“They sound like niggers,” my mother said over the phone the day my husband moved out of our apartment.
I had relayed the day’s events to her. The sister-in-law who called specifically to curse me out. The mother-in-law spitting incendiary comments as my husband glared at me before struggling to fill his U-Haul with the squeaky mattress we’d shared for the past seven years.
The use of “nigger,” in this case, was to further note the chasm between us and them. My mother still liked my husband, soon-to-be ex. She wished him well and understood his mother’s defense of him was a protective thing. “That’s her child,” she added.
But still, there was the N-word. Being Black I wasn’t unaware of its meaning. Though I can’t place where or how I first heard it. This term was rarely used in the household I grew up in, though profanity was a staple. Perhaps the word is so ingrained in African-American DNA I came into the world with it already in my vocabulary.
Comedian Chris Rock maintains one of the more blunt explanations of the separation of Black people: “There are Black folks. And there are niggers. Fe fi fo, I hate a nigger.” I heard his routine with my mother and an older cousin as we sat in my cousin’s car in the Aiken Mall parking lot waiting for my grandmother’s shift to end, all the while laughing at Rock’s declaration booming from the CD player. We sank back in our seats and sighed attempting to catch our breaths because we understood the deeper meaning of Rock’s statement. Even as a teen first hearing this joke—Rock pacing back and forth on stage, his initials blazing in neon lights behind him—I got his message and began to understand I also held these classifications in my own mind.
There’s a divide between all people, races, sexes, classes, and so on. I do believe there are instances when one looks at that woman, that man of their age, orientation, race and cringes at the assumption that they make us look bad. “I’d never say this to my White friends but I’ll say it to y’all, we Dominicans are loud.” “Look at that Negro…” “That’s the equivalent of White trash right there.” “I’m sorry but she was your typical Puerto Rican.” “I’m Jewish and even I can’t stand Jews sometimes.” All of the above are statements from friends and acquaintances critiquing their own, reflecting that this type of commentary runs the gamut. Representation in film, TV, music, across media can cater to a stereotype making it seem a norm. And the way a person speaks, dresses, acts/gestures, regards others, their overall life choices that we are not feeling whatsoever can potentially leave a bad mark on an entire group by extension.
Yet, “nigger” is a whole other category, the extreme case of ignorance, laziness, and a proclamation to what a person who is “less than” emulates. Nowadays it is attributed to more than just Black people, yet Blacks will be the first to come to mind, especially if you look up the definition of the N-word in the current Merriam Webster’s. Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word charts the origins of the N-word. It stems from the Latin word negri to niger meaning simply black and from then on took a turn for the worst in the United States morphing with different variations and spellings. Where the switch happened from niger to nigger and took on primarily negative connotations is uncertain, Kennedy states, yet by the early nineteenth century the N-word became solidified as insult.
# # #
“Let me break it down for you baby,” a man said to me once, “There’s ‘nigger’ and there’s ‘nigga.’ We use ‘nigga’ and have made it a form of affection. ‘Nigger’ is the word White people gave us.”
The truth of this statement is something I saw years earlier. I was no longer a child but a pre-adolescent when “nigger” became part of the day-to-day vernacular heard around me. Once my mother and I became nomads of Queens County moving from apartment to apartment I often found myself in new schools. I lived in areas like Briarwood, Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Flushing, and Jamaica again, where I was introduced to new populations of people including Filipinos, Haitians, Colombians, and West Indians shouting it to one another, not at one another. Hand gestures were superseded by hugs where chests met and pats on the back showed familiarity. Nigger, or really its variation, wasn’t a bad word in these instances. It wasn’t a word to be ashamed of or upset about depending on whose mouth it came out of.
“What up nigga?” “What up my nigga?” “Nigga you crazy.” These were a grab-bag of greetings for my classmates as well as for some I currently hear on the subways going to/from work. It’s especially embedded in the genres of music labeled hip-hop and rap. Both “nigger” and “nigga” utilized in the singer’s material reflecting hostility of one group to another or the bond between people of color. There is a comfort level in this word that has extended since I was a child to the point that the backlash has been ever so slightly watered down insulting those who fought against it.
As my classmates threw this greeting into the air, sometimes quoting the latest Puff Daddy or Notorious B.I.G or Lil’ Kim lyrics—not so much that of N.W.A or Snoop Doggy Dog due to east coast–west coast rivalry—I found the term never landed on me. I was quiet, shy, and academically inclined, a nerd if you will. I found my tribe in the avid readers, those who enjoyed school enough to make extra effort yet also knew how and when to cut corners. There was the divide I hadn’t acknowledged, simply understood. I wasn’t a “nigga” in any capacity. In fact I was called “White girl” by some with disdain or in jest. Whatever, I thought at the time.
It was evident that who I was as Black compared to my peers determined the attention we received. This resulted in sterner lectures to one group and leniency towards others. My treatment by my instructors led me on the path to feel somewhat righteous. I wasn’t like them. I wasn’t shouting at friends down the hallway. I didn’t pick on peers bonier and meeker and lighter than myself on 3pm buses lined up outside of our high school. I stood by as an observer. A kind of sociologist watching the habits of this group designating each other as “niggas.” I was student council president. I was one of the Black girls given awards because, as my mother was often told, I was “so well spoken” and “so polite.” I was a different class of Black by various people’s standards. Because of this I felt nothing for the word.
A co-worker at a movie theatre I worked at from 1999-2000, a short Filipino who “acted Black” as some would say because of his overtly baggy dress, his penchant for Timberland boots, his love for hip-hop music and ladies with a curvaceous backside said, “What up my nigga?” in the staff room. The staff room was a dirtied stairwell with uniforms draped over railings and sticky residue on the walls and floor from free popcorn and soda obtained behind the concession stand. It took repeated attempts from him before I realized he was talking to me.
“Huh?” I said.
“What up my niggy?” he said varying it up.
“I don’t answer to that,” I replied. Not entirely upset because this was him. We accepted his attempts at grating on your nerves or fitting in as “quirks.” That’s just Marc being “quirky.”
“You’re Black,” he stated as though I wasn’t aware.
“So I can call you that.”
This was an educational moment I did not partake in. I hadn’t considered that, to Marc, all Black people fit in with this “new and improved” seemingly “friendlier” identifier to the N-word.
I heard about Marc greeting another Black co-worker the same way. The co-worker was a tall, muscular guy who pointedly told him “Don’t call me that.” He stopped. I assume in that moment Marc comprehended the severity of our co-worker’s response, in addition to the height differential between them, that not all Black people saw the term as one of endearment and camaraderie.
# # #
For my grandmother the word “nigger” was ingrained in her life as a child in South Carolina in the 1930s and 40s. She and her brother moved from the south to Long Island soon after graduating high school. Years later she’d go back to S.C. to visit the bulk of family that remained there, on occasion with her young children in toe. My grandmother was raised by her grandparents for most of her life in Aiken County. She told me that during her childhood the Ku Klux Klan marched past her home on Saturday evenings. With their arrival, houses that had been lit darkened and the torches held by those swathed in white filed past these homes and down the road until they looked like fireflies in the blanket of night.
During one of my grandmother’s visits back home to S.C. she encountered a White woman in a store while shopping. The vibe in this sense and at this time wasn’t so much that they were equals when making purchases together but that the hierarchy was well understood. It didn’t matter whether my grandmother was in the store to serve or as a fellow consumer. Also, keep in mind that this is the South with a capital ‘S.’ A place where people regularly start up conversation for the heck of it. It’s a cultural norm I still have yet to grasp whenever I visit my family there. Like my grandmother, I was raised with the understanding that I was to respond when spoken to, particularly by my elders and especially when it came to White people. In a banter that became more forced than friendly this woman asked my grandmother banal questions about herself and her life which lead to my grandmother relaying that she resided north. My grandmother had been answering the woman’s questions nicely enough with “yes” or “no.” By the end of this conversation the woman wanted to know how long my grandmother had been in New York City. The answer was that she had been in Long Island for almost two years. According to my grandmother the woman noticed the change, the fact that my grandmother did not say “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” to note the difference in hierarchy between my grandmother as Black and this woman as not Black. Apparently, my grandmother said to me, Long Island had had a bad influence on her.
I asked my grandmother if she was called the N-word in her youth. Not even thinking on it she replied, “Lots of times.” The word didn’t faze her. For so many decades in the twentieth century it was considered an “appropriate” label. Nigger wasn’t who she was yet it was a descriptor. She was Black. She was dark-skinned. She had hair pulled back and hot combed. She was most obviously not part of the majority and in lieu of another way to categorize her she was, therefore, a nigger—by U.S. Census standards her classification was “Negro.” I asked her if this lessened when she came up north. “A bit, but I’m sure they were thinking it.”
Being born and raised in NYC I hadn’t quite caught on with racism as a reality or the fact that Black people were seen as less than, different yes, but not “less.” I was surrounded by Black and Caucasian people with additional cultures thrown in as I got older and my mother and I moved around. The first eight years of my life I was shielded when going to school where kids in general could be cruel, to church, and wherever I was allowed in a two-block radius of my home without adult supervision. I knew racism existed but it seemed a concept, a part of the past a la miniseries events like Roots or per my readings and lessons of history that included atrocities like the U.S. edition of Bloody Sunday and the Holocaust. I grew up with The Cosby Show. Don Johnson’s partner was Black on Miami Vice. Black people were main characters on All My Children! There were Black dolls including a child-sized Cricket with hair akin to Shirley Temple. Barbie had Black friends too! So I didn’t initially notice the subtle ways it came about. The treatment of students, how light skin was revered, how I wished I was Stephanie Tanner on Full House rather than Rudy Huxtable. The distance placed between me and certain family members by those who raised me steering me clear of certain “types” of Black people or how compliments to my poise were somewhat backhanded when coming from my Caucasian teachers. As far as I was concerned in my youth racism was a plot point in media more than in my life, that is, until the blinders had to come off.
At the movie theatre I worked at in Fresh Meadows, Queens I specialized in the box office, a kind of fish bowl extension of the main theatre where you’d be forgotten if you didn’t make a fuss about getting a break. I was training a friend of mine, an African-American guy I knew from high school. To the left of us was a diner with customers streaming in and out and to the right was the line for the Hampton Jitney with college students and families waiting to be taken to nicer summer pastures than Queens had to offer.
A woman arrived with her son. He looked a bit old to pay the kid’s price. For children and senior fares we only had the physical to go on unless someone volunteered the information and more often I would trust a senior admitting to being older than a parent proclaiming their child younger.
“Sorry miss, you’ll have to pay adult price for him,” I told her.
The woman went from not regarding me while rummaging in her purse to staring dead at me through the glass. (Glass that was not bullet proof I was warned when I first arrived on the job.) She had an accent, not of Queens or New York, one I could not pinpoint. She was slight and not much taller than me but her son came up to the counter reflecting, to me at least, that he was perhaps bordering on his teens. She began to argue and I argued back while my trainee and her son stood by silent. We went back and forth until she relented, paying me for two adult tickets but not without speaking her mind: “Stupid nigger should go back to Harlem where you belong.”
Momentarily debilitated by her comment I went on automatic and slid her tickets through the hole separating personnel from customers.
“Yeah, you have a nice fuckin’ day,” I said in a snide tone.
In this standoff the lady and I both had witnesses. My friend who was learning how to deal with customers and the gist of the box office with me. And a child watching his mother call a young woman the N-word with so much venom the Plexiglass that “protected” me from the outside world felt it.
Three seconds go a lot slower than you think. In that time I snapped back to reality and told my friend to stop that woman and not allow her to go inside. By the time he ran in, her ticket had been ripped and she and her child were already on their way in the theatre to enjoy the show as the song during previews declared audiences should.
An inter-departmental caucus on my reaction occurred after my shift ended. On how I under-reacted or acted too late. I was shocked, yes, but hurt? Not sure. Ironically I went to school in Harlem at the time. When I told my co-workers what happened I said that I had never been called a nigger before.
One co-worker looked at me, all of us matched in our black slacks and checkered tops with the red splash of the company’s logo on our breast pocket, and said to laughter, “Nigga please.”
A manager-in-training came up to me, more upset than she had a right to be I felt, cheeks puffing like crazy and eyes ablaze saying, “I can’t believe you let that woman call you that.”
“Let?” My eyebrows quirked up.
I don’t fully recall the rest of her speech, but my irritation continued to burn through until I got home. Once there I sat unsure where my anger lie. Uncertain whether I was more offended by the fact that the woman spewing her vitriol thought her statement would hurt me or that she figured because I was Black and being “difficult” that I deserved to be smacked with the worst term she could think of. I also thought about what my pseudo-boss said about my handling of the situation recalling years ago when I was thirteen—cocky and self-assured in my ability to deal with things—I had told an older cousin I’d run after someone and make them apologize if they called me the N-word. He sputtered at my ignorance.
“What are you going to do?” he pushed, “Chase down someone who just called you a nigger from their car?”
Six or seven years later when finally confronted with this scenario I morphed into a statue, frozen by the situation, wanting to search around and say, “Did that actually just happen?” as though I was immune in the Northeast from prejudices that festered everywhere. And once I comprehended that this was reality, that this did happen, and that, most importantly, she was referring to me that I started to move and gathered that I was not happy. But there was also the fact that there was nothing I could do. She’d gotten away with it whereas I was left to contemplate the situation while having others dictate how I should’ve handled it. I knew I wasn’t a nigger, yet this was the first time I had to consider that others may not see me as an individual but as a part of a larger set of beliefs on race they refused to adjust their own thoughts from. Consider this not just an anecdote but a reality check. Race Lesson 101: There are Black people and there are niggers, but not everyone knows the difference.
# # #
“We’re taking the word ‘nigger’ back,” my (ex-)husband said to me once.
“Why would we want it back?” I responded.
In some ways Black people are taking the N-word back. Beyond “the greeting,” the equivalent of “my brother” became “my nigga.” But there’s also the example from Chris Rock, the same as my mother had said on what would soon be my last days as a married woman.
The Christmas before last I heard my grandmother go on a subdued tirade about her social security being lowered. She had her suspicions this was thanks to one of my cousin’s—the same relative who questioned my chase-down tactics.
“If I find out it’s him. I will act like a nigger.”
At her declaration I briefly looked up from my computer. Like with my mother a few years prior I had never heard the word come out of her mouth. Once again, I understood this was how they learned to verbalize those we perceived to be deserving of the term and its negativity. Ghetto, loud, audacious, ignorant, “trifling,” low-class, violent, down-right pissed, short-tempered, narrow-minded, you name it, throw it into the “nigger” pot.
My grandmother and mother grew up with the term as “fact.” Nigger transformed to Negro to Colored to Black to African-American to the all-encompassing People of Color (PoC) in the span of a century. But the fact is that nigger was never a good thing. As time moved on; as movements began, faded, resurfaced; the word was not an all-around unifier, and it was certainly not my family spread out between Long Island, New Jersey, South Carolina and who knows where else.
My grandmother’s choice of word made me think about the men in low-slung pants encouraging a loop in their walk while shouting across the street to their brethren. The man who cursed me out because I asked “could you please turn your TV down” and threatened to throw water in my face. The cursing at children and smacking them for crying then mocking them for continuing to do so after punishment was administered. The classmates denouncing my Blackness because I knew Nirvana not B.I.G lyrics. The cache of cringe-worthy moments where I sat quietly, silently seething at news reports showing dark-skinned faces and continuous yelling, cursing, butchering of the English language and belittling not as a joke but because it uplifted the party doling out these images and thought “Goddamn it you’re making us look bad.” I’ve thought the same of girls shouting out of buses to boys to perform cunnilingus on them, but when the color is shared, specifically the designation of Black is shared, sometimes I felt the eyes turning my way along with the silent thought of “See that’s just how they are.” I’ve heard the dismissal of a Black homeless person being a “norm” because we’re the worst off, the idlest, the most in need of a handout since it’s in “Black people’s nature” and while it’s a type of “I can say shit about my family but you can’t” situation there’s also the knowledge, a slow understanding as it came to be, that when I was shaking my head at the Black teens making fun of a Caucasian teen because they had numbers on their side that I may not have said “nigger” but I thought it.
# # #
My mother was a single mother. She is the portrait of put together. My mother does not leave the apartment without make-up on. Her clothes are vibrant and dry cleaned. She has worked since she was fourteen years old and not missed a day if necessary. Her hairstyles are trendy and she is an utmost professional on the job, laughing even when jokes aren’t funny and smiling even when people aren’t acting their best.
At a particularly hard time, my mother and I lived apart for a few weeks when I was in high school. I stayed with a friend of hers in Queens while my mother resided with another friend in Brooklyn. When we reunited we were on welfare. My meals were primarily from school. Our bathroom—in the basement of a house—clogged up, the waste we flushed down coming back up on a couple of occasions, leaving us without a toilet for a day or days at a time. Emergency situations had me squat over a hole where our drainage was taken away as though we resided in a nation whose practices we were not familiar with.
My mother had worked hard to never be in this situation, yet it happens. My mother was most upset by this time because of the loss of control, but also how this new title of “welfare recipient” seemed to take her down a notch. I remember as a child just starting to get the hang of penmanship I wrote my name “Jenifur” on a birthday card to my father. I wrote it phonetically not realizing the inaccuracy of my spelling my own name. I mean, it sounded correct. But while I thought it was a nice first try my mother went ballistic. She fumed that spelling my own name wrong, as a child of five years, signified ignorance especially to my father. She bought another card and told me, through tight lips and with a stern voice, to “do it again” correctly this time. So I understood how being perceived as one of them who needed government assistance was a chink in an armor she worked very hard to construct. She couldn’t provide for her child on her own wages because there were none during a rocky economy with steady layoffs. She had to stand in line outside the unemployment office waiting to have a set amount of food stamps and cash doled out to her, the latter rarely being enough. She had to qualify her needs, explain why she was out of work, and what she was doing about it as though she had a parole officer. My mother wore sunglasses and pulled her coat hood over her head on those days, facing away from the street as though she were a celebrity and didn’t want paparazzi to recognize her. She didn’t always tell me where she was going. Money appeared and nothing more would be said on the matter.
The shame of being seen as a “moocher,” or really her assumptions of what others saw her as, pushed my mother even harder to find a job as quickly as she could. She got an associate’s degree and paralegal certification. We were on public assistance for a few months before she found a job again and the economy appeared to recover in Bill Clinton’s second term. We moved out from the basement to above-ground level. Our toilet was always intact after that. I didn’t have to get up an hour earlier to walk part of the way to school because of unreliable public transportation and being unable to pay even half price for bus fare.
I learned from my mother’s awareness of perception. From the way she switched from cursing to having the softest voice in the world you couldn’t fathom her dropping F-bombs. I watched how she held herself, how much she read, how when men attempted to hit on her on the street her eyes relayed “don’t even” behind her shades. There was a way to act, a way to talk, a way to be as a person if you were to be respected and that’s something you learn inherently not by any kind of instruction but by osmosis.
# # #
“I just worry about how you’ll be perceived…by them.” A Black friend said to me when it came to dealing with White people.
While I codeswitch every day of my life, I tend to be no-nonsense or what I often tell people working with me: blunt. I get the job done as professionally as I can while also showing appreciation to those that help. At the start of my professional career I emulated my mother in many ways. I turned on the smile and held it to high-wattage levels until that person was far enough to not be a concern. I did much overtime unpaid. I went above and beyond until I saw that all that hard work didn’t necessarily guarantee anything if there wasn’t support behind it. So, I continued to work hard, hone my skills, become better at my chosen profession. Once I became more confident in my abilities, once I knew that others recognized I was more than capable, once I received a couple promotions I will say I had the audacity to think that there was no need to continually massage egos and be saccharine in nature. I went from “Overly eager & I’ll say yes to anything” to “Happy to help but FYI I’m going to be upfront if we encounter anything problematic.”
Here’s a scenario for you. A boss, an older White male with an impressive mop of gray hair, asked “Can we talk for a minute? In my office.”
The cold air he constantly complained about hits as soon as you stepped into the room. You sat down, opting not to close the door, comfortable should others nearby hear this conversation.
This boss went on to compliment and said, “You’re so smart.” You girded yourself for the inevitable “but.”
“But you have a tone.”
You maintained a straight-ahead stare eyeing the NY Rangers flag this manager has propped up on his wall. A team he asked at each departmental meeting during hockey season if anyone had seen how the team’s doing though he knew full-well no one in this department had any interest in hockey let alone sports in general. Now, if he brought up Battlestar Gallactica or fonts there may have been a more active response.
“Uh-huh,” may be how you responded while staring at the red, white, and blue.
“When it comes to that, I want you to think about how you come off to others.”
That’s when your eyes may have slid to this boss. A man who cursed at people over the phone with his door open before slamming the receiver down. A man who wrote an email to the whole company in response to not being interested in participating in Secret Santa by saying “I’d rather die.” A man who told a vendor that a mistake they made that you said via email was absolutely unacceptable added to the chain with, “That was a bonehead move.” And, if you’re say me in this situation, you considered if anyone waved him into their office. If someone told him to take a seat and started in like a writing workshop with the positive before delving into the critique while he stared at whatever was plastered on their walls as he was told to consider how this made him look to others. You wondered if he was called “aggressive” for his actions or if it was seen as just a “quirk” like co-workers past. And, if you’re still me in this instance, you may wonder what the term “aggressive,” when used, may be code for.
I have come to second guess my actions and wording while at the same time feeling my defensiveness build inside via a rumbling in my stomach ready to erupt. I’ve become hyperaware when my upfront nature ekes out in a meeting at work or in one-on-one conversation with someone I may have just met or known for ages. When my sternness may be seen not as being firm but as combative and I wonder if the person on the other end is seeing me as the ABF (counterpart to the angry black male). Some friends and co-workers have said, “Well, squeaky wheel gets the oil.” While notes of caution have come from people of color and not of color along with worries of how “I’ll be seen.” And, regardless of our hues, I can’t help but question if they are viewing me as something that much worse because I am female but more so because I am Black. My Black friends and I have sat and commiserated over a range of beverages, enjoying our time together because “We get it.” We understand that to be Black is to have a target on your back the minute your voice loses any sense of gregariousness or “please” or “thank you” is omitted from your email. But there’s also that raise of the eyebrow at your brethren to watch out now. Be careful. Monitor that tone. Check what you say and how you say it. And maybe those friends who had your back one moment may also have the N-word straddling their thoughts when they see things as going out of line. It’s another kind of paranoia for me when I consider if I’m being—here’s that word again—“difficult.” It is then that I see myself from the perspective I have been on thinking “Goddamn it, you’re making us look bad” and consider whether I should reel it back a little.
Judgment remains. Those expectations of ignorance sting. I am more aware of this now as a thirty-six year old divorcee. I am more aware of this as someone who has ridden the bus with other people so rowdy people start to self-segregate. I am more aware of this as a woman who’s had people anticipate one thing before I even opened my mouth and divulged later, when comfortable, their original expectations of someone “like me.”
I have not said “nigger” and meant it in a way to separate me from them. It is still not a part of my personal lexicon, though it is a word I hear when I happen to go outside my door or, when I read an especially dated book, it will be there in black type on an eggshell page. “Nigger” is accompanied by auto tune should I click on a specific radio station or have it pop up in a Spotify playlist. It may be dubbed from a reality show I zone out on. Years ago Al Sharpton attempted to “bury” the N-word and I thought then just as I think now, “That word isn’t going nowhere.” And it isn’t, but the meaning continues to vary, to divide, to reflect the stigma of many years pointed directly at a particular group of people I happen to be a part of and not be a part of at the same time.
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, was panels organizer & social media manager for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and is social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. She is a 2017 Queens Council of the Arts New Work Grant winner. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story collection Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story "The Pursuit of Happiness" was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Poets & Writers magazine, The Offing, The Other Stories podcast, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to Forbes.com, LitHub, The Billfold, and Bustle among other online publications. Her website is: jennifernbaker.com