By Jesmyn Ward, August 7, 2013, 8:13 pm
There are moments from childhood that attract heat in our memories, some for their sublime brilliance, some for their malignancy. The first time that I was treated differently because of my race is one such memory.
As a child of the ’80s, my realization of what it meant to be black in Mississippi was nothing like my grandmother’s in the ’30s. For her it was deadly; it meant that her grandfather was shot to death in the woods near his house, by a gang of white patrollers looking for illegal liquor stills. None of the men who killed her grandfather were ever held accountable for the crime. Being black in Mississippi meant that, when she and her siblings drove through a Klan area, they had to hide in the back of the car, blankets thrown over them to cover their dark skin, their dark hair, while their father, who looked white, drove.
Of course, my introduction to racism wasn’t nearly as difficult as my mother’s, either. She found that being black in Mississippi in the late ’50s meant that she was one of a few who integrated her local elementary school, where the teachers, administrators and bus drivers, she said, either ignored the new black students or spoke to them like dogs.
I first learned what racism was on a long yellow school bus, when I was 6. We were riding far up in the country, in the same neighborhoods where my grandmother hid under blankets to hide her face, picking up white kids whose shirts always seemed too thin and their pants too short. That day on the bus, some of the children began telling me a story about their friends who rode other buses. Evidently, these friends had done something wrong. These friends, the children told me, told one another nigger jokes and sang short songs that all of us knew about “picking niggers.” As the children told me this, they looked at me as if I’d grown horns or turned green, and it was then that I realized that I was a nigger, and that those other kids were telling jokes about me, and singing songs about me. I said quietly, “That’s not right.” One of the children said: “We don’t say that word. They do.”
I couldn’t articulate it, but I felt menace. I felt an undercurrent of violence like the cold touch of deep water in a lake.
I felt it again in seventh grade. I was walking up the bleachers toward a group of girls who were in my class. They sat in a cluster, watching the boys playing dodge ball in the dim gym. It was hot. I said hello to them and sat down on a row of bleachers a bit higher than they were so I would have a good view of the game, when Eleanor, a girl with a wide, flat face and brown hair frosted blond and dry, turned to me and flipped her hair over her shoulder and said, “Why don’t you put nigger braids in my hair?”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“You know,” she said. “Nigger braids.” And then she flushed and smiled with pleasure. It was the first time I would see that expression, but it was not the last; I would see it on the face of every person who said such things to me afterward in junior high and high school: red face, too many teeth.
I think I said this: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then I stood and walked down the bleachers and left the dim gym for the bright, hot day, loud with bugs and green, which blinded me when I stepped outside. But I did know what she was talking about. That undercurrent of violence I felt when I was 6 was there again, present in the easy devaluation of the word “nigger,” and present in practical ways as well: I was alone and black and scrawny and so insecure I covered my teeth with my hand when I laughed, ashamed of my smile, and Eleanor had the power of her skin and her straight teeth and the crowd of girls who sat with her. And later, when a boy sat on my desk and told nigger jokes while the teacher was out of the room or another boy told me, “I don’t believe in the mixing of the races” on a class trip, I knew exactly what they were talking about as well.
I knew that it was that very history of violence — my dead great-great-grandfather’s ghost and all the young black men who died at the hands of people who thought they were lesser — that was the subtext. This was why I felt so threatened, so overwhelmed, why I was often silenced when people said these things to me.
But it wasn’t until I was older that I understood that the undercurrent of violence I’d felt was actually more than a deep, cold current — that it in fact exerted a strong undertow in the present. That it could take my great-great-grandfather, but also take young men like Oscar Grant III, shot to death by a transit officer in Oakland in 2009, like Trayvon Martin, like my only brother, killed by a hit-and-run drunken driver who was charged with leaving the scene of an accident but never with the crime of my brother’s death. That it could assert they were less in life and deny them justice after death as well. That living in a country where one group of people owned another group of people for some 250 years yielded a culture where one life was worth less than another. Again and again. Then and now.
In the end, I learned that all I could do against something so great and overwhelming, all those histories and years and lives and deaths and threats secreted like seeds, was to open my mouth and speak. I could not let it silence me as it had done when I was younger. There is power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight. A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed like roaches. It makes us acknowledge it. Confront it. And in confronting it, we rob it of some of its dark pull. Its senseless, cold drag. When we speak, we assert our human dignity. That is the worth of a word.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of the novel “Salvage the Bones” and the forthcoming memoir “Men We Reaped.”
Painting “No. 8” by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), 1964. http://www.dailyartfixx.com/2012/09/25/mark-rothko-1903-1970/