For Eric Warlrond
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and call me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
—Countee Cullen, from Color (1925)
Imagine being an eight year old child, possibly on vacation with family, eager to explore the city of Baltimore and its history, its culture. Imagine smiling at passersby, spreading good cheer because you’re all too happy to be in such a beautiful place where the sun is bright, the breeze is light, and the streets are filled with friendly people.
Then a complete stranger, a child as innocent and as naïve as you, sneers at you and calls you a nigger. That one word, that one incident, derails your trip completely. And while you’ll probably never see this person again, his face, his lips moving in slow motion as he pronounces the word will forever be instilled in your mind. You’ll carry it with you. All the loves in your life won’t be able to change it. You’ll look in the mirror, and despite loved-one’s praises of a smart, talented, charming individual, your reflection will only show the thing that person saw in the streets of Baltimore that day. The nigger.
Even today, the N word is still a controversial subject of debate. While the black community has taken the word, redefined it, changed the spelling, and made it their own, the sting still exists when spat from a white person’s mouth. We can say that everyone should be able to use it now, that it doesn’t have the same racist, hateful meaning as it did when Countee Cullen’s poem was written, but there’s still that underlying fear that it could be used to degrade and dehumanize African Americans.
If you were angry enough, if you really wanted to hurt me, break me down, and you knew of one word that was sure to do it, would you use it? These are the questions we secretly want to ask our white friends who freely use it around us because it’s ‘cool,’ because we say it to each other all the time, so what’s the difference if they say it too? Hundreds of years of systematic racism is the difference. Because hearing you say it conjures up historically being viewed as an ‘other,’ less than human.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem about an incident where someone called you a racial slur or said something degrading. How did you react? With anger? Fear? Shock? How did it haunt you after it had passed. Does it haunt you still?