The playground was typically urban, 1950’s, used-to-be-a-more-affluent-neighborhood-than-it-is-now plain. There was no grass yet we played baseball and tackle on the rough concrete and asphalt as well as hoops. The school was red bricked, with caged windows so the baseballs, basketballs, and errant footballs wouldn’t break them. Any broken glass was quickly cleaned, if not by the maintenance staff then by some concerned parent from the nearby houses. We lived there, in two different houses, from when I was born until the year I turned eight.
The house I remember was at 3839 North Gratz Street. The school yard was a block or so down my street. It was a great neighborhood, somewhat Norman Rockwell in it's feel. Everybody seemed to care about the way it looked, the condition of their house, and each other's children. Each dad was a coach of some sport and if not, certainly was interested in teaching you what they did know. I learned to throw a baseball and football there. I learned to ride a bike there. I learned that, to some of my neighborhood peers, I was a nigger there.
For the most part people got along in the neighborhood. It was lower-middle class with some working folks, like my dad, a cab driver, and the occasional doctor or dentist. There were more white folks than black; there were no Asians or Hispanics. That part of North Philadelphia had formerly been all white but that had begun to slowly change. Up until the time I first heard the word from the mouth of one of my classmates I hadn’t thought of there being any differences between any of us.
“Nigger” changed something in me. I remember asking my dad about it and hearing his response as if I were underwater.
“We’re negro, Chuck,” he said, “People use that word to be mean and ugly. It doesn’t mean anything to us, it’s not who we are. Do you understand?”
“But dad,” I remember saying, “I thought we were American!”
Needless to say, that conversation continued for several decades in various forms and with many being involved in the evolving dialogue. My mother used to say that in her lifetime she went from being colored to Negro, to Afro-American, to black, to African-American. But there is more than that to a person, isn’t there? People are concerned about psychological, social, political, cultural, religious, and personal ramifications around whether or not to use labels. We are separated by them as well as identified by them. We live in a world that is increasingly segmented by them even as it grows smaller and closer together.
I’ve looked at this issue even more closely lately as my children have been exposed to the penchant of older people, and their children, to use labels. I’ve looked at my own tendency to use them. It really strikes home when you hear a nine year old using your favorite expletive from when someone cuts you off in traffic before you have a chance to use it yourself.
Labels are ‘sticky’ in the way Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book “The Tipping Point”. Nigger's meaning is adhesive, especially to those of us who have been its target. That meaning is something that even those very young white hip-hop influenced speakers are mindful of. Nigger has the exact same sting for me now that it had over fifty years ago in that school yard, even when it’s used as niggah as in rap songs or spoken word. C. Delores tucker is probably STILL going off on the use of the word. But I wonder, as several of my readers have pointed out, just what we’re doing with labels in general, not just that one.
Does our society's use of labels help or hurt? As some of you have postulated, they have a lasting effect on children. That effect is seen by some as very positive, by others as negative. I will explore this issue here in installments as the subject calls for not only my introspection and consideration of your responses but there exists much in the way of serious, as well as humerous, material for me to read.
When it came time to identify which box to check for Robert when he was about to start kindergarten it was very easy to fill out the African American one. But what exactly does that mean? What, or more significantly, why do we do that?
Answering the question raises many issues for people for different reasons. For me I’d prefer that there be no category on the form for race, but I have always been somewhat the Pollyanna. People are people and their skin color, racial and ethnic heritage are not true indicators of who they are as I relate with them, nor them to me.
Some of you may snicker as you read that. So be it. I do know that as I walk down the street late at night that a woman, walking alone upon seeing me will feel nervous and perhaps cross the street. I may wonder why. I may question whether or not it’s because I’m a man, or is it because I’m a black man.
I listen to those of you have advanced the discontinuation of racial and ethnic labeling so as to eliminate the facilitation of affirmative action programs. I listen but I wonder how many of you would feel the same way if you were descendent from a family whose history included an introduction to this hemisphere through the notorious middle passage. The following chapters of that history would include being separated from blood and cultural roots through savagery and cruel status as chattel to be sold at whim.
I wonder if you could take a broad look at the wealth slavery created in this society, and how it was created, and not see that you had a claim to some small portion of that bounty. That claim being continuously invalidated by fiat, then law, then noxious custom followed by a belief that legislation alone can alter over four hundred years of repression and exploitation.
More importantly, I wonder how we can effectively dialogue, really talk as a growing community, about significant economic, cultural, and social issues without coming to an understanding that categorizing our positions one way or another is not the way to reach a process of clearly communicating our differences. Labels (conservative, liberal, radical anything, Christian anything, etc.) not only categorize us, they limit the way we see the world and how others see us, don't they?
But then that is what’s lurking under this question I have about labels. When I say I’m a black man it may mean something very different to me than what it means to you, or to some demographer compiling statistics on the educational and economic levels of middle aged men of color.
It may mean something wildly different to the young white woman on a darkened street in Washington DC some years ago than it does to the group of spoken word artists I hang with on Thursday nights.
Saying “I’m black” may mean something even more different to my son when he says it at various points in his life. It may mean something I cannot comprehend except in my optimistic dreams, for my daughter. But I wonder if they live at a time when they even need to say it.