Partial to Home: On hearing the N-word

September 8, 2018 10:27:33 PM



The other day in casual conversation someone used the N-word. As it always does with me, it arrived like an unexpected slap in the face. 


It was early in the day. I'd been out paddling for a couple of hours and while out, learned the sad news that an elderly friend had died in the night. I'd just pulled my kayak out of the water at Vienna Landing on the Tenn-Tom southeast of Aliceville, Alabama. 


An older, middle-aged man in a battered pickup pulled up as I was about to drive my truck down to the water to get my kayak. He wanted to know how the fish were biting. I said I didn't know, I had been only paddling, but that there were folks out there fishing. 


He drove down the boat ramp to continue the conversation, saying he'd always wanted to try kayaking. Except for the couple of months his father worked in Columbus, he'd lived his whole life in Aliceville, he said. 


We talked as I loaded my boat. Then, as I sometimes do, I walked around the area and picked up the few pieces of litter strewn about. 


"Those n_ _ _ _ _ s," he said, "they fish and throw their trash on the bank." 


The words came from his mouth naturally and without hesitation. As I always am when confronted with an offensive comment, I was struck dumb. 


I offered a feeble rejoinder about littering not the province of one group of people -- I've picked up trash at Steens, near the Highway 45 bridge over the Buttahatchee, the Luxapalila and all along the Waterway. 


After that, I stayed quiet. Should I have said something more? Surely, but what? 


Later when I mentioned it to a friend, he said he worked around young people who make liberal use of the epithet. 


You all are going to have stop using that word around me, he told them. 


It is an ugly word revealing ugliness and an ignorance within the person using it, more a reflection of the person using it than whom it is directed toward. 


When traveling outside the region it is not uncommon to meet people who view Mississippi and the South in light of the Hollywood stereotype, that we're ignorant, racist and unapologetically uncouth. 


In those cases, I unfailingly come to the defense of my native state, saying there is much more to this place than the cliches, that there is much to admire and to marvel over here. Invariably, I offer something about race relations, the progress that has been made. I know this to be true. 


But as the man at the boat landing so emphatically reminded me, that dark, poisoned subterranean river still flows. Occasionally, it gurgles to the surface, reminding us there is still work to be done, relationships to be cultivated. Ignorance to be assuaged. 


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.