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.