The Varsity Theater was, and perhaps may still be, located at the intersection of Main and First Street. Main Street was the dividing line between north and south in Columbus, the county seat of Lowndes County, Mississippi. The first block of First Street South was called Catfish Alley, a block that was comprised mostly of black businesses—grocery stores, beer joints, rooming houses, eating places, clothing stores and other businesses—most, but not all, were owned and operated by blacks. Catfish Alley was the the prime gathering place for blacks, a mecca for those living inside and outside the city and 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.
Note that I use the term black—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 that is never enunciated but identified only as the N-word, and 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 predates the use of the word “spade” as an ethnic slur against African-Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom 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, its pronunciation corrupted, of course, by the southerners’ predilection to pronounce words ending in an O, or with the sound of an O, by replacing the O sound with er. Window, for example, becomes winder, pillow becomes piller, tallow becomes taller, shallow becomes shaller, fellow becomes feller, hollow becomes holler, ad infinitum.
Can you guess how Negro is pronounced? Yep, for many southerners the N-word 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 some southerners pronounce words ending in O, and do you understand how the word Negro became, to a southerner, the N-word?
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 continue with my dissertation—or posting if you insist—on Catfish Alley and ten-cent hamburgers:
First Street in Columbus is on a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River, a stream that in those days was teeming 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 going rate for hamburgers on Catfish Alley when I was a boy was ten cents. Hamburger buns came only in one size in those days—small. The huge ones we have today either did not exist or had not yet come to our town, perhaps late as so many changes were—drive-in theaters, for example. Click here for a posting on the ins and outs of drive-in theaters. The ten-centers stood head-and-shoulders above today’s What-a-Burger and its Just a burger with its thin patty, one pickle slice, a bit of minced onions and a smear of mustard—the ten-cent patties were ample and came, if wanted, with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion and one’s choice of mustard, ketchup or mayo in any combination.
But it gets better, because Catfish Alley had a competitor. Just a brief walk brought me and my fellow students from our high school at noon to the river’s edge where a lady dispensed five-cent burgers from a portable kitchen on wheels, burgers that had no tomato or lettuce or pickles or onions but featured a substantial hamburger patty—fifteen cents would get a student two burgers and a Pepsi or RC Cola or a Coke or a Grapette—most of us went for the 12-ounce sodas rather than the 6-ounce brands, an easy choice since the cost was the same. Ah, for the good old days!
Does anyone remember this jingle?
Pepsi Cola hits the spot
Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot
Twice as much for a nickel, too,
Pepsi Cola is the drink for you!
I 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. 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, just as the phrase N-word is converted to a word that adds an I, a couple of Gs, an E and an R, a word that resounds in the listener’s brain with far more resonance than N-word to the ears.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.