WARNING: This piece quotes a racial slur
If you’ve read my blog much at all, you know that I lived my early childhood in a small town in Arkansas. I don’t really know much about the history of the town. I know that it was named after a a prominent oak tree. I know that a good portion of the town is black. I know that there were plantations worked by slaves there which later gave way to tenant farms.
But I didn’t know much about that as a kid. I knew that there were a couple of large antebellum mansions which I enjoyed exploring because I knew the families that lived there. And I knew that all of my black friends lived in another neighborhood. But I didn’t think much of it until one summer day.
Every summer, the Yankee grandson of my twin’s first grade teacher visited town for awhile. He talked differently. He played a game called soccer. He used the word “sucks” a lot, although I thought he was saying “socks” because of his accent. My brother and I really liked playing with that kid. We all lived near the park, so we played there often. And we spent a lot of time playing “two below”, which was the town’s word for touch football, in his grandmother’s yard. The only fight I ever had with my twin was on that lawn when we had a rough encounter playing two below.
But every kid’s favorite activity in town was bikes. It was at the height of the BMX racing craze and we all envisioned ourselves as racers and stunt riders. It was a different time. We could ride anywhere, even as 7 or 8-year-olds. I can’t imagine my young nephew riding his bike all over town without supervision. Child services might take interest. But we rode from border to border of that town.
One day, the three of us were about to head east on our bikes, and the old school teacher, his grandmother, called after us. She gave a warning which didn’t really make sense to me at first. But as it sunk in, I realized that there was more to this town than I had realized.
She called, “You boys stay away from Nigger Town! You understand me?”
Surely I’d heard the n-word before. Perhaps someone had used the old rhyme Eenie Meanie Minie Moe with the original rhyme “Catch a n-word by the toe.” But I never thought anything of it at the time. I was taught that “tiger by the toe” was the better way of saying it. I just didn’t know why. But this was the first time I’d ever really heard the n-word. I know now that what I felt was that #blacklivesmatter. Each of those precious little boys and girls should have mattered to that teacher; mattered enough for her grandson to ride his bike through their neighborhood.
I don’t remember if we obeyed her command, but I do know that every time after that when I visited one of my best friends in the all-black neighborhood I wondered. I wondered why I shouldn’t be there. I wondered what my brother’s teacher, who taught black kids, who led the 23rd Psalm with them, could be so afraid of. I felt betrayed in a way. She had taken something away from me. I didn’t fully understand it, but I felt insulted on my friends’ behalf. It didn’t deter me, though. I always felt welcome in the other side of town.
I sensed no difference between the white kids and the black kids in my school. I never knew of a white kid refusing to hang out with a black kid because of his skin. Maybe I was sheltered. Maybe my friends already knew to stay out of N-word Town. Maybe they already had been taught to call black people that name. I’m sure there were some, but I still like to think (or I like to hope) that there is something special about that southern antebellum town; that it is a town which has since left it’s racist legacy behind when old school teachers passed away. If it hasn’t, then I pray with all of my heart that it one day will.