Stunned. Hurt. Then angry.

That was the immediate trajectory of my feelings following an incident where a neighbor called me the N word.

Anger later turned into resolve to press my stake deeper in the ground of a gentrifying neighborhood and to shine a light on the incident that would help me understand, and perhaps forgive, the offender. Beyond my hurt feelings, I knew this was a teachable moment and I was its student.

The facts behind the matter aren’t particularly provocative. I heard someone dumping behind my

house just after dark. My next-door neighbor’s dog was barking at the intruder and I opened my back gate to investigate, only to find a discarded fire pit (I’ve lived in my home just east of Capitol Hill for 15 years and I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to call the city to have debris removed from the alleyway). So, fed up, I darted out the gate demanding that whoever dumped the fire pit return to get it. The person had disappeared from view but my outraged (and loud) pleas to return to claim the discarded item drew the man back to the scene.

I’d seen him before. I do my writing at home and staring out the window often gives me the momentary disconnect I need to catch up with a fleeing word, or have a plot line catch up with me. So I’m often looking out upon my neighborhood. That’s how I recognized him. He lives in new condos, built a few years ago, visible from the rear of my house.

“How long have you lived here?” He calls out as he approaches.

“Longer than you,” I respond.

He weaves a story of the fire pit belonging to someone who once lived in the townhouse adjacent to the alley. I interject with a question. “You won’t listen,” he says. I defer. He continues talking. Finally, I ask: “What’s any of that got to do with you dumping this thing behind my house tonight?”

The man turns to leave with the words: “Okay. I can’t talk to you.”

I turn in the opposite direction with: “Well, I know where you live so I’ll report your dumping. And I guess I have to call, yet again, to have someone else’s trash picked up from behind my house.”

As I am closing my gate, he hollers: “Nigger.”

I say: “Oh, now I’ll be sure to call and report you.”

Which elicits additional shouting of the N word.

I’ve lived on the planet for more than 60 years, and have never been called that word. I guess I’ve been lucky. My childhood was played out in Northern, urban, segregation where black people understood the perverse and pejorative origins of the word. I came of age in the post-Black Pride movement where the word dared not be spoken by white lips. As an adult, cocooned in progressive-liberal workplaces, I was spared the word—protected by well-meaning colleagues with good educations and political correctness.  I feel too old to hear it now.   Too much time has passed and too much progress made for that hate-filled word to resurface. Right?

I know followers of hip-hop culture sling the word about in some reverse psychology, take-back-the-word, historically amnesiac, familial way. But I don’t move in those circles.  To tell the truth, I’ve been nonchalant about the usage of the N word. Didn’t have too much outrage when I’d hear of some thoughtless, hateful (or even good-intentioned) invoking. It hadn’t really affected me. But now I have a new relationship to the word. I’ve had to plumb my soul about my own prejudices. We all have them to some degree. I’ve also had to come to grips about what I think is my emotional distance with matters of race, even while I claim that diversity, race and tolerance are the major themes of my writing.

In my book Long Way Home: A World War II Novel, “nigger” appears because it was the language of its time used by those invested in maintaining a racially-segregated U. S. Army. But I wasn’t giving full power to the word because I didn’t carry the gut-punched feeling I now have to infuse it with the hurt it wields. In the recent uproar about the symbolism of the confederate flag I blogged that the “stars and bars” controversy was a red herring, a distraction from the real issue of racial intolerance that tears at the fabric of our national wellbeing. And I recently told a friend that I didn’t really see the damage in using the N word in a classroom setting where the teacher was white and the students predominately black. I think, now, I was wrong on both counts.

I’ve spoken to a few of my neighbors about the fire pit incident and I’ve received supportive responses.   My post about it on Facebook has elicited some very good advice (“stay safe”, you need a motion-activated spotlight”, “get a guard dog” and “don’t confront people in the alley”). Also, over and over, friends and neighbors have said they’re sorry I’ve had this negative experience. The caring words—from friends of all races—certainly supersede the one, racial epithet.

As Don Henley brilliantly wrote, the heart of the matter is forgiveness.  There is something in my bigoted neighbor that took him to the N word. I’d like to ask him, in a civil and calm way, what feeling drove him there. I don’t know this man but I want to better understand humankind. I want to put myself in the fragile egos of others in a way that makes my storytelling more meaningful.   I want to dump some of my own shit at the back gate of my intellect so I can be more honest about the messiness of navigating diversity. I wrote on Facebook that my old self would have leaned toward escalating the name calling. The new me wants to use the encounter to escalate my work.  Thank you, Mr. Bigot, for leading me down the path to more powerful and authentic writing.

This blog is posted in it’s entirety from new Bywater Author, Cheryl Head—we are proud she has joined our family.  You can learn more about Cheryl here and you can also follow her on Twitter as @cheaddc.

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