Recalling the first time someone called me the N-word

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Arlene Jones

As Black History Month comes to an end and all the celebrations wind down, I have a favor to ask. I would like each and every person who reads this column to talk with their children and grandchildren about a very simple issue.

That issue is: "The first time I was called Nigger ..."

No, not when another black person called you that word. I mean the first time you were called "Nigger" by a non-black person and the meaning was on the level of hatred.

I don't recall how old I was, but I remember the day. It was obviously during the summer months because the ivy on the buildings was in full bloom. The sky was a bright blue with just a few clouds in the sky. I had taken the #37 bus to get to my church, Olivet Presbyterian. For whatever reason, I had gotten off the bus and decided to take a shortcut through the Town and Garden Apartments (TGA). TGA took up two city blocks in length and a city block in width. Each building was separated from the next set of buildings by a wooden swing gate. The gate was made of thick wood, painted brown and you had to unlatch it to enter.

Mind you, I knew that the white people who lived in that complex didn't want anyone black living there at the time. What was strange is that there were blacks living in apartments near TGA. But not within TGA. It was in the early 1960s, and I must have been late for summer camp or something, because riding the bus to my church didn't happen often.

Anyway I got off that bus and decided to take "the shortcut," which would mean that I had to run as fast as I could from the Sedgwick side to the Hudson side of TGA because if the white people who lived there saw me or caught me, I would be in trouble. TGA had five stories, so another concern was that they would throw something out of the windows that would land on my head.

I knew I was taking a risk, but I needed to get to church and running through the TGA was my only option. I can still remember opening the gate and marveling at the ivy that covered the walls of the building. The ivy was so old that many of the vines on the walls were as thick as some tree limbs. I remember opening the gate on Sedgwick and starting to run to the gate on Hudson. It was then that a voice screamed, "Stay the hell out of here, you little Nigger."

I did make it safely to the Hudson side. But that episode has stayed with me for over 40 years, as vividly as if it happened yesterday. I have been called Nigger at other times, but that first memory, when it was used to terrorize a little kid, is burned into memory for the rest of my life.

What makes that memory poignant for Black History Month is that a couple of weeks ago, I was around some of my daughter's college friends. One of them is about 20 years old, and she just got her first taste of being called Nigger on her college campus. She grew up in Austin and this was the first time in her life that she the word was aimed at her with all the hatred it can embody. She had attended a Chicago magnet school and had been exposed to children from all over the city from all different racial backgrounds.

As she confessed her shock at having somebody call her that, it was tempered by the knowledge that just like her ancestors, she was being forced to pay a price for having skin color and hair texture that is not white. It was a very sobering experience for her because far too often those in the Hip-Hop generation like to believe that racism is a thing of the past and not a contemporary concern. So the man who tried to run her over with glee, calling her a Nigger awoke her to a reality for which all the lessons in the world could never have prepared her.

As Black History Month comes to an end, share a memory with your children and grandchildren. We can never fully prepare our children for the hurt and pain that will come when/if it does happen. However, we do a bigger disservice in never preparing them at all. At least when you share your hurt and pain, you can pass on some personal history. Every black child needs to be aware that each and every ancestor has paid a price to be here.

It's pertinent to ask: Is our behavior today worthy of the price our ancestors paid?

E-mail me: westside2day@yahoo.com

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