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Nigger in Literature Part 1

I have loved books since I was a toddler. My father said that if I loved him…I would read…and so I did. Growing up, I could always be found with a book in hand or close by. I fell asleep with books in my hands, holding my place in the text with stiff fingers but a firm hand. I read when I ate, barely looking at my food, and my Grandma would often remark, “Margaret..you will probably eat a roach one day because you’re always staring in a book!”  I adore reading..what can I say?

I still remember when I first came across the word Nigger in a book. I was in the fourth grade and I had “borrowed” a book from my mother’s friend downstairs. I promise you I returned it. My mother would visit and talk smack, and when they turned their backs, I would swipe through and hide in my pants whatever books I could get my 9 year old little fingers on. I think she might have known because she always had juicy books lying around. One afternoon, I copped “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. Later that night, by the time my eyes got to the line “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”, my little body  was almost ready to explode. None of my Little House on Prairie Books, textbooks, or fairytales had language like this. It almost seemed wrong actually seeing it in print, but by the time I got lost in Janie’s story, I became acclimated to it and pretty much forgot about it.

Until the second time it happened.

I was in the 9th grade at Hunter College High School and experiencing the “cultural mulatto-ness” described by Trey Ellis in the “New Black Aesthetic”.  I was the only black child from the inner city, in an English class of white gifted and privileged children, and while it could be uncomfortable at times being on display, I protected myself by writing great papers but avoiding class discussion. When we read “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, I let my classmates run the dialog, no way was I going to discuss race out loud with them. On the third day of the conversation, my beautiful black English teacher, that I had begun to admire, turned to me and said “Ok so Margaret, tell the class what it felt like the first time somebody called you a nigger..”

You could have heard a piece of lint drop.  16 pairs of blue, green, and brown startled eyes locked upon me, and I wished I could have dissolved and melted through the carpet. I got really angry about being put on the spot, so I narrowed my eyes and coldly said, “Well no one has called me that until now. Give me a minute.” She grabbed her chest, gasped loudly, and for a second I think I saw what a physical apology looked like. She apologized more profusely after class and I never told on her. What could I have said anyway? She and I both knew that in my working class neighborhood, me and my friends said nigger all the time. My mother said it, my aunts said it, me and my cousins often cracked up about the fact that our religious Grandmother tried not to cuss but would call somebody a nigger in a heartbeat.

But that was different. And what she did was different. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. But it just was.

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Discussion

3 comments for “Nigger in Literature Part 1”

  • http://twitter.com/Lady_Xandria LadyXandria

    My jaw literally dropped when I read this. I’m still in shock actually. How dare she??? It was awkward enough being one of a handful of chocolate chips in that building. We were adjusting to sooo much. But it’s all a lesson, I guess. As my mom’s ex once wrote: “There’s all kinds of free.”

    Ahh… Zora! I love her work. She’s one of my favorites.

    I love how you’re adding a personal touch to this. That always makes it better =) I’m curious as to why your initial reaction was that is was wrong to read something like that in print.

    Can’t wait to see where this goes! Keep writing!

  • Anonymous

    Something tells me you know the teacher I’m talking about…wait…right…there was only one Black English teacher…LMAO

    That year was hell…to go from Barratto to that??? I was like what in the Dante is the ish??LOL

    Somehow my true life always ends up better than fiction…I just have to write it…

    Those little chocolate chips…we keep striving don’t we? And its worse for us Post Soul babies in my opinion…even today…

  • http://%/yzyyslk106 Maurice

    reverie@summing.emptied” rel=”nofollow”>.…

    good….

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