In the biographical documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Toni Morrison tells a story from when she was four or five years old. She was just learning to read and write. She and her older sister were playing with chalk in front of their house. They copied a word they saw written somewhere down their street. She only implies what the word was (a four letter word starting with “F”), she didn’t understand the meaning of it at the time. Her mom came out, saw what they had written, and angrily sent the two of them into the house. Mom cleaned the sidewalk and Toni Morrison learned perhaps the most important lesson of her life: “That’s when I learned that words have power.”
On May 25, 2020 Christian Cooper was bird watching in Central Park in New York City. Amy Cooper (no relation) was there as well, walking her dog, and in defiance of park regulations, the dog was unleashed. He asked her to leash her dog. She refused. Fortunately for him, he started to record the incident with his phone. She called the police, telling them “There is an African American man—I am in Central Park—he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. Please send the cops immediately!” Her actions were an invocation of that word. She never said it, but it’s what she meant. Things didn’t end the way she expected. He was in the right, she was not. Her attempt to use race, her white privilege, to assert some sort of authority and control, failed.
On August 18, 1955 fourteen year-old Emmett Till was in Drew, Mississippi. We know what happened there. He was accused of offending a white woman. He was kidnapped, shot, his body mutilated, lynched, murdered, dumped in the Tallahatchie River for violating the unwritten rules of Jim Crow. I would guess his killers used that word, but there is no record to tell us for sure. Whether they used it or no, what they did is really what that word means.
As a brief aside, that word will not appear in this piece. I won’t dignify it by using it. I won’t even use, more than this one time, the so called polite alternative: “n-word”. Too often when I’ve heard that used it was from a white person who really wanted to use the original, but was being “polite”. I will only use “that word” and it is meant as a term of derision. I’m using it much like we say “that guy”, “that woman”, “that car”, said with a certain tone implying someone, something, is considerably less that good, not worthy of our respect. “That word”.
Most of our lives, the white world has been taught that racism is about personal acts, like the murder of Emmett Till. We are taught that if we are kind, don’t use that word, we are not being racist. Racism is much more than this. So is anti-racism. We’ll further explore both at a later time. We are taught that that word is an insult used to describe Black people, African Americans. Yes it is that. It is also much, much more. It is a word of power, an exertion of white privilege, an expression over Black people. Sometimes it’s actions, like Amy Cooper’s, a reminder that “hey, you’re a Black man so I’m in control.” It was uttered, used to remind Black citizens of the United States that they have no rights here, are considered less than human, that I, that we, white America is in control. It was used to remind that what happened to Emmett Till could happen next to them, like happened to more than 3,000 people in the United States. It was used to invoke power, to terrorize. That word has lost some of its power. We need to ensure it loses all of it.
Words have power.