The N Word

When I was sixteen I walked out of my front door to discover our kindly, retired neighbor, Mr. Hall, cutting the overgrown bushes that separated our yards. Because my parents were divorced this man had helped me build my soapbox racecar and had affixed a basketball hoop to our garage. I was getting ready to thank him, when he turned his red face my way. I knew then he had been waiting and waiting for us to take care of this. “Your yard looks like a nigger yard.”

I was stunned.  Even though this was 1981 and that word was still largely in circulation, I had never heard it from an adult.

“You people need to quit playing so many games and get to work.”

Had Mr. Hall not used the word nigger, I might have accepted this little lecture as I had so many from adults before. But he had crossed a line and revealed his own fear and smallness and was no longer an adult. Something in me stood up.

“Maybe there are more important things in the world than bushes,” I said.

I marched off feeling as if I had just heard myself clearly for the first time. It was such a new sensation speaking those words to that old man. It was as if a hole had opened up when he said nigger, a hole that grew wider when he told me my family needed to get to work. I would say later that I was speaking My Truth, but really I was only trying to fill that hole I believe he had unintentionally opened.

In this way, it wasn’t my truth at all, was it? Perhaps it was his. Perhaps I only heard what he had forgotten could close the gap between that word and him.

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