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In defense of the N-word . . .

Let me begin this post with a disclaimer:

My title—In defense of the N-word—is not a defense for those that use the word as a pejorative—a racial and ethnic slur, an epithet that equals and perhaps surpasses the impact of a southerner being called a son of a bitch—oops, forgive me, I meant to say “a son of a B-word.” When I volunteered—wisely—for military service and was accepted at the tender age of sixteen, I learned that every person in my service was a son of a B-word, and would be labeled incessantly with that sobriquet by virtually every other person. I quickly learned that I could not whup everyone that applied the term to me, and I learned that the term could reflect another person’s attitude in many ways other than a reference to one’s parentage, specifically to one’s mother. The term gave voice to emotions including surprise, incredulity, admiration and even brotherly love, as in I love this son-of-a B-word” or He is one hard-working son of a B-word” or “He is a really bright son of a B-word,” ad infinitum.

This posting draws heavily on my posting dated June 22, 2010. My purpose in this post is to elaborate on our use—or non-use—of the N-word. I have in effect plagiarized my own work and may be forced to sue myself, but my intent then was to discuss ten-cent hamburgers loaded with all the trimmings. Since my intent in this posting is to discuss in more detail my feelings about the use of the N-word, a situation that has limited conversation to a great extent in some segments of our society, versus my intent to laud the ten cent burgers in the earlier posting, I will not seek remuneration for myself from my work having been plagiarized. However, one may be assured that I will not extend that courtesy to plagiarism by others. Click here to read the earlier posting.

In summary, this post is not in defense of the use of the N-word. It is simply used as an attention-getter and is an attempt to explain, at least to some degree, that its use is not always intended to be pejorative, and its renunciation by our society has reduced our language to the point that we are often restricted from “saying what we mean and meaning what we say” by the need to be politically correct in our conversations.

In my boyhood days, those glorious preteen and early teen days when my world was pure and untainted and gave no hint of the vicissitudes, vagaries and vicious shoals lurking in my future, the Varsity movie theater was, and perhaps may still be, located on the North side near the intersection of Main and Fourth Street in Columbus, Mississippi, a city of some 20,000 souls at the time, located in the east central part of the state near the Alabama state line.

Main Street was the dividing line between north and south in Columbus, the county seat of Lowndes County, Mississippi. The first block of Fourth Street South was called Catfish Alley, a block that was comprised mostly of businesses—grocery stores, beer joints, rooming houses, eating places, clothing stores and other businesses—some were owned and operated by blacks.

Fourth Street in Columbus is near a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River, a stream that in those days teemed with fresh-water catfish, a choice item in the diet of southerners regardless of their race—fried catfish was a staple. Local fishermen kept the cafes and fish stands along Catfish Alley well supplied, and people came from near and far to buy fresh catfish for home cooking and consumption, hence the name Catfish Alley. The block was the prime gathering place for blacks, a mecca for those living inside and outside the city from the countryside and from neighboring towns and cities. Shoppers and diners and gatherings included entire families during the daytime, but the block took on a different tone and attracted a different crowd after dark—rumors had it that more than one house of ill repute existed among the businesses in Catfish Alley, usually on the second floor of the two-story buildings. Click here to read about today’s Catfish Alley.

Note that I use the term black rather than African-American. In those days there was no such term as African-American, at least not in the circles in which I moved. There were numerous terms used in those days to describe black people, used openly without fear of ridicule or persecution. The term most used was the same one used by black rappers today, a word rappers are allowed to use but one that is never used by anyone other than rappers, particularly not by non-African-Americans, but is referred to as the N-word. At this point I will say without hesitation, without rancor, without one ounce of racialism in my body and soul, an absence that was created many years ago through education, understanding and just plain living, that if one is going to say the N-word one may as well use the real word. And in support of that choice I will quote the bard from Romeo and Juliet, followed by a well-known and oft-used religious homily:

That which we call a rose, by any other name will smell as sweet.

The thought is as bad as the deed.

I would add a third saying but this one is a no-no—it suggests that we should call a spade a spade, a phrase that has been around for more than 500 years. It means that we should speak honestly and directly about topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity or embarrassing nature. According to Wikipedia, the phrase that says the thought is as bad as the deed predates the use of the word spade as an ethnic slur against African-Americans, a euphemism that was not recorded until 1928. However, in contemporary U.S. society that time-honored idiom, to call a spade a spade, is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur. Click here to read more about the history of the phrase, call a spade a spade.

The N-word is a substitute for the word Negro and in many instances, perhaps most, it is used as a pejorative, a racial and ethnic slur intended to show the speaker’s disdain and even hatred for persons of that race. However, I submit that there are people that use the word non-pejoratively, specifically in its use by southerners that have a predilection to pronounce words ending in an O, or with the sound of an O, by replacing the O sound with the ER sound. For example window becomes winder, pillow becomes piller, tallow becomes taller, shallow becomes shaller, fellow becomes feller, hollow becomes holler, ad infinitum.

So given that predilection, I’ll give you three guesses as to how such persons pronounce Negro, and the first two guesses don’t count. Yep, many southerners inadvertently use the N-word and in most instances that pronunciation is not tainted with racialism—it is simply a descriptive term, just as other persons are described as white. The N-word ends with an O, so the O is dropped and an er is added. And I’ll grant you that others use the word in all its pejorative sense, expressing contempt, disapproval and hatred with all the pent-up passion and racism that has in the past plunged our nation into civil war and which still exists, and such use of the word is not limited to southerners. Our nation has come a long way, especially since 1964 and the civil rights movement, but we still have a long way to go.

Check out this sentence: That N-word feller that lives across the holler in that house with no winders has to wade across a shaller creek to get to the store to buy a new piller and some animal taller to make candles.

Now please be honest—to thine own self be true, so to speak—do you understand how and why some southerners pronounce words ending in O as er, and do you understand how and why the word Negro rolls off the palate of a son of the south—a southerner—with the sound of what is considered to be one of the most pejorative and hateful words in our English language? The phrase N-word is converted by the listener’s brain to a word that retains the N and replaces the hyphen with an I, a couple of Gs, an E and an R, forming a word that resounds in the listener’s brain with far more resonance than N-word to the ears.

With full knowledge that I have convinced nobody—not even one person—with my explanation of the N-word as used by southerners I will make no apology, neither for myself nor for fellow southerners for past or present use of the N-word. My only point is that the real word is sometimes used without any thought of hatred or disliking, without a trace of racialism in the speaker’s mind or heart. I abhor its use when it involves prejudice, hatred, contempt, disdain, disgust or any other contemptible emotion on the part of the speaker.

I am privileged to be the only remaining brother-in-law of a southern lady, the last one of a host of brothers-in-law. That lady is a native of south Georgia now residing in North Carolina. She recently zipped past her ninetieth birthday, still mobile, still vocal and still pronouncing words that end in O as ending in ER—words such as window, pillow, hollow and yes, the word Negro. She is well aware that our society prefers—nay, demands the term African-American, but she sometimes inadvertently reverts to a lifetime of retaining the N, dropping the O and adding igger, with no more thought of hatred, malice or resentment than when she pronounces hollow as holler, or pillow as piller. I have no doubt—nay, it is my firm belief—that when her time comes she will be welcomed  into heaven by the sound of thunderous applause from all, particularly from the Supreme Applauder.

And one more thought—look at the use of F-word in place of the real word—a listener hears F-word, but can you guess which word forms in the listener’s mind? Yep, that word, the one with the letters U, C and K following the F. The phrase F-word is converted by the listener’s brain to a word that has traditionally been prohibited in all our media including movies, books, newspapers and speech, but its use has now proliferated in every medium, including prime family time on television—and it’s not just the use of the word—the act itself is often portrayed, either suggested by nudity and camera angles or fade-to-black screens. Such acts are ostensibly simulated but sometimes I suspect that the portrayal is real.

Rarely is anyone castigated for their use of the F-word, regardless of when, where, why and who is guilty of its use. Vice President Biden recently used it on television in a whispered aside in President Barack Obama’s ear. He told the president that “This is a big F-word-ing deal,” and it resonated all over the world. That slip of the tongue provoked nothing but mirth—Joe Biden, our potty mouth vice president, remains just one heartbeat away from the presidency. Click here for the story and the video.

Go figure!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 

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Cure for itch: Sulphur and molasses . . .

At some time in my fifth year of life and my first year as a Mississipian, my mother became convinced that I and my sister, eighteen months older than I, either had scabies (the itch) or would surely become afflicted with the disease based on our having played with the children next door.

Playing with the kids next door was forbidden because they were somewhat different than we were—actually they were not different than we were, except that theirs was a nicer house and their family was more prosperous than we were—they just looked different. We were white and they were black, and folks in Mississippi in the 1930s frowned on the races mixing, regardless of the ages involved.

Our mother always said that she had nothing against blacks  “as long as they stayed in their place.” When asked specifically about the nature of “their place,” she would say, “Well, you know, in their place, the place where they are supposed to stay.” That pretty well explained it as far as she was concerned.

Although we were forbidden to play with the neighbor children we still managed to get in some playtime, and because of that contact our mother decided that even if we did not have scabies we would probably soon show symptoms of the disease. I have no doubt that my sister and I itched and scratched in all the places that kids—and adults for that matter—normally scratch, but I do not believe we had the itch. We never exhibited any of the symptoms associated with the itch. If any reader is inclined to learn everything one needs to know about the itch—scabies—click here.

You will learn that sulfur, mixed with a petroleum jelly and applied topically, is effective as a treatment for scabies, and sulfur is what our mother used on us. She took powdered sulfur and mixed it with molasses, stripped me and my sister right down to the buff and smeared the mixture on every part of our body, every square inch of skin including cracks and crevices, and even worked the mixture into our hair and on our scalps. I was the first to have the “medication” applied and my sister giggled throughout the process, giving our mother instructions as to various areas and items and ways to apply the mixture.

I watched as my mother smeared her with the mixture, but not being as worldly and wise as she was I did little giggling—we were a very private family and I was not accustomed to seeing a naked female—in fact, a fast trip back to my earliest memories reveals no instance of my ever having seen a naked female of any age prior to that day—and now that I think of it, a significant amount of time would pass before I was privileged to see another one.

I searched diligently on the internet for images of a naked little boy and a naked little girl and following a prolonged search I found the two pictured at the right. I trust that none of my viewers will be offended by the graphic nature of the images. I felt very fortunate at finding an image of our skin color prior to the application of sulfur and molasses, and another approximating our skin color after the application. The upper image approximates our before skin color and the lower approximates our after skin color. Who would have ever thought I would be so lucky in my search!

I am reminded of a business card I saw in later years—the business part was on one side and the other side showed a line drawing of two naked children, a little boy and and a little girl, and the little boy was saying in the caption below, “No, you can’t play with mine—you already broke yours off!” I suppose that if I thought anything about my sister’s  physical characteristics, my thoughts echoed the words of that little boy—either she broke hers off or was born without one. The card was not quite as graphic as the images I found on the internet.

Our skin took on a yellow sheen from the sulfur and for several days we could not sit on any chair or sofa. We sat on the floor, we took our meals on the floor, and we slept on the floor on sheets and blankets that were cleansed in boiling water after we used them.

I had not yet started the first grade, so our restriction to the house and our banishment to the floor had no effect on my education. My sister, a first-grader, missed several days of school but apparently suffered little from that absence—to my disappointment she was promoted to the second grade, thus dashing my hopes that she would be retained in the first grade so I would be equal with her in school—bummer!

Eventually our mother decided, since no symptoms of scabies appeared, that the medication had apparently done its work and we were allowed to remove the mixture of sulfur and molasses. Many years have ensued since the scabies incident, and I have told that story more than once over the years—some listeners believed it and others expressed considerable doubt as to its veracity. Please believe me, it’s true and I can prove it. I can show you the house where it happened because it’s still standing. It’s on the west side of Fifth Street South one block from the Palmer Orphanage! Click here to read an essay that includes information on my association with the Palmer Orphanage, now known as the Palmer Home for Children —it’s worth the visit!

On hearing the story most people ask whether the molasses attracted ants, flies, bees, roaches, mice, spiders and other pests in search of sweet treats. My answer to that is that we were not bothered by such—my theory is that pests were powerfully attracted to the molasses but were equally repulsed by the sulfur—one canceled out the other.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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