The word. THE word. You know which one. The one never to be used. And it really should NOT be used, for the most part. There may be appropriate circumstances and appropriate users, but it’s easy enough to avoid.
She stared at me, burst into tears and ran across the street and into her house. I was surprised at how powerfully she reacted.
To what extent do we take this prohibition? Should we mince quotes of real people who do or did use it? Should we bowdlerize Huckleberry Finn and other works based on current sensitivities? I don’t have those answers. This tale is not about providing answers, or even opinions, to complex and emotionally powerful sociolinguistic questions. This is simply a story of an event in my life.
This is about the last time I ever used that Word.
I was young, maybe six, maybe eight. Seven is a good guess. But fifty-eight years later, I remember that day very well. The event is etched into my mind, and it left me a different person.
Some context is needed. My hometown of Bayonne, NJ was racially and ethnically diverse long before anyone used the word diverse. The schools never needed to be integrated, and there were no recognizable ethnic neighborhoods or enclaves. We were small, crowded and homogeneous for as long as I can remember. The Black kids who lived across the street from us were friends and classmates. My grade school was very much an ethnic bouillabaisse. We ate in each other’s homes, swam in each other’s backyard pools. I can’t remember that the racial turmoil of the Sixties ever found its way to our block or my grade school.
As for The Word, I must have heard it used before this incident. My maternal grandparents were quite bigoted against a wide array of people, as were a host of my aunts and uncles. But my parents were very different; both were for some reason extreme iconoclasts. Perhaps that was why I was luckily enough to, apparently, resist the poison that drifted around me, around all of us, like noxious fumes.
But at some point little wise-ass me had learned that this word could anger and hurt a Black person. And one summer day that year, Devonne, the youngest of the four Goodman kids across the street, little sister of my best friend Hillard, was annoying me about something. So, wanting to make her go away, I called her…that.
She stared at me, burst into tears and ran across the street and into her house. I was surprised at how powerfully she reacted. Mission accomplished, I went home.
I was reading in the cool of my air-conditioned bedroom when I heard the door bell ring, and a murmur of voices. Then my Mom came into my room and asked me if I had indeed called Devonne that Word. I admitted that I had.
“Stay in your room. Don’t go anywhere until I come back.”
She left. I figured I was in some trouble now, but had no idea of the form that it would take. My parents hit me only infrequently. When they did it was spontaneous, none of that “wait ’till your father gets home” stuff. Confinement or loss of privileges seemed likely.
Maybe it took an hour. If more, not much. Mom came back into my room and said “follow me.” She led me out the door, across the street and to the Goodman house.
The Goodmans lived in one of the ground floor units of a two story, four-apartment building owned by the large, taciturn and somehow quietly menacing Mr. Preston. He lived there as well. I never knew the other two families, but all of them were Black.
Mom knocked on the door and Mrs. Goodman opened it. We entered. The apartment was crowded, filled with people. Black people. All of the Goodmans were there, as was Mr. Preston. And others, mostly adults, whom I had never met. Also present were a significant percentage of the Black kids I knew from school. Somehow the Goodmans had managed to gather under one roof a majority of the Black people that I had ever met. And then came the cruel stroke of parenting genius that someone, either Mom or Mrs. Goodman, or both, had cooked up to teach me that words have power, words can cut, and that kindness is more important than getting my way: I had to go to every person in that apartment, explain what I had done, why it was wrong and why I would never do it again. They started me out with Devonne.
Never before or since had I felt so humiliated, humbled and ashamed of myself as I was that day. I cried like the little boy that I was. I would much rather have been beaten.
And that was the end of it. No one ever mentioned it again, including Hillard. I was welcome in the Goodman’s home as warmly as before. My friends from school stayed friends. All was as it was before. Except me. I never again used The Word toward another person. Decades later, if I see or hear it, I cringe inside and am transported back to that warm day in the Goodman home and a lesson that I have never forgotten.
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.