Beer And A Shot: Soft "A" vs. Hard "R"
By Gavin DeCantillon 19 February 2013 | Photography: Jo
The first time I ever cursed at anyone, I was 7 years old. I had to have been because I was in first grade. My father had taken me to a park one Saturday afternoon in Kirkwood near where we were renting a house. Kirkwood, like many parts of Atlanta, was predominantly Black. The park that my father had taken me to was, in turn, filled with nothing but Black faces. I promptly told my father that I didn't want to go play anymore. He was perplexed by this since I had been asking to go all morning.
When he asked why, I said "Because I didn't want to play with those mongrels." My father was horrified by this. Astounded, he asked why I would say such a thing. I told him it was because (and, I remember this vividly because I lied right to his face) I had been called one by some Black kids who were picking on me at school. Mind you, I got picked on alot. And, the kids in this particular instance of bullying had been Black. But, they hadn't called me a "mongrel." I just knew that in the books I had read, that mongrels were loathsome creatures. My father, wiping my tears away from my eyes, told me that I should never call anyone a cruel name, even if responding to the cruel words of another. He hugged me. We got out of the car. And, I went off and played with the kids who I had just called dogs of no definable breed. Children are resilient, in that way.
The first time I ever called anyone a nigger, I was in 7th grade. In sixth grade, I transferred to a Magnet School. One of the first magnet programs in Dekalb county. What started as a well intentioned attempt to nurture smart kids turned into a way to attract White kids to predominantly Black schools under the guise of specialized education programs. It was the opposite of the M to M, minority to majority, program which shuttled Black kids to predominantly White schools. This was the county’s way of reversing years of segregation and the financial hole that had been left by the White flight in the 80s. We all got up extra early to take two buses to school. One to the parking lots behind Dekalb College and another to the East Side of town. Your basic bureaucratic bullshit.
After years of being ostracized for being in "special programs", I had made the conscious decision to "be cool," and cast off the shackles of nerdom. That Christmas, my wish list read like a rapper starter kit. I asked for, and received, a collection of snapbacks — Hurricanes, Hoyas and Raiders, hoodies, and most importantly of all — I finally convinced my mother to get me my first pair of Nike's. I started sagging my pants. Shit, I even convinced the barber at Fantastic Sam's to take a crack at carving shock waves that circled my head like that jagged black stripe around Charlie Brown's yellow shirt. YO! MTV Raps had taught me well and being the good student I was, my transformation met with immediate, positive results. No one seemed to question my overnight presto-chango act from floppy-haired-school-patrol to Vanilla-Ice's-understudy. I immediately started getting the attention I had so badly craved. I got one, and then another girl friend (pretty Black girl's fascinated by this curious White boy who so badly wanted to be down). I was being dapped out by the resident students (read: Black kids). Kids who had previously ignored my previous incarnation. I was reveling in my newfound popularity and just when I thought things couldn't get any better — it happened. I was walking in hall after coming back from the bathroom, and one of the cool kids who was walking in the opposite direction with one of his cronies pointed at me and said, "That's my nigga right there."
Holy shit! This was it! I had been accepted!
Now, it is at this moment that I must stop recollecting and interject some context to this story.
I come from a White, middle class family. Both of my parents are college educated and me, and my sisters were looked after by grandmother, a retired English professor, who lived with us. The purpose of the personal history lesson is to inform you, dear readers, that I had never heard the word nigger / nigga uttered by a White person before. I shit you not. I had never heard the word uttered in a hateful manner. This might surprise you as I grew up in the South, but Decatur, while not free from racial prejudice, wasn't the kind of place where folks talked like that. I had no conception of the weight or history that came with its utterance. And it is with this blissful ignorance that I told a classmate who was giving me a hard time in French Class to "chill nigger/a." It's funny how an overblown ego and a sense of entitlement will get your ass in hot water quicker than a rabbit gets fucked. Needles to say, all the goodwill I had built disappeared as soon as that hard “R” fell from my lips. I went from popular to pariah in matter of one class change. Word of my slur spread around the school, and I quickly became public enemy number one. I started receiving threats from my classmates and eventually had to be sequestered. That day I learned what Paul Mooney meant when he so famously said, "Everybody wants to be a nigga, but nobody wants to be a nigger."
My math teacher was a tall, striking man reminiscent of Dominique Wilkins who drove a white Corvette and was in possession of every girl in the 7th grade's undying affection. It was he who, after having heard about the bounty on my head, and the circumstances which lead to it being placed there, immediately found me and dragged me out into the hallway by my shirt’s collar. His eyes were filled with a mixture of emotions: anger, sadness, confusion. He asked if it was true. I confirmed. He asked why I would say such a thing. I told him the truth: Because I thought I could. Because like the lie I told as a child, they called me that first. Only this time it was a term of acceptance! He just shook his head, and much in the same way my father had to explain (six years previously) to me that there are some words that cut too deep. He kept me in his classroom for the rest of the day. Luckily for me it was a Friday, and the weekend provided me with a temporary stay of execution. I returned to school that Monday — sure I was going to have my ass handed to me as soon as I entered the building — but time had indeed seemed to heal all wounds. Or, at least, had distracted everyone long enough to forget about how much they hated me. Things pretty much went back to normal and life moved on. Preteens are fickle, in that way.
The events of the day stayed with me and strongly informed my opinion of the use of nigger/a- for a time. I knew, that while I had achieved a modicum of acceptance in the community, I was not of the community. My earnest imitation of what I perceived to be Black would never change the fact that I still went home to the other side of town. That I would always be White. I continued to attend predominantly Black schools. I kept sagging my pants and listening to DJ Quik and Digital Underground. Not because I needed to be down as much, but because I had fallen in love with rap music. A neophyte Hip-Hop head, I devoured everything that I came in contact with. I wouldn't let myself rap certain lyrics though. I was definitely that dude leaving out the nigger/as in the verses. I graduated from High School and upon entering my freshman year at college immediately looked for the Black community to build my friendships. I even attended BSA meetings for a brief time and I even went to a super secret talk given by Louis Farakahn's former right hand man, Khalid Muhammad. I argued with White kids who thought that it was alright to use nigger/a because they weren't racist. But, once again my presumptions had gotten the better of me and I slowly drifted away from the the "Black" community and started hanging out with kids who wanted to smoke blunts and listen to Wu-Tang. Some of whom were Black, some of whom were White, all of whom did not give a fuck about the BSA or any other student association for that matter. None of us called each other nigger/a. It wasn't even an issue because it wasn't up for discussion.
Fast forward to the later half of the past decade. New town — Los Angeles, new friends — Some of the best people I've ever met, new lease on nigger/a. It's LA, and nigger/a get's batted about with the ease of a ping pong ball. In this newfound comfort zone, nigger/a had lost its bite. There was no taboo. We were beyond the hatred. It doesn't surprise me at all that Quentin Tarantino feels comfortable enough to write Django Unchained, and even use nigger/a in casual conversation. It's easy to be flippant when the truth is staring you square in the face. You become oblivious to the rest of the world living in LA. Well, at least, I did. I had totally capitulated and become the White boy that the idealistic, 20-year-old me would have railed against. I still am in certain circles. And there are some friends of mine who will still sock me, if they hear me utter the word.
Honestly, I hadn't really given it much thought one way or the other until recently, but then I listened to a song off of Sumkid's new project, “Dragon”. In “Above”, Sumkid raps:
This is the message to White kids who call me nigger,
Listen up and get the gravity of this here picture,
Til you're denied a job for which you're overqualified,
or find a place on Earth where racial lies don't cause divides,
Til you're the butt of jokes and ugly monkey slurs,
Til you can hear a Negro Spiritual and feel the words,
We ain’t on even terms, I'll toast you to your health,
But, I can't let you slide with words I barely use myself,
You gotta have respect for what my grandfather seen,
I know it’s hard to understand when every song sang got a nigga in it.
Click here to listen to the song.
Oh, that's right! There are 400 hundred years of hatred, pain and suffering behind the word. I left the South over a decade ago and because I wasn't confronted with it's blatant everyday racism, I had become disconnected from the impact that the word has and the damage that it is capable of doing. There is a brand new generation of kids growing up for whom the word will have little to no meaning, no point of reference. And there are some folks who will look at this and point to the fact that word is losing its power. While this may be the case, to ignore the word's genetic history, to strip and clip it like a runaway slave, spits in the face to those Black folks for whom racism is a very real part of their lives.
There's a quote from Plato:
“Be Kind for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Great Battle.”
Feel free to use whatever language you like, you're entitled to it. But, try and remember that the person you're calling “nigga” might just know what it feels like to be called a “nigger”. And no amount of good intention or reappropriation will change that fact. People still get hurt that way.
This story was published on February 19, 2013.