On Being Called “Nigger”: Open Letter to Naje

Dear Naje

I can’t tell you about the sorrow and deep regret I felt when you told me you had just been called a nigger.  We were just about ready to leave to meet you for dinner at the home of a friend when we received a phone call. It was you, crying, emotional, a white man in a dark red Toyota Camry with license plates beginning with BLK had just rolled down his window and yelled: “You could have moved up 10 inches so I could have pulled around you, you stupid, fucking nigger.”

I am sure you felt violated, shocked, and reminded of where you are today—in the “new” America that is supposed to be in the process of becoming “great” again. At 27-years old, you could not come up with words to say to him because you were in a state of shock. But you will remember for the rest of your life the contorted face and angry eyes of this 60-year old bigot (missing four front teeth), as he sped passed you nearly hitting your car yelling out for a second time, “You stupid, fucking nigger.”

What happened to you was unsettling and somewhat ironic. You were verbally assaulted in broad daylight on a crowded street in Atlanta, a city that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement. It happened near Little Five Points, one of the more liberal neighborhoods in town, less than a mile from where you attended a prestigious private school. Not in the exurbs or in middle or south GA where many white Georgians still proudly fly the Confederate flag. In the ATL.

My youngest daughter of two, we are nearing the year 2019, 156 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and 55 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If this can happen to you in the heart of Atlanta, then there is no place in this nation where you will be sheltered from this evil, this attack upon what the late actress and human rights advocate Ruby Dee called, your “somebodiness.”

I know for you, my millennial daughter, the shock and pain of it all must be doubly harrowing. You grew up with friends of all races, graduated from Wellesley College, one of the most diverse institutions of higher learning in the nation, and work as a clinical researcher at Emory University, my alma mater, considered by many as an enlightened “Harvard of the South.”

You believed your world was legitimate. You possessed hope grounded in a faith that if you treated others as you liked to be treated good would not only be returned to you but there would be broader benefits for society. Now your heart has been broken. Now you are less sure about America’s ability to cleanse itself or overcome its original sin of racism.

I remember first experiencing racism more than 50 years ago when I was about seven or eight years old. I was attempting to get on a ride at an amusement park in all places, Des Moines, Iowa, when the ticket taker called me “Darky.” This was in the late 1950s. It happened again a decade later in Westport, CT, when I was told by my friend’s father that I could not stay at his home for the Christmas holidays because I was black. Later, my wife and I, minding our own business, have been called nigger several times at Stone Mountain Park in DeKalb County and in downtown Atlanta.

It never ends. The micro-aggressions, the victim blaming that goes on, and the myth of reverse discrimination that Whites like to charge whenever black folks are in a position of authority.

Each time racism rears its ugly head, overtly or covertly, it stings and chips away at our belief in a society where character wins out over skin color. It is a sad testament that for too many children of color, encountering racial insult is somewhat a rite of passage, an initiation into a racialized society where no matter how high you rise, some white person of much lower status may attempt to bring you down by calling, or treating you like, a nigger.

The tragedy of all of this, my dear, is that your mother and I cannot not prevent such insults from happening to you nor can we adequately prepare you for these insults when they come.

It would not be a far stretched to link acts of racial hostility and aggression like you experienced to the climate in this country set by our president and those who provide him cover. I have to include his fellow travelers, the ones providing cover, because they lack the desire and courage to check 45 when he acts in a way contrary to the interest of our country. They wink and look the other way when they know he is exploiting racial tension for political advantage.

They have given permission for Whites, who for years have had their fears stoked by cowardly politicians, to say out loud what they have felt inside for a long time. They feel innately better than you by the fact of their whiteness and the privileges that stem from that sociological, if not, biological fact. Never mind your neuroscience degree from Wellesley and your many other accomplishments, to the bigoted missing tooth driver (oh how I hate he fits the stereotype), you were just a dumb nigger unworthy of human dignity and respect.

I am sorry my generation has not been able to bring about a better world for you, your sister, and others of your generation. Our country owes you more. If not a world where you are protected from insults and evil, at least a world where you believe tomorrow will be a brighter day.

The struggle continues!

Love always,

Dad

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “On Being Called “Nigger”: Open Letter to Naje

  1. A heart wrenching and painful experience that at some time in our lives as black Americans has had to endure and then move on with our dignity as a human being in tact. Just imagine how it was for the generation before the Boomers when the signs were visible stating clearly what white Americans felt about us. Did our parents and grandparents allow these cheap racist tactics to throw them off their game? No, not for a second. They not only survived but thrived! No matter what even treated as second class citizens we still know that we have first class minds.
    Shake it off and keep moving, but never forget, you matter in all the right ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jabari, I was shocked and saddened to read your beautiful but sad article. Naje is a strong young woman. Please tell her I am proud of her and that I love her. The only thing encouraging I can say is that I think there are fewer of those racist pigs than there used to be, but still way too many, as shown
    Charlottesville. I still use the wonderful article you wrote about the Atlanta Braves and the chopping and chanting back in the 90’s. Sadly that still goes on, but I read your article every year in my Indigenous Peoples studies classes. I can’t begin to tell you how much I respect you, Nisha, and Naje.
    Sincerely, Marty Hays

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Naje, I see you and love you and am so sorry for the knife you felt…it’s that horrible shock out of nowhere. I felt it, too, around your age when I got pulled over by a cop (rightfully in the sense that I was, indeed, speeding) in the Hamptons and got asked whose maid I was when they saw my last name. It’s not fair…and it’s not right….and it feels so much more intensely in your face right now in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nisha shared this with me today and as hard as it is to find the right words to match the depth of the pain you shared here, I know silence isn’t the right response either. This paragraph in particular stuck with me and trust that I’ll keep this close to my heart, mind and actions. “You believed your world was legitimate. You possessed hope grounded in a faith that if you treated others as you liked to be treated good would not only be returned to you but there would be broader benefits for society. Now your heart has been broken. Now you are less sure about America’s ability to cleanse itself or overcome its original sin of racism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Naje,
    Your father’s words touched my heart describing the experience you went thru having an angry white man go as low as it gets by showing his true bigotry, by yelling at you for getting in his way. As much as I pray for that type of hatred to go away, I also remind myself that in 2018 we have wonderful women and men speaking up with encouraging acts and words, like your father and of course Michelle Obama “when they go low we go high ”
    Please keep the faith, we need women like you to be your authentic selves.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Naje,
    More of us are sickened by this story than you will ever know. This country has failed you by failing to create a culture of integrity, respect and kindness. And it has failed to educate those hate-filled lowlifes. I wish I had been there to photograph that monster, post his image, and be your ally. I am working to nurture the hope, in my own heart and in my students, that it will get better.

    With great affection…Natalie

    Like

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