I have a problem. I have an unchangeable soul. I have a soul that has a problem.
I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the fifth grade, sitting in the middle of the last row in the classroom. I didn’t understand it, so I ignored it, and it ignored me right back. Years later, I saw it hurtling towards me and I wasn’t able to move away fast enough. And then it hit me. I was a n*gger. I was black, I had dark skin, and a recurring problem.
I have spent my entire life in a universe that doesn’t agree with me. I faced people who didn’t agree with me. So I tried to wish away the pigment in my skin. But I was still a n*gger. It destroys but defines in all the ways that I have tried to create myself. It’s something that slithers and slides out of the mouths of those who radiate fear — those who are bound in ropes of hate and ignorance. I repeat how the word doesn’t show how I view myself or how anyone else does, but it itches at my skin uncomfortably. And when I finally accepted the ugly truth, it felt wrong on my tongue.
The next time I heard the word, I was standing in a classroom. I reside in places that act as a facade for education. It scares me; it rushes through my veins as I see those who are not paying attention. Pay attention. I am a person who will do anything to not to have to pay attention.
Try to read the word.
Bask in your privilege to read the words. We learn a history where some were not able to read words. We are built on a foundation that still has the sound of whips embedded in it. And a silence that can only be heard in fields of despair. I keep my silence because I am able to read the words.
I don’t read books on racism, do you? I read books on America because they seem to share a common understanding, yet we still seem to read different chapters. As our eyes dance on the pages, we are creeping up on it, you are creeping up on it. I hold my breath. We all do. It’s an excuse to say it, except it’s not, but no one says anything. Something that I too am guilty of. That’s the problem. We think it’s okay to say “nigger” because it’s protected in a classroom. But as soon as the bell rings, all thoughts on the subject seem to vanish.
As I leave, I take a glance back. It hangs in the air like a noose unoccupied. I walk through the halls of my school. A place where acceptance holds the walls together. Outside something like uncertainty drifts in the wind and I am wandering through it. Can others hear my thoughts? Do I want to hear theirs? This is my truth. I am always wondering. I am always looking over my shoulder. This is my life. And I live it with contempt. I live like everyone is watching me. Idaho? Do you live in Idaho? I live in Idaho. I don’t want to, but I do want to. I am safe here. But some days I still feel afraid.
I watch videos of people being shot down, tore down, and unceremoniously beaten down. Rest in peace, Tamir Rice. I watch from the comfort of my bed. A luxury that he will never experience again. I feel responsible, like I am part of the issue. And maybe I am.
Can you envision what it’s like? Stare at my complexion just as I do. Call me a n*gger. Say that you have a pass because your “buddy” is black. Say that it’s okay because you once called Africa your home. Say that it’s okay because the person spitting prejudice from their mouth is attractive. Call me a n*gger. Shout it from above, whisper it in ears, sing it loudly in your car. Let it float in your head, writhe in your bones.
Feel it just as I do. Remember the feeling. I will for the rest of my life.
Why is it so hard for me to understand? Why don’t you understand? It is not just letters. They mesh together and manufacture a clear wall in our bodies that not even ourselves can look through.
I don’t think of it as black and white. I think of it as two decisions. One can be made in the seconds leading up to your lips. Where will you say it? and to whom will you say it to? The second is made by myself. How will I react? What needs to be done? I don’t have answers. I seldom do. I am just as fearful as the people around me. I cannot describe the way that it twists, kinks, and spirals like the texture of my hair. My hair is a thing that appears so extremely trivial that it bears a profound meaning that little girls and boys can’t comprehend yet. I can’t comprehend it. So it sits in pages unopened.
It’s a necessary evil that I have gotten used to. I have to. It sits beside me wherever I go. Now I have heard the word too many times to count. I am not in the fifth grade anymore, but I still feel like I’m a child. Like I am being scolded and punished for something that I had no part in choosing.
Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.” To that, I say, “I have a reality.”
I try to forget how my hands shake and how my heart jumps as I see someone who looks like me pass in the street. I try to forget that when I see someone who doesn’t share my same skin, it’s like I’m seeing myself through a mirror. It’s reflecting in my eyes, but I don’t close them. I never do. I never think about it. It feels suffocating in my throat. We all turn our backs on a word so hurtful and so wrong. If I am allowed to say it, why can I still not speak the word out loud? If your skin is of a different shade, you are not allowed to say it. So why do you speak the word out loud?
Don’t you get it? The first time I heard the word, I didn’t really hear it. And neither did you.