Everything that happened before and right after this moment remains a total blur. I just remember this ugly word that came hurling at me at about 100 miles per hour. I heard the word several times before but it was never directed at me personally until now. There is a version of a popular Christmas jingle that I heard as a child that reads, “Jingle Bells/Batman smells/Robin laid an egg/Batmobile lost its wheel/ and joker ran away hey/Jingle bells/Batman smells/Robin laid an egg/Grandma pulled the trigger/and short a n____r/ and Joker got away!” I do know several versions of this song originated in 1967, but this version made its way into my world abruptly. There were other songs and sayings with racist undertones all around that impacted me in a way that I did not quite know how to put into words. It was just a part of life.
On this particular day in 5th grade, my classmate (let’s call him Paul), who I was actually fond of, sat back loosely in his chair in the same disinterested position he displayed day in day out. The trouble maker of the class, he often found himself at the center of correction and discipline – rarely ever getting attention for his academic enthusiasm or prowess. I often felt bad for him. He seemed like a nice boy and we got along better than he did with many of our other classmates. The fact that he is white and I’m black never seemed to create any kind of dissonance between us until this faithful day. Our class was on the topic of American History. Again, I can’t remember exactly what happened that led up to this moment. I think somehow Paul and I got into a debate over some historical figure when he looked at me and said, “You N____r! “
The whole class sat paralyzed as the word reverberated back and forth across the room. I believe we had a substitute teacher that day. I don’t remember Paul getting corrected nor do I remember the teacher asking me if I was okay or addressing the issue to the entire class. I just remember the word. It was a punch in the gut though he never touched me. I didn’t know what to say until something in me felt the need to get back at him with something just as vile. I couldn’t think of anything to call him but a white h_nk_y. I spewed out the words as I burst into tears. Paul just looked at me un-amused and unsure of what to do with my comeback. We both sat there hurt and confused while the rest of the class moved on to the next lesson.
That was my first time being called that ugly word and I got a taste of how the word invokes one to respond with hate. I wasn’t proud of my response that day and I wasn’t sure why it was never addressed in class but it sat with me for a long while after that. Fast forward a short time later, my 5th grade class was still learning about American history. The day’s lesson discussed slavery in America. We were broken up into groups of four by our substitute teacher. Paul was in an adjacent group. Though we were not working together on this day, I felt the discomfort from our last encounter. As one of two black students in class it felt like there was a huge microscope pointed directly on my posture - as if people were waiting on me to respond to this topic. As we read about and discussed “punishments” heaped upon slaves who disobeyed their owner another classmate (let’s call him Samuel), looked at me and asked, “Did it hurt?”
I replied, “What do you mean?”
He continued, “When they tied you to a tree and whipped you.” I sat there in disbelief. It hurt in a way that words could not describe. I told him that it did not happen to me. He smirked, internally reveling in his “joke.” I sat there with my head in my hands and cried. When another classmate called out to our substitute teacher and informed him that I was crying he simply replied,
“She’ll be alright.”
The silence of my teachers only cemented their agreement with the actions of my classmates. Their non-response told me that they were okay with this language being used against me and when it happens I have to just take it, pick myself up and move on. I don’t even think I shared it with my parents when it happened. I kept it inside.
I have heard comments recently that racism is perpetuated by the mainstream media and that the black community has been deceived by the far left who is pushing a political agenda. I must say that racism is not a made up feeling. It’s not all in our heads. I did not get my ideas or understanding about racism from CNN or MSNBC. I have experienced it and as a nation we have systemically participated in its constructs as we have made our way through the inception of slavery on this soil in 1619, through the systematic establishment of segregation and Jim Crow in or around 1877 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just because some of the laws have changed does not mean the hearts of men have changed. It also does not mean that attitudes and mentalities have not passed down from generation to generation.
You may wonder – man this instance happened when she is a kid. She should be over this by now. Maybe you write me off as an injured black woman that needs to give it a rest. I won’t rest and I am not injured. I’m poised to share perspectives and truth – not so that I can heal. I shared one story but I have others. I must say that I don’t have a spirit of offense, rejection, or hatred. I have given these very instances to God and received prayer – even when I did not know I still needed it. I am sharing because some people would like to think that racism is no longer an issue. It is. If you dare to look around and ask questions, not just within your inner circle but to people who think and look different than you,I know you will find stories that you did not know still happen in this day and age. We are all responsible to discover more. Just like I am challenging people to seek and listen, those of us with stories must be willing to tell. It’s time to share and it’s time to listen.
Christine Houston is a believer, wife, and mother of two amazing children. Writing has always been a form of expression where she feels at home. Now she is getting to integrate her faith and her love of history to bring a new spin to the current climate of our nation with the hope to bring understanding and bridge the gap created by racial divides