10 million a year. The average income of the 0.1% in Connecticut was a whooping $69 million dollars!!!! This is not Lebron James…it is the average of that 0.1% elite. In DC it was just almost $28 million US dollars. The income threshold of the top 1% was 554K a year. The average income of the bottom 99% is 63,000 dollars a year, but we all know that many thousands live at the poverty line level in the District. Our sense of national identity is also diminished by economics.
        So much to chew…so little time.

        Hugs and much love,

        Pablo

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      • Pablo, the disparities of culture and class, gender and race abound. For this reasons, refusing to choose or to prioritize among them, I broaden my sense of the malignant racial supremacy on vivid, wicked display in Charlottesville to speak of human supremacy of any kind. All of demeans “the other” as lesser.

        Love and peace, always and in all ways,
        Paul

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  4. Holding you in my heart, darling. Tonight is a night of sorrow. Any supremacy, any fundamentalism,…none of them belong. Yes, they are of this world but Jesus taught us …commanded us …to Love our neighbor…Not in heaven… but Here, on earth, in and as a part of this world. We must Love On. Love Matters. Love Has Won; all that is left is the playing out…and that is left to us.

    Weep tonight, dear. I weep in sorrow with you. And tomorrow we will begin again…

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  5. Dear Paul,

    The news out of Charlottesville today and your post relating the story of your encounter of September a year ago crack my heart in two. How can it be that this nation’s sons and daughters of color still suffer the indignities and inhumanity of being deemed “less than” by people whose minds are stunted by ignorance and whose hearts are shriveled by hate? How wretched those people must be living in their own skins, to visit such words and such conduct on their sisters and brothers and on the nation they dare to call their home. They must see so little to live for, to hope for, to strive for to be desperate enough to grasp onto such a pathetic triviality as their reason for being – the color their skin happens to be. They ignore and abandon all the magnificence of God’s creation to be swallowed up and controlled by that one incidental, meaningless fact.

    Thank you, dear Paul, for your refusal to use the “polite” term for the word that seems to have been granted central place in this ridiculous, horrific struggle. Thank you for naming it clearly in its ugliness and shame, for revealing it for what it is – a slovenly, repugnant utterance that carries only the meaning that any human is willing to afford it, for disclosing that it possesses no power on its own, that it is a flimsy, tattered cover-up for cowardice, for weakness, for futility, for helplessness, for desperation, for nowhere else to turn to seek self-respect, dignity, worth. Like its cousin the confederate flag, it is hauled out and waved when there is nothing legitimate or honorable or true to display, when all other possible options have run out for its users.

    I grieve for Charlottesville tonight, and I grieve for any and all who have been hurt or damaged or destroyed by the vile impulses and reflexes that exploded there yesterday and today. I grieve for our nation that we are without leadership who can and will speak ringing truth to and about the shame we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. I grieve deeply for you in the grocery store a year ago. I wish so earnestly I could have been by your side when that happened. I wish I could have sheltered you or at least borne with you that shamefully absurd and cowardly attack.

    Thank you for speaking, Paul. Your voice is so important and so clear and courageous, most of all, so loving. Ted, Emilia, and I offer our love and our support to you and to Pontheolla and to all who are engaged on the side of love and truth in the epic struggle that still must rage for racial and economic justice in our land. May God be with us.

    Much, much love from Minnesota…

    Karen

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    • Karen, my words of gratitude are inadequate conveyors of the depth and breadth and height of my appreciation for your eloquent reply to my post, and more, your incisive witness to all that is true and laudable and holy about God and the equality of and in creation.

      And, yes, words and banners that symbolize eras of misspent energy and devotion to empty causes continue to be brought out and bandied about by those who dwell in some past time. Though fragments of a begone era, these words and flags still have power for those who employ them, and, in that employ, still cause harm – truth be told, both to those against whom they are hurled and unfurled and for those who hurl and unfurl them…

      One of my pressing thoughts about the man, indeed, my brother in our human family (though doubtless he did not and would not see himself that way) who called me a nigger is that he, as Jesus would say, did not know what he was doing. Yes, he knew he cast a slur at me. He knew he had labeled me as a lesser form of human than he. But he did not know its effect on me. Nor, I believe, could he know its debilitating effect on his growth into a well-rounded, healthy soul who understands his connection to all life in this grand cosmos. In this, I am doubly, deeply sad.

      Karen, I thank you, Ted, and Emilia, my beloved Minnesota family.

      From Pontheolla and me, love and peace, always and in all ways,
      Paul

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  6. We can never learn to love each other as long as there are hate mongers in the world. Watching yesterday’s events unfold left me speechless, and what is worse is that the 45th president does not recognize that he motivated this outward display of bigotry with his “Make America Great Again” campaign. It is viewed by his supporters as a “Make America White Again” movement. Unfortunately, like coal jobs, that won’t happen. The people who were brought to America to work the fields and build the railroads (Africans, Asians, Mexicans) now outnumber their oppressors. What’s more, we not only have constitutional rights – over the years we helped pen them, and we put ourselves in positions of power to enforce them. These White Suppremist groups need to remember Lot’s wife and not look back at evil ways. This type of behavior does not make are country Great – in the eyes of the world and in reality, we are Weak and getting Weaker.

    Thanks Paul for sharing your thoughts.

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    • My dear Melanie, amen to all you write.

      We, America, have become a nation of color; multi-hued in ancestries and history, and in our present and toward our future. It occurs to me that what is a delight to and for me represents…IS terrifying change for others. And none of us favors transformation that unsettles our foundational truths, however wrong and misguided, in the case of racial supremacy, I believe those grounding beliefs to be.

      And without national leadership, I pray we will survive. For North Korea, for example, indeed, may be an external threat to our nation. Still, our inner weakness, verily, I say, rottenness, is as damning and dooming to our stability and peace.

      Much love, my dear sister,
      Paul

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