Countee (pronounced Coun-tay) Cullen was an African-American poet and prominent literary figure during the 1920s and ’30s in Harlem, New York. This period is referred to as the “Harlem Renaissance.” James Weldon Johnson, composer of what is called the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” referred to the Harlem Renaissance as the “flowering of Negro literature.”
Cullen’s poems were unflinching portrayals of life as seen through the eyes of his people. The short poem, “Incident,” is, for me, his most impactful. In a very few words, Cullen exposes how the N-word affected a young and innocent black child.:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
We black parents are always in a state of high anxiety when our toddlers and young children are out and about in society without us. We worry that someone will behave in an unprovoked and threatening manner toward our kids. Most blacks can recall their approximate age and place when they were first called the N-word by a white stranger. My parents told my siblings and me that the people calling us names were ignorant and not worthy of a reaction from us. Other parents told their children, “It’s not what they call you — it’s what you answer to.” Both pieces of advice are accurate and useful.
But still, how do we prepare our kids for these gratuitous verbal attacks? Well, my generation was taught the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and Stones,” as a way of putting name-calling into perspective. Interestingly enough, it has been reported that this rhyme first appeared in an 1862 publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church [AME].
So it looks like “Sticks and Stones” was to be used like an “EpiPen” — the device carried by those subject to severe allergic reactions. In other words, when confronted by someone calling us hurtful names, we repeated in our minds, or out loud, the words, “Sticks and stones will break my bones; but words will never harm me.” Like the EpiPen, this little rhyme was designed to stop a complete system breakdown and calm us down.
Today, the N-word seems to be enjoying a rebirth. Ironically, much of the momentum for this rebirth comes out of the black community. Specifically, many blacks argue that use of the N-word by a black person to another black person is different than use of the same word by a white person. However, given its historical antecedents, can such a vile word ever be considered a “term of endearment”? Is the N-word less offensive coming from a black person rather than from a white person?
My answer to those two questions is, “It depends.” It depends on the intent, the context and the tone of the user. Using the N-word while robbing and shooting another black person will never be considered by the victim as a term of endearment. Similarly, a white person who, in private settings, routinely refers to blacks using the N-word will easily reach the conclusion that these blacks are inferior and less deserving of respect.
My advice is to avoid using the term, regardless of your intent. Name-calling is childish and hurtful. Watching our mouth is less about political correctness and more about civility.