Hey, I want to tell you a story.
Do you remember that car I bought my junior year of high school?
Yeah, my Buick Skylark the color of bloody mud.
I’m not sure what attracted me to that thing. It looked like something driven by a grandparent’s army buddy visiting from Nebraska. I liked it’s old look though, sturdy as secrets. It was also in my $1,000 price range, so that sealed the deal.
You probably don’t remember where I went the night I bought it. Don’t feel bad. You don’t remember because I didn’t tell you.
Around 6 p.m. that evening my brand new Buick Skylark died. I was rolling toward a stop sign downtown. I went to brake and the car took it as permission to heave a final exhale.
It was still light outside but, as you and your friends might say, it was dark inside the car.
I couldn’t wait to drive my friends around the block in my lame-but-cool-because-it-moved ride. Maybe we’d go get ice cream before I drove back home. But then my car died and things got weird, because this was the scene: Two 17-year-old white girls in the front, three 17-year-old black boys in the back of a brand new car in the middle of a town bloated and burpy about racial discrimination being a thing of the past, despite the fact that it was overwhelmingly segregated.
Have you ever thought about that?
I didn’t consider it either until recently. Why do most of the black people in our rural county live in town? Do you think they all just like living there, don’t want a big backyard? Or do you think maybe they’re wary because out here are people who say “N**** Toes” at a barbecue and then immediately mock PC Culture for being sensitive?
Anyway. So there I was, completely panicked about my car. This thing was brand new! If I just spent a grand of my hard-earned money on a car that drove me around for a total of maybe four hours, I was going to spit.
The metal key, which felt like freedom just seconds ago, began to disintegrate under my fingertips. I turned it in the ignition. Three times. Four times. Five. It felt as thin and worthless as paper.
“Fuck!” I laughed nervously. I needed to think. To breathe.
“I’ll give it a few seconds,” I said.
I rested my hand on the side of my driver’s seat and let the gray velvet pool around my palm, hoping its softness would calm me down. From the rearview mirror I watched my friend sitting behind me start to fidget. He kept looking around, checking to see who was outside and craning his neck around to see if any cars were coming. His quiet anxiety traveled like plague down the line of guys in my backseat.
I had never heard them be silent before.
You know, back then, I thought they were just getting embarrassed, which, of course, embarrassed me. And nothing kicks you into action as a 17-year-old quite like social shame. I wrapped my fingers tight around that stupid metal key, leaned forward and twisted metal hard into the ignition. The car squealed like a pig being held down for shots, but I kept the key turned sideways. This thing was going to start. This engine was going to turn. This car was going to help me escape.
And then it did.
Everyone in the car laughed, cheered. We drove off to get that ice cream, but not before I saw two of the guys eye each other a silent look of relief.
Now, I don’t know what my friends were feeling or thinking, and white people have spoken enough for them by this point probably, so I don’t want to pretend like I know. But it took a decade to go by before I realized they might have been scared. What was just a car ride with a friend to them, could mean something very different to someone else. To someone who was racist. Or, worse, someone in power who was a racist. Both of whom they’d already had to deal with in their short lives.
That same school year I wasn’t allowed to go to prom with one of these friends because of “what others might think.” I’m assuming those “others” were you, people like you, and the adults who used this as their excuse. Saying things like “it’s because of what others might think” was an easy way for them to disregard their own prejudice.
Listen, I know you grew up in a time when “everyone used that word,” and for that I feel bad for you. I feel bad you had to carry that hate around in your little body, weightily passed down and set on to your small shoulders like a dead deer mantlepiece.
But I feel way worse for the people who grew up black in that. Can you imagine kissing the toes of your baby and trying to reconcile all that innocence with the fact that there are people just down the road who derogatorily compare those perfect toes you love to things they eat? How would you reconcile the fact that maybe some of your ancestors couldn’t even get this close to their baby’s fingers and toes? Never got to rock them to sleep?
Look, I know I’m not perfect either. I still have so much to learn about the unique aspects of black people’s suffering in this country and my role in keeping it alive, too. There’s so much I don’t know and don’t understand. Like, I think it’s sad I only just learned that Harriet Tubman was made, as a young child, to stay up all night watching her master’s baby; if Harriet was caught sleeping because, you know, she was six and wasn’t allowed to sleep, she was whipped and beaten as if she were a grown man.
I can’t help but think of the kids I know and love — your kids I know and love — when I hear about her childhood. It makes me want to do everything in my power to erase that past. Never saying such a demoralizing word isn’t me being PC, it’s me doing the least I can do for all the children who have been crushed because of the violence that word props up — and that includes the me and you who were once children too.
But you already know about slavery. You already know about where that word comes from. And, if you already know that and still think it’s funny to use, I guess I don’t really know how to get you to never use such a destructive word again.
But please don’t ever use it around me.
Bring out the veggie tray when you’re done in here.
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