The other day, Bibi was exposed to something at school that had me distressed. One of her classmates found (or was given) a piece of paper on which some older students (judging by the quality and variety of handwriting on said piece of paper) had written various things. Some of the things are inappropriate for a ten or eleven year old child to be writing (about “tapping that” and “pulling him”) while others were outright offensive (vulgar language and “retarded” used as a slur against a fellow student). Bibi’s peer-aged classmate took this piece of paper and folded it into a fan and gave it to her innocently enough and Bibi brought it home. She had been told by the classmate to read what it said but Bibi told her mother that she couldn’t understand some of the words.
I wanted to share the above story to put the following into context. One of the words on the paper is the N-word. I cringed at the thought that she had been exposed to any of the above but this word in particular stood out to me.
It is my instinct to immediately protect Bibi from this word, from its implications, its meaning, its ugly history. I want to cover her ears, her eyes, to hide her from the vulgarity of it.
I listen to myself.
She’s too young.It’s not fair.Too young to know of such things.Why? How?I know I know I know I cannot protect her from these things but damn damn damn I wish I could.She’s only six, not quite seven, and already, so soon, too soon, this word.This hateful, hate-full, fucking word.How?Why?She’s too young.
And then I think . . .
But wait. She’s lucky, so very lucky, because she is almost seven, mostly six, and this accidental, incidental, meaningless moment is her first exposure to this word and it wasn’t even aimed at her. She wasn’t being called anything hateful; she was merely, glimpsingly, exposed to it. This is not a label that will ever be slapped across her or her future, will never be used to define or describe her by someone who wants her to feel less than she is.
She is so fucking lucky.
Because there are children younger than she who have been called the N-word, and worse, more than once, perhaps even often. They have heard the word used with intention, with purpose, with hate and these children cannot and will not ever escape it or be able to avoid it. Not really, not fully, because it has roots and it digs in.
I know this without having to protect myself from it, even as I wish I could protect her from it. I can’t keep the ugliness of the world out and, even if I could protect her, would I? From this word? No. Not really. It’s a word. But it is not meant for her. No. I’d rather protect all of the children, the millions of younger than she even children, who have already suffered the cruelty of our nation’s history, who see and recognize themselves in the faces of the decades and centuries of African Americans who are in the pages of their history books and on the television screens in their homes who have been lynched and murdered and imprisoned and called over and over again this one damn word that can never touch me or my granddaughter and stick.
the n-wordby Evie Shockleyi want to write a poemabout the time a little white boycalled me a _____:but i can’t use the word:it’s busy.busy, i say:headlining the new civil rights agenda,bedding down with dictionary editors,shuffling back and forth betweenhuck finn and new jack city:oh, it’s busy, busy,and i wouldn’t want to disturb it.i want to write a poemabout when I was nineand a little white boywhose coat sleeves didn’t reach his wristscalled me a _____:but i can’t say the word:it’s busy, i tell you:black folks got their mouths around it,chewing, swallowing, regurgitating,chewing, swallowing again, re-defining it, they tell me:they’re calling cow-cudwhat i thought was bull-shit:either way, i can’t stomach it!since the word is busy, busy busy,i wouldn’t want to disturb it.i want to write a poemabout how this little white boy said it:wasn’t even talking to me:told his father wait—i wanna play on the pinball machineas soon as the ______ gets through with it.yeah, we both up in woolcomooching amusement in the toy department:neither of us could afford the damn thing:but this little white boyhe called me a ______:and i still can’t say the word:it’s busy,busy, you hear me,all tied up with quentin tarantinoand i wouldn’t want to disturb it.you know, i thought i’d write a poemabout the time this little white boywho could be married to my ex-best friend,could end up wrapped in a confederate flag,who could be our next presidentthe time this little white boycalled me a ______:i’m busy.deeply involved in self-definitionand world-reconstruction:busy!i said i got work to doand i’m tired of being disturbed.