The media frenzy surrounding the Paula Deen fiasco would be laughable if it didn’t point to something more disturbing. This nation's mocked alarm and indignation at Deen’s actions is insulting when the made-in-America mentality that produced Deen's mindset is the same one that is on trial in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Let me begin my piece by stating that I choose not to use “nigger” or any of its various inventive spellings when I’m speaking. It is a personal choice out of homage to my ancestor who died so that I might live a better life. And I am irked by the usage of the N-word because the potency of the word in certain contexts is not defused by not naming it. So, if I refer to it, I spell it out.
Even though I don’t use it, I know plenty of people that do and it’s difficult to explain to non-Black folk (and some young Blacks) the nuisances of the word, but I can suggest two books devoted exclusively to the topic: Jabari Asim’a The N-Word: who can say it, who shouldn’t and why and Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word if want to under the word in its historical context.
Nigger has always had multiple meanings in the Black community, and that is where it should have stayed, so that we do not continue to have these ridiculous conversations about its usage among non Blacks. We should have heeded our elders’ advice when they told us, “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.” But we are here AGAIN! And while we’re here, we might as well dig deeper and connect the dots between niggers, lynchings ice tea and skittles.
For an eloquently definitive essay on the different meanings of the word, I urge you to read Writer Gloria Naylor’s essay Mommy, What does ‘Nigger’Mean? Naylor explains that the people in her grandmother’s living room. . . “transformed nigger to signify the varied and complex human beings they knew themselves to be.” They “took a word that whites used to signify worthlessness and rendered it impotent.” But when the word was uttered by a white boy in her 3rd grade classroom, it took on an entirely different meaning than the one she heard in the living room.
|This is the barbecue we had last night.||My picture is to the left with the cross over it. Your son Joe.|
I’m not hopping aboard the Poor Paula train. This was more than just a racial slur. Deen and her brother were named in a lawsuit that alleged “violent, sexist and racist language.” in the work environment. It’s difficult to separate a person’s words from his actions. The man who beats his wife doesn’t call her honey or sweetheart before he strikes. She’s bitch, slut, hoe or some other derogatory term.
It is this same disregard for human life that drums up images of lynch mobs in my mind as I peruse the pages of the book, Without Sanctuary-Lynching Photography in America. I am blown away by the seemingly cavalier attitude of the people gathered. People dressed up and brought their families to these horrific events, and sent post cards to friends and relatives to mark the occasion. “To kill the victim was not enough; the execution became public theater, a participatory ritual of torture and death. . .”We were niggers before they tortured, hanged and burned us with their vigilante style justice. We were niggers after.
I look at the children in this picture and I wonder how their psyche was affected when they witnessed these horrific crimes against humanity? Did they grow up and denounced their racist up upbringing or did they learn that “niggers” were less than human and should be treated as such? How did they raise their children? Are they the Deens and Zimmermans of the world?
It’s easier to vilify Deen and Zimmerman than to acknowledge that their thoughts were manufactured right here in America. Here is an ugly truth: there is still a part of America that continues to see Black people as disposable niggers. Zimmerman’s thinking of a Black male as a potential threat is right in line with the thinking of many in America regardless of color. The Black male has been so demonized and dehumanized much in our society that we are desensitized to his plight.
So, a night watchman can shoot a teenager whose only crime to date is breathing and walking while Black. The actions of Deen, Zimmerman and countless others demonstrate how far African Americans still have to go to be recognized as citizens in this place we call home. Regardless of how many gains we've made, we are still vilified and whatever happens to us is justified. Black people are being lynched every day, but we don’t even recognize the rope around our necks until someone yanks our false sense of reality from beneath our feet.
In the case of ice tea and Skittles, the morality of America is on trial. Will the verdict move us in the right direction or set us back?