Monday, April 30, 2018

The worst word in the world

I was going to hitch these thoughts on the end of my racism post, but then started thinking about it some more and thought there was more going on. More going on than just an unpleasant memory.

My Dad could be a son-of-a-bitch, but I suppose he had some good qualities. When not drinking and expounding like some hot-air-bag buffoon, he could say some things that were reasonably intelligent. The man used his brain, and his generation, with his level of education, were not expected to do that. 

What I liked most about my Dad was the way he hated Americans. Well, not hated exactly. He could not fathom why they acted the way they did. He had been born in England, grew up in a little fishing village called Leigh-on-Sea, and never quite lost that scruffy English street urchin thing, having to go out and make a living at age thirteen. Like the Dad in Angela's Ashes, which rattled a few memories for me, his father appeared only sporadically, joined the army, was booted out, worked a bit, mostly haunted the pubs, and was sometimes violent.

But back to the American bit. I don't know if this was originated by him or by Mark Twain or somebody else, but sometimes he would expound on some particularly idiotic turn of American political events, roll his eyes heavenwards and exclaim, "The land of the free, and the home of the slave." His version of the Star-Spangled Banner (which he sometimes sang at the dinner table) was, "O say can you see/Any bedbugs on me?" Irreverant was no word for it. 

But I will never forget the most terrifying, and perhaps the most profound thing he ever said, when he was fairly drunk but in a reasonably benevolent mood, not in one of his fist-thudding rages. He was rambling on about something, then fixed me with his glittering eye and said, "Do you know what the worst word in the world is?"

I thought he meant cursing, and kept thinking, shit, fuck, goddamn, but I couldn't say those words out loud. 

"The worst. The very worst word you can say or write or think of."

Bitch. Asshole. Christ?

He sort of crooked his finger and made me get in really close so he could say it low. But he said it. 


I flinched. I knew that word was terrible, that I never said it and was not supposed to say it. My mother had told me rather casually that they used the word all the time when she was growing up and didn't see anything wrong with it. But my mother was born in 1915.

I didn't ask why it was the worst word in the world, but I didn't have to because he was about to expound on it. 

"Nigger. Nigger is the worst word in the world, and I'll tell you why. It means one person owns another person."

It took me a minute to realize he was referring to slavery. And it was appropriate, because nigger is a slave word, a plantation word, a word to describe a thing that can be owned, bought and sold. Placed on the auction block. And when those ran out, there were lots of others to be captured and shipped over, an industry in itself, the importing of essential goods. 

This was difficult for a ten-year-old kid to contemplate, the concept of one person owning another person. It was horrible, demeaning, dehumanizing. Little middle-class white girls growing up in 1960s suburbia didn't use language like that because it might evoke something demonic. Nigger meant you were farm machinery, replaceable and even renewable through breeding, and that your purpose was to make agriculture possible, thus founding a country which insisted it was the greatest nation on earth. Then not being able to use the white drinking fountain. It was crazymaking, a blank wall of contradiction.

That communities grew up, vibrant communities, out of the ashes of slavery makes my scalp prickle with awe. That those communities grew up right outside my door makes my head spin. But when I realize that Chatham's significant part in the Underground Railroad was never even mentioned in all my years in school, it fills me with a sickness, and casts a pall over the brightest sunshine of my life.