this one word


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.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In my blog post (September 30: where I stand on sitting & kneeling), I wrote, in part: Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem…far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country…

This morning, I was led by some motivation – at dawn’s light, not quite conscious to me, but perhaps, as I’ve thought through the day about that initial visceral stirring, it was, is the inspiration of deepest remembrance and resonance – to reread Martin Luther King, Jr’s., Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Written on April 16, 1963, King, jailed for participating in civil rights protests, addressed his epistle as a lengthy rebuttal to liberal Alabama clergy who had published an open letter urging that the fight for racial integration be allowed to run its due course in the local and federal court systems and warning that the nonviolent resistance movement would incite civil unrest. In part, King wrote: You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes…

Protests against the status quo stir counter-protests. Always. So, today, 53½ years after King’s observation, anyone, even, I daresay, the casual, though not indifferent, the diffident, though honest spectator might sense some sorrow that we, as a nation, haven’t moved far enough to peer beneath the protest to pinpoint and proceed to act on the cause.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

where I stand on sitting & kneeling

Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem, at least, in my hearing and perceiving, far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country.

As I wrote in a previous post (September 3: The Star-Spangled battle?), yes, I understand and sympathize with those who are dismayed, angered by the actions of Kaepernick and others. Our anthem and flag are symbols. As symbols they point beyond themselves to realities so fondly experienced and deeply cherished that they sometimes defy our most earnest efforts to articulate them in any uniform fashion (e.g., our national identity, integrity, and security and, by extension, those who fought, suffered, and died to establish and preserve our nation). Thus the über-importance of these symbols as outward and visible representations of these sacred truths.

Yet I remain curious. Those who react negatively to the protesters provoke my wonderment and my disappointment. For I also understand and sympathize with the reasons for the protests. I have had more than enough experience – of mine own and of countless others, most unknown, through the testimony of history and many known, through their sharing of their personal stories – of being on the receiving, verily, the withholding end of racial bias, having been denied educational advantage, financial benefit, vocational opportunity, and, most sorrowfully, sometimes life itself – because of the color of our skin. So, where is the greater, more widespread outcry against racial disparity?

All this said, whenever I am in a public setting, say, at a sporting or civic event, and The Star-Spangled Banner is played and the Stars and Stripes displayed, I stand and place my right hand over my heart. Doing this, I express, in some part, my recognition of the veneration others accord these symbols, in more part, my admiration for my father and those who have served and do serve in the military, and, in most part, my anticipation of what America can be, but is not yet.

The Star-Spangled battle?

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, has refused to stand for the traditional playing of the national anthem at the start of games. He said, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (On this last point, I surmise a not-so-veiled reference to law enforcement, Kaepernick amplified his protest by donning socks depicting cartoon pigs wearing police hats.)

The response, predictably, has been largely negative. Social media is aflame denouncing Kaepernick as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police. Fans boo him and burn his #7 football jerseys. The Santa Clara police union threatens to stop providing protection at 49er games.

Kaepernick contends that his position has been distorted, saying, in part, “…that’s (anti-American, anti-military) not the case at all…(as) men and women of the military…sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my…freedoms…I have the utmost respect for them.” Kaepernick also has pledged to contribute $1 million to organizations addressing concerns of racial inequity and police brutality.

Given my history and life’s experience, my theology and ethics, I respect the God-given dignity of every human being. In this, I strive to see all sides (at least, as many as I can behold and comprehend) of any issue.


I understand why Kaepernick has staged his protest (“staged”, I believe, is a fitting word, for, as a public and wealthy figure, he is in a position to have his voice heard and magnified above and beyond most individuals)…

I understand the irony of his protest in reference to the symbols of America’s flag and anthem, which represent our individual and collective freedoms to speak and act in accord with personal principle and opinion…

I understand the reactions of those who consider his protest disrespectful of beloved symbols and all who hold them dear and disloyal to the nation whose bestowed freedoms have given him the opportunity to gain his fortune…

I understand (verily, I am one of) those who perceive in America’s soil and soul the root and still flowering stalk of racism by which people of color are devalued as persons and disenfranchised of those “unalienable rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (In this realization, this, for me, reality, I oft quote the words of the late, great Poet Laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, who, in his elegiac poem, Let America Be America Again, bewailed an unfulfilled, yet undying dream: “O, let America be America again. The land that never has been yet and yet must be; the land where every man is free.”)…

I understand why some view some of Francis Scott Key’s anthemic lyric (originally a poem chronicling the British naval attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812) as racist, especially those words of the third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” I also understand that “hireling” referred to British soldiers and “slave”, those who escaped their captivity and fought on the side of England. Even more, I understand that Key honored the defenders of Fort McHenry who, though mainly white soldiers, included blacks, both free and escaped slaves. Still more, I understand that Key and his words were part and parcel of an era when institutional slavery was an accepted facet of American life in commercial practice and legal principle.

Therefore, I understand, I believe that words, all words composed in time and space, at a given moment for a particular purpose, including those of The Star-Spangled Banner, constantly must be read, reviewed, and reconsidered in the light of succeeding generations and from the standpoints of manifold interpretations. For through this broadly intellectual, deeply emotional, and highly spiritual endeavor, we, individually and communally, can come to a greater appreciation for the significance, even reverence for the words we stand to sing.

Therefore, I thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the issue anew by sitting down.

another night of horror

Last night, another deadly (will this, I dread, be daily?) horror. During a public demonstration in Dallas, Texas, hundreds of marchers walking in peaceful protest against the days before police-involved killings in Minnesota and Louisiana, shots rang out.

The assailant. A sniper.

The target. Police officers. Several were wounded. Five are dead.

The day. The deadliest for law enforcement in the city of Dallas and one of the deadliest in the history of American law enforcement.

The reason. As yet, not fully known. Although a nearly conspicuous immediate speculation, if not conclusion, might name the cause as a violent, vengeful reaction to fatal encounters with the police. There is and can be no justification for this wholly unconscionable, utterly contemptible attack.

I grieve for the slain and wounded officers, for their families, friends, and fellow officers, for the city of Dallas, and for (again, I must write, for I, over time, have learned and deeply internalized at my soul’s depth the necessity of including) all of us who love life, our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of all, for all lives matter and who, therefore, hate violence and vengeance.

In this spirit of revulsion, I reflect on the tellingly prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[1]

In the Spirit of love, I remember names. Names are important. For me, the most important words I know, for they bear the power of recognition and recollection of our incredibly individual, yet wondrously common, sacred humanity. So, as it was and is essential that I remember Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the men killed by police in these immediate previous days, it is and will be equally imperative that I memorialize Brent Thompson, 43, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer; to date, the only identified victim of last night’s deadly assault.

In that same Spirit-love, I pray that we, as Americans, with our nation, our very selves so terribly, tragically divided, whatever our thoughts and feelings, opinions and convictions about police killings and the killings of police, will not be driven to fear or given to greater suspicion of “the other.” Rather, still within the bright light cast by our annual July 4th national celebration of the ideal (still to be realized fully) of our unity in liberty, that we will gather the bloodied threads of this and all tragedy to create, indeed, to recreate a bond of our common destiny.

To do that, I believe, is to make America great again. To do that is to hear and heed another of Martin’s prophetic teachings: We must live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.



[1] Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), page 67