The sting of the N-word and a perfect gentleman

The late Pauline Knight Ofosu took part in the Nashville Student Movement and the Freedom Rides in 1960 and 1961.

The late Pauline Knight Ofosu took part in the Nashville Student Movement and the Freedom Rides in 1960 and 1961.

A man goes into a church and shoots nine people while they are studying the word of God. Young black men are being murdered for playing their music too loud or walking home from the store with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.

The deaths of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, teenagers killed in Florida by white men who weren’t comfortable in their presence, upset me to no end. That could have been my grandson or my teenage nephews. The thought of them being targeted simply because of their skin color makes me very angry.

The Charleston murders have shaken our collective core. How could a 21-year-old man hate people he didn’t know? How could his parents, who had to know he was disturbed, purchase a .45 caliber handgun for him as a birthday present? When will this country get serious about addressing mental illness? When will people of color no longer be the targets of racists?

On Sunday, our pastor spoke about the kind of hate that breeds prejudice and racism. Children aren’t born with hate in their hearts, it is a learned behavior.

While running some errands in Kennesaw, GA after church, I attempted to turn into a shopping center but held up traffic for a few seconds because I was in the wrong lane.  The kid behind me, who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s, was furious.   “You f…ing nigger!” he yelled while pulling around me.

Being addressed in that way stung me, but it wasn’t about to ruin my day. My Dad has cancer and my thoughts are on him and the rest of my family.

My first encounter with the “n-word” was much more traumatic because I didn’t understand what the word meant. I did know by the way my 5-year-old classmates said it that it wasn’t a term of endearment!  Me and another black girl were the only people of color at this catholic school in Winchester, KY. Shortly thereafter, my parents moved our family to Lexington, where the schools were integrated and there were never any problems of that sort.

One of the scariest times I was called a nigger was in the parking lot of a Stein Mart in Lexington. I was in my late 20s and must have been walking too slowly across the parking lot while crossing in front of a man in a big truck.  “Nigger bitch,” he proclaimed loudly. We were 20 feet away from each other and I was terrified. In this instance, and the one earlier this week, I was happy the men didn’t have guns because they may have shot me.  All because they were angry and I happened to be the wrong skin color.

Let that marinade for a minute. How ridiculous to hate someone you don’t know simply because they appear different from you.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked forward to the day when his children would be judged by their character, rather than their skin color.

I have to ask, are we there yet?

And speaking of character, the day after my encounter with that misguided young thug in Kennesaw, I had an encounter with an elderly white man. I left my jacket on the back of my chair in a restaurant and he bolted out into the parking lot to give it to me.

“You left your jacket,” he said, holding it up for me to put my arms in it. “I just didn’t want you to miss it later.”

It was a great reminder that there are good and bad people in every race. Let’s all start by being kinder to one another.

Words matter — especially one with the history of the n-word.  But we can choose to give it power or we can elect to take away its power by ignoring it.

A few years ago, I interviewed the late Pauline Knight Ofosu, a 1961 Freedom Rider who took part in the Nashville Student Movement a year earlier. She and other protestors were trained in the way of Muhatma Ghandi.

While protesting outside a movie theater, a white man spit in her face. Her reaction was to ask him for a hankie to wipe his spit off her.  He was completely disarmed – – so much so that he walked away without saying another word.

Now how’s that for taking away his power?

Pauline Knight in 1961. She and other Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for “breach of the peace.” pauline

“Today We March”

My friend Rosemary posted this on her Facebook page yesterday. The three words reminded me of something the Rev. Dr. Bernice King said her mother, Coretta Scott King, was fond of saying.  Freedom has to be won anew by every generation.

It’s a powerful thought to ponder in a year where we’ve seen a nagging truth on display in a Florida courtroom in the trial of George Zimmerman. In the end, a jury decided Zimmerman’s right to use his gun in self-defense outweighed Trayvon Martin’s right to walk home from a store in his father’s gated community.  In the same month, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The parallels of 1963 and 2013 are uncanny. Perhaps its why  I can’t sleep this morning. I am in Washington, waiting for the march to commence.  In 1963, leaders called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In 2013, the March on Washington is still about jobs and equality. It is also about education.

To be sure, personal responsibility plays a huge role in the outcome of one’s life.  Every man, woman and child must assume that responsibility for their own future.   But when drugs and violence continue to flood our communities, that can’t happen for everyone. When young black men in prison outnumber those in college, that absolutely cannot happen for all people. When efforts to level a playing field that has been woefully lopsided for generations are repealed or marginalized, all people will not realize freedom.

In 2013,  Jim Crow exists in the form of mandatory sentencing laws that result in longer sentences for black men. Jim Crow plays out in attitudes that say a child can’t learn because of the circumstances he or she is born into.

Today, the National Mall will once again be filled with black and white people who believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech may one day be reality.  In it, Dr. King envisioned a world where his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Imagine a day when the George Zimmermans of the world would stop and offer the Trayvon Martins of the world an act of good will.  “Hey young man,” George might say. “Can I give you a ride home so you can get out of this rain?”  “Yes Sir,” Trayvon might say in return.  “My father lives right down the block. I appreciate your kindness.”

And since we are dreaming, let’s imagine George getting to know Trayvon and realizing they have more in common than either of them realizes.  Perhaps George will see Trayvon as a human being with loving parents and dreams for his future. A college degree. A wife and children. Grandchildren. A long and happy life.

That’s what Dr. King meant when he said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream.

So today, 50 years later, we march. For jobs. For freedom. For judgement based on character rather than skin color.