This is my mama. She’s been gone for over five years now. The hole that opened up in my soul when she left is still there, although it’s not nearly as raw as it used to be. Mama taught me a lot about life, how to sing and dance and laugh through the hardest parts and how to tell the truth to someone you love even if the truth is not what they want to hear or you want to say. She taught me other things too.
Like the “n” word. Probably. It’s possible that I heard it somewhere else first, but she condoned its use. Which obviously means I used it. She also had a peculiar way of pronouncing the word “brown” when she referred to a section of public housing near my school. When I used that inflection to pronounce the last name of a classmate who I thought was a nice, studious, kind girl, she gave me a stiff warning to never, ever speak to her like that again unless I wanted immediate physical retribution. Her very appropriate reaction to my remark was the first time I realized that what my mother was saying was a racial slur.
When Paula Dean said “of course” she had used the “n” word, I thought of my mama. Of course she used it too. If I said that the time and place of their upbringing excused this kind of behavior, there would be no hope for their, or my, growing beyond it. If racism is in the very nature of Southern white society, then my hope lies in a quotation “The African Queen” (one of Mama’s favorite movies.) Speaking to a hungover Humphrey Bogart as she pours his liquor into the river, Katherine Hepburn says “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”
The particular problem, however, is like the fish who, spending his whole life in the lake, does not know he is wet. My young classmate did that for me, leaving me flopping on the dock and gasping for air. But only for a moment. I’ve never planned an Old South party, but I’ve been served a steak dinner by black men in white jackets. I’ve been worried that a cop might pull me over for driving under the influence, but I’ve never feared that cop might cause me physical harm. I’ve had to prepare my daughter for her first day of a school year, but I’ve never had to prepare her for the day when a classmate will use her last name as a racial slur.
These facts, as well as the fact that I have never questioned my opportunity to go to college, get a car loan, or buy a house, are illustrations for me of just how wet my water is. And those are the ones I know about. I’m willing to bet that just about any black person can name about five others ways my life is different from his without giving it a thought. Differences that are obvious to him and completely unapparent to me. Being able to cut through any neighborhood I want on the way from the store to my house being just one.
It’s true that I did not build the society in which those privileges accrue to me because my ancestors concentrated wealth through human slavery and later through segregation, but I do get the benefits from what they built. Harboring guilt and shame about that truth may be an understandable reaction, but I don’t think it’s a helpful one. Telling the truth helps. Finding a way to tell it with love is hard, yet anything really worth doing is worth doing poorly until we can figure out how to do it well. It’s worth trying to find a way to stop killing children.