He said it as simple as “pass the salt” or “may I have another slice of apple pie”—“My mom said we can’t play with niggers, so…” I was 11-years-old and brand new—the child of two southerners who, in integrating a virtually all-white, working-class neighborhood in Long Island, thought it more prudent to embrace racial progress than harp on painful pasts. No one had told me that the word was supposed to hurt, and so I didn’t sweat it—was more sad about the 8-ft fence my neighbor’s mama had built around their house and her orders to her children to stay away from me and my brother than some word whose meaning was still tenuous—blurry—to kids like us.
The meaning and the sentiment behind it was crystal clear, though, the next time I heard it. I was riding my bike one block over from my parents’ house when the daughter of my Girl Scout troup leader shouted out from her front lawn full of friends, “Nigger want a watermelon?” I was 12. I never went back on that block or to another Girl Scouts meeting—not ever. That’s how I dealt with that. And years later, when a fellow student barged into my dorm room, shouting about how “the nigger down at the front desk” wouldn’t let her in without showing I.D., I was too scared to do anything other than accept her apology and tell her it was cool. I’d only been on that college campus for about 30 minutes—the tears from saying good-bye to my parents were still wet on my face. And the word “nigger” was already ringing in my ears.
I had a few choice words and a couple middle fingers for the people who called me the “N” word once I grew up and got some nads—for the guy at the CVS who thought he should get to skip the line where I was waiting to buy Pampers for my baby; for the guy in the parking lot of the Best Buy, who thought I should pull out into oncoming traffic because he was in a rush; for the angry Puerto Rican who cursed me in Spanish but knew enough English to call me “nigger” after I almost rear-ended his car trying to avoid hitting a stalled one in my lane.
I remember every… last… time.
And each incident still makes my blood boil.
And I wait on pins and needles, needles and pins for the day that someone will say that ugly, searing, poisonous word to my daughters. I wonder under what circumstance they’ll hear it—if it’ll be on the school bus, or at the mall, or in camp, when there is no grown-up within earshot. Maybe it’ll be at college, on their first day, while their faces are still wet with tears.
I try to figure out what I’ll say to them—how I’ll explain such vitriol—such contempt—conferred from one stranger to another. I see such innocence in their young faces; at age six and nine, they don’t know much about the harsh lessons black children faced over the years. Selma. Four Little Girls. Ruby Bridges. Back of the bus. Separate and unequal. Those babies had to have armor, you hear? And we did, to some extent, too.
But not my babies—not really. In this post-racial world, where the most powerful leader on the planet is a black man with two daughters who look just like them, and it’s not a thing for little black girls to have white friends and Asian friends and Muslim friends, and it just doesn’t matter as much what color you are or what religion you practice but what kind of person you are, my girls don’t have to put on the armor. Their expectations of others are pure.
They can just… be.
Even here in Georgia, in the seat of the confederacy, where just a generation ago, children who looked like them witnessed unspeakable atrocity.
Still, I can’t claim racial progress with a whole heart. Black president and First Mom aside, we still see Confederate flags snapping in the Spring winds. And it’s only a matter of time before someone curls that ugly word around the tongue and launches it in my babies’ direction.
Some days, I feel like I should warn them.
Most days, I want my black butterflies to enjoy the innocence—to avoid having to put on the armor just a little while longer.
Just a little while…