Friday, October 8, 2010

Watermelon, The "N" Word and the Hearts of (Wo)Men

It was fun, I guess. We did all kinds of art projects together and cool stuff like learning how to sew and make sun tea and somewhere in there, there was the obligatory “how to tie a knot” exercises. I remember going to a dude ranch and riding an ornery horse and eating some kind of campfire stew made with canned tomatoes and beans and water that had way too many onions and not enough salt. And in my then-12-year-old world, you just couldn’t beat earning enough pins to make the sash all heavy and stuff.

Good times, Girl Scouts.

Until that one afternoon my cousin and I dared ride my bike on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was only one block away from my childhood home, but it might as well have been Mars in my neighborhood, where black families had only begun to dot the lily-white streets of this mostly blue-collar, working class community. There were streets you walked down if you were black and many others you didn’t—those were the (unwritten) rules, and those of us who lived there just kinda went with it.

My cousin? She was from South Carolina. And a rule breaker. And since she was driving and I was riding, we found ourselves on Pennsylvania Ave., cruising past my Girl Scouts Troop leader’s house. Her daughter—a fellow scout—was having a party with a bunch of girls sprawled all over her front lawn. We’d barely gotten past the yard when the troop leader’s daughter hurled her greeting.

Nigger want a watermelon?

Stunned, scared, hurt and betrayed, I was rendered mute. But my cousin, who had no blind allegiance to those girls and whose mouth was bigger than the Long Island Sound, had no problem saying a few choice words back—nasty enough to get the fellow scout and all of her friends to chase us all the way down the street. All the way off Pennsylvania Avenue.

I never stepped foot back on that block again. And I never went back to Girl Scouts, either, for obvious reasons. And at age 12, I swore that no daughter of mine would ever be a Girl Scout or find herself in a situation where she was The Only and The Others could jump her or verbally abuse her or make her feel unwelcome or a combo of the three.

Of course, my 12-year-old pronouncement is smacking against my very real world mom experiences, which, if I’m worth my mom salt, must include letting my babies pursue their passions and experience the beauty of trying something new.

Thing is, letting my babies be The Only in a room full of The Other is not easy for me. It happens, no doubt; though we seek diversity in most everything we do with our children, the way we live and the circles in which we move and the experiences we have sometimes wind up being as homogenous as a carton of 2%. My daughters can handle themselves in such situations; it’s not a thing for them to be The Only—it doesn’t change who they are in any way or make them feel lesser or want to be something other than the beautiful brown girls that they are.

But it’s not my girls I’m worried about...

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  1. Coming from a very diverse background the N-word was often joined by many other descriptive words meant to determine and define who and what we were and put us in our place. Many of us hurled worse ones back and fought tooth and nail to overpower our tormentors-even when they were familiar to us, some of us absorbed the names and began to believe it was who we were - it splintered our family and some of us fought against them and defined ourselves as everything but those words.

    I learned to ask my tormentors why they felt it necessary to call me such a word, whatever that word was. My questions usually made them stutter. I learned the history of the words and use that knowledge as a weapon to tear apart those who dare call me what they wanted me to be rather than letting just be.

    The other day I over heard my cousin's 16 year old son, a beautiful boy becoming an amazingly beautiful well rounded man (football, band, speech writer, aspiring chef -"a man's got to eat"), tell his younger cousins that they should never-ever let anyone call them the N-word even if it is meant in friendship, jest or familarity and if and when it happens to look directly and deeply at the person saying it and feel pity.

    It made my heart swell much like your post did. I guess the only way we can protect our children from the pain is make sure they know their worth isn't determined by others, to teach them to be aware and to explain the history of such words and behavior before we, individualy retire the use of words as a weapons. And if and when they do encounter those who still want to cause pain by putting everyone in "their place" They can take a strong, deep look at them, shake our head in pity and keep on keeping on.

  2. Simone,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with this and certainly for giving me some sound words and advice on how to talk to my girls about it. Your cousin's son sounds phenomenal, and his suggestion that his little cousins look on "N" word users with pity is nothing short of brilliant—definitely something I plan to toss into my arsenal. I've avoided having the "N" word talk with my daughters because the subject is such a painful one for me; we all deal with it in our own ways. My way has been to try to shield them as best I can. But I know this is impossible, and it's more evident as they get older and seek out their independent experiences. I'll tuck your young cousin's advice in my arsenal, and certainly will buck up for the conversation. It's time.

  3. It is true that we are fighting hard for diversity and here in 2010, it has not changed as much as we would like.

    In my country, I did not have to worry about such an issue, but here in America it's like a tension cord waiting to happen.

    I plan on educating my children in understanding our history and how to respond when confronted with such hatred because I'm sure at one time or another, it will come to their challenge.

    I agree that we should not use the N word in jest, anger, friendship or anything. It's a terrible word that was used as a weapon against us. It's not something we can shake off, but we can definitely triumph over such a word.

    Yes, it's always in the back of my mind how I will help my children in this understanding.

    I'm sorry that you have such a painful memory.

  4. I have been considering joining a church near me but this is the exact reason I have yet to do so. I'm used to being The Only, but my son isn't.

  5. I feel a kindred connection here. I, too, heard that SAME punchline while at camp with a fellow girl scout who thought she was being punny when we were 11. I was STUNNED, but not enough to keep me from retorting, "White wanna Beef Stroganoff?"

    We both got into trouble...

  6. Here's a great poetry jam about this topic.
    Thanks Simone, I will be using your cousin's words of wisdom as well with my other educational tools to equip my sons for the mental battle of racism.

  7. Denene, Growing up in my house we were never even allowed to use the word or the initial, so I am still uncomfortable with refering to the word with the initial. My mother and father felt neither the word nor the initial was appropriate and it was never used, as it was never used by my children. There must have been a discussion but it must have been brief, because I won't even use the initial. This has been difficult to write to you because I did not know how to put "nothing" down on paper.


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