Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl – Age 8

I borrow my title from Gloria Naylor’s essay of the same name.

In it she examines the first time she remembers hearing the word–really hearing it–in the third grade.

The experience she describes, in some ways, parallels my own.  Certainly, I grew up hearing the word among my elders and peers:  “That nigger’s paid!” to emphasize good fortune.  Or to call out the trifling: “Niggers don’t never know how to act.”

But the derogatory way that Michael Colpo called it to me on the playground, sadly, marked my youth.   I had earned a better grade than him on an assignment, an offense that, to him, seemed worthy of putting me in my place.

“What did you get on the test?”

“A.  What did you get?”

“So what?! You’re not smarter than me.”

**Me laughing at his reddening**

“Burnt chocolate chip!”

“Well, you’re an unsalted saltine cracker!”

“Nigger!”

“Honky!”

That’s how the exchange went down and off I ran past the two mounted monster tires kids could climb on, into, or jump over.  To the monkey bars I went, my choice recess activity, without a blush.  Unlike Naylor, I didn’t have to ask Mommy anything.

By third grade, my twin and I had been called niggers by the school superintendent’s daughter. (When we told we were shushed because we refused to say the word–just called it by its initial–and the teacher played dumb–“What does n-word mean?”).

By third grade, I had seen part of the Roots series, the lynching and KKK scenes in Lady Sings the Blues, and was quite versed in how “the white man didn’t care ’bout no niggers,” thanks to my Dad’s still  relatively fresh bitterness from Vietnam (and some of it was rapidly growing rancid anger from his youth in the South).

In third grade, and at least up to the sixth, my best friends were White.  Yet in the back of my mind, and around 6th grade I discovered in theirs too, the separation was real and inevitable.  By high school, those girls and I barely spoke.

The playground experience marks the lesson that Black children have learned/have to learn in this country: how to negotiate in a world that thinks them inferior (and lets them know it at every turn) and how to push through that wind.  Sometimes it’s a breeze; sometimes it’s torrential.  Some of us stop and wait for it to pass; the rest of us run right into the thick of it pushing ourselves as much beyond it as one can when it’s still blowing nonetheless.  My memories of my hometown are no less tainted by those memories, though, and that awkward negotiation shows up in my writing all the time.

In fact my first full length manuscript, my Master’s thesis, claims to attempt to discuss how people negotiate boundaries such as race and class and religion.  At the writing of it, I was re-living way-y-y-y too much of my hometown in another that was 3 states away.  I have little doubt that my 8 year old self–you can’t get me; I already know this game–was my mechanism for negotiating that course.  And in some ways, it still is.

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4 thoughts on “Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?

  1. So sad but also so true – regardless of who says otherwise, blacks beginning early in life have to learn to negotiate in a world of whites that think them inferior, tells and/or shows their children (by thoughts, words & actions) and taint the memories of our children so that they have to come out swinging/defensively and some of them begin to believe that they are ‘less than’. It was my mission always to let my family know that this was a lie from the enemy – others didn’t dwell on it so much. We KNEW the truth about who NIGGERS really were & it had absolutely nothing to do w/the color of one’s skin…Thus it set us free in our minds, & regardless of who said we were that “N” word, we didn’t accept it and continued to move forward & ‘show them’ the stuff that is REALLY in us. Gladly this world is not meant to be our home and sooner or later the same ones that got it twisted & called us out of our names to make us feel inferior all the time knowing otherwise, will get their ‘just desserts’. Thanks Dar for learning to negotiate in this world – you always have me at your back and we KNOW the truth. Loving you more…. Mommy

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  2. I now know from your story that everybody has race,religion,and sometimes just rudeness to judge somebody. I had gotten in a fight about two or three weeks ago and called the kid and said “Put my f**** bookbag down you b****a** n****!” Thank you for telling me it’s not ok to say “n” word. I’m 11 years old. Thank you for the valuable lesson. 🙂

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    1. Hey Justus,

      Thanks for visiting my site and leaving this comment.

      I’m proud that you’re starting to think about how the way you use language can hurt others. (You know there are a lot of adults that aren’t so wise)!

      Did I read correctly that you’re in Kansas?

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