The ever-changing n-word
I was 10 when he called me a nigger. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew it was bad, because it didn’t make me feel good.
I told the black PE teacher who did nothing but scold me for hitting that boy who called me the n-word. I didn’t hit him, because of what he said. I hit him, because he hit me. He called me the n-word, and then he hit me. Racism has a way of morphing that way – from the verbal to the physical. I don’t know why that teacher didn’t address his use of the most offensive word anyone can call anyone nor why she fussed at me. From that point on, my 10-year-old mind rationalized that she was mean. As an adult, I’ve concluded that maybe she simply didn’t know how to deal with such a potentially explosive situation in a predominantly white school. Now, some 30 years later, I don’t accept that as an excuse for her inaction – as an excuse for her neglect of me. Now, some 30 years later, it has taken me more than a week to write this post. In order to write it, I had to relive the experience. Sticks and stones may break my bones AND some words CAN hurt me for decades.
When I returned to class, I still felt bad, so I told my regular teacher, a black woman, what my classmate had called me. It must have affected her as well, because she called another black teacher into the room. I don’t remember where the rest of the class was. I just remember that the only people in the room were the two black female teachers, the boy and me. They asked him to use a classroom dictionary to look up the word. He couldn’t find it, because he couldn’t spell it. He couldn’t spell it, but he knew how to use it. One of the teachers spelled it for him. When he found it, she asked him to read the definition aloud.
As best as I can recall, the definition included the words “dirty person; ignorant person.” When I heard that, I knew the definition didn’t apply to me, because I wasn’t dirty. And I didn’t consider my 10-year-old self to be ignorant, either. I was NOT the n-word! I also understood that it could apply to HIM or to ANYONE of ANY race. I hope he understnads that, too.
Approximately 13 years after that incident – probably in 1994 when I was an aspiring newspaper reporter working as a copy editor instead, I was thumbing through a dictionary (no internet in the office yet) published by a reputable company and happened upon the n-word. The definition had been changed to SOLELY describe black people. Stating that I was appalled is an understatement.
Back when I was 10, I took the only action I could – telling adults. This time I could do much more. I could write. I wrote letters to church members detailing the time I was called the n-word and how the definition had been changed to only refer to black people. One of those people called me “radical.” What I wanted to call her but didn’t was “complacent” – riding on the coattails of the scores of brave souls who marched, sat in and boycotted – those who were hosed, beaten and lynched in an effort to make everyone in this country free.
I also wrote to the president of the NAACP. At that time, it was Kweisi Mfume who had served five terms as a Democratic Congressman for Maryland’s 7th district. Approximately a year later, I saw him on The Today Show split-screened with a representative from that very same dictionary company who was adamantly defending why his company had no intention of changing the definition of the n-word back to reflect any person of any race. I felt proud, because maybe my letter had something to do with the airing of that segment – that my letter compelled those two men to appear on television. Because the representative of the dictionary publisher refused to change the n-word back to its former definition, I decided at that moment to boycott that company, refusing to purchase its dictionaries, thesauruses or ANY other publication that dons its name. I have done so for the past 20 years.
Before writing this post, I visited several online dictionary sites, and every one of them listed an altered definition of the n-word that refers solely to black people. I have sent emails of protest to each one, because 100 years from now if someone calls my great-great-grandchild that word and the offender is asked to look up the word and takes note of its current definition, he’ll likely feel justified in using that racial slur. My great-great-grandchild might then feel he is the n-word.
The purpose of this post isn’t simply to reiterate that the use of the n-word is reprehensible. We all – racists and nonracists – understand that. The big picture is that definitions, as well as encyclopedia entries are altered daily. History, whether it be in trade books or textbooks, is being rewritten to reflect a particular point of view. It always has been and always will be. But as long as I can hold a pen or sit at a computer, I’m going to write the truth. Somebody has to.
How the light bulb really came on
On a recent night as Elijah and Miranda settled into their beds, I sat on the couch next to Nick, placing my head on his shoulder as is my custom. I spend very little time watching TV – approximately one hour per week to view one particular history program. When I sit next to him each night facing the TV, I’m usually asleep within five minutes unless what he has chosen to watch features history. I love history – practically any history. It’s a love I developed while sitting in Ms. Hall’s 7th grade world history class in a school that went from 7th to 12th grade in Bluffton, S.C. minutes away from Hilton Head Island. I accidentally did so well in her class, that I was moved into her honors history class.
I digress. That night on the couch, instead of falling asleep, I was wide awake, because a reputable TV network was airing a documentary on the history of electricity. As I mentioned earlier, I love history, so staying awake to watch the documentary was worth losing a few Zs. A featured speaker stated that Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb – that he made it better – I guess the way Steve Jobs didn’t invent the cell phone. He, with the help of his employees, made the cell phone better – much better. When the speaker mentioned that Edison improved the light bulb by creating a filament that made the bulb last longer, I immediately began talking back to the TV as is also my custom. Lewis Latimer wasn’t mentioned at all. For the record, Lewis Latimer, the son of runaway slaves, patented the process of making carbon filaments in 1882 among his other patents. He patented the electric lamp while working for the United States Electric Lighting Company run by Hiram S. Maxim, which Latimer joined in 1880. For most of my public school education, year after year I read the few sentences included in textbooks stating that Latimer’s filament enabled Edison’s bulb to last longer. Despite Latimer’s seemingly groundbreaking contribution, Latimer wasn’t mentioned in the documentary. For the record, before working with Edison or Maxim, Latimer helped Alexander Graham Bell patent the telephone in 1876. A downloadable 36-page biography titled Thomas Alva Edison’s Associate Lewis Latimer A Black Inventor is available as a PDF on the Edison Electric Institute’s site. Latimer joined Edison in 1885.
When teaching my children history, I will tell them that when they do their own research, that they should consult multiple sources and pay close attention to the wording used. For instance, one “reputable” site stated that Edison “jumped to” Edison’s company while another stated Latimer “was invited” to work for Edison. There is an enormous difference.
Another expert featured in the documentary stated that Edison, with the help of workers such as Nikola Tesla, created the first electric grid. Telsa, an immigrant, did much more than that – more than I can feature here. After two years of working for Edison, Tesla left reportedly because Edison preferred working with direct current (DC) while Tesla worked to perfect the use of alternating current (AC). According to How Stuff Works, nearly all U.S. and Canadian power companies use the AC system today. Clearly, Tesla deserves far more than a mere mention in any documentary about the development of our use of electricity. The social studies textbooks I was issued while in school didn’t feature Tesla at all. When I teach my children about Edison’s place in history, I will also tell them about Latimer’s and Tesla’s. It seems no one else will.