86. N——

Be sure to drop in to Serial where I am presenting a piece about a boy coming to grips with racism on the verge of the Civil War.

There it is, the N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. When Paula Deen admitted using it during her youth (at a time when everybody in the South was using it freely), they almost crucified her. Granted, a lot of people were just waiting for a chance, but that was their excuse.

I could write it out plainly. It’s my blog; nobody is going to censor me. I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, as if eveybody didn’t know what it meant. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.

I grew up whiter than white (see  posts 46. and 81.), in a black-free community. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see?

Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes. I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear.

Black folks seeking freedom during the sixties taught my mind and my heart not to fear them. But the gut takes longer. Forty years later I wrote a poem to confront the fear that lingered.

          Mother Tongue

               I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.

In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.

               Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.

*****

When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.

Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.

It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . .,  but I cannot!

I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.

If reading can remake our thoughts, writing can do even more. Making this poem a decade ago and facing my shame largely removed that inherited fear.

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