The N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. Including me.
I could write it out plainly. In fact, I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, especially since I used it in a post just a week ago, and will again in the poem below. 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 white in a community which had no blacks. 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. If you study black-white relations in America, it is amazing how much fear there is on both sides. I certainly had my share, and I hated having it. But I couldn’t shake it, until I wrote and published this poem. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.
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.