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


“Love Is Too Big To Fail”


Of all the messages scrawled or printed on signs at Saturday’s March on Washington, this yellow, homemade sign struck a major chord with me. “Love is too big to fail” perfectly embodies the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic message 50 years ago.

Hearing the speeches and feeling the unity and love at Saturday’s march left me motivated to be better and do better.

Watching snippets of today’s news reports as several U.S. presidents and King family members stood in the spot where Dr. King and others stood on Aug. 28, 1963 made we want to be better and do better.

Sharing the experience of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with my 23-year-old daughter made me want to be better and do better.

Imani and I decided more than a month ago to attend the march together. She was still reeling from the not guilty verdict handed down by a Florida jury in the death of Trayvon Martin. For Imani and others in her generation, this verdict served as a wake-up call that even in 2013, black men are often marginalized and criminalized.

For me, the march was about reconnecting with the spirit of our ancestors, who were willing to die for their convictions. People like Congressman John Lewis, who told his mother that he was acting according to the dictates of his conscience when he decided to join the Freedom Rides in 1961 as a young college student.

The day of the march, I got up at the crack of dawn, too excited to sleep. People were already gathering outside our hotel to march to the National Mall. By the time we arrived around 8 a.m., the mall was already jammed with people. And what a sight to behold: people of all ages and races coming together, talking to one another and smiling broadly. The pride was evident. We came together in peace and harmony. There were people on walkers, children in strollers and people carrying gigantic signs promoting labor unions; decrying racial profiling and calling for an end to discrimination. Images of Trayvon Martin were everywhere — on shirts, caps and signs.

As the march was winding down, we ran into Sheri Morgan, who was carrying the “Love is Too Big to Fail” sign. Her son Thomas made it three years ago for the Occupy Movement. Thomas, now a college student in Los Angeles, got into social justice when he was middle school. He memorized Dr. King’s speeches and often quoted them in their Greencastle, Pa. home.

Dr. King’s message of non violence was rooted in the biblical principle of loving your enemies. His models were Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi. On more than one occasion, the students and adults trained in non-violent social resistance shocked their tormentors.

The late Pauline Knight-Ofosu was a student at Tennessee State when she decided to join the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. She believed God called her and other students for that purpose. When a young man spat on her during one of the protests, she wiped it off and smiled back at him.

Her action so disarmed him he felt true shame at his act. Now if that’s not love too big to fail, I don’t know what is.

This column is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Pauline Knight-Ofosu, who died in March. We miss you terribly Miss Pauline. Rest in Peace!