On being called a nigger as a rite of passage.
The Circus is an essay series chronicling formative moments of race, class, and identity through the eyes and experiences of one man's time in Madison. Read the previous installments here.
You will be called a nigger. It's just something you do. Black people get called niggers on TV, in text, online, in public—wherever and for whatever reason. Not like that's what we are, but that's what we'll be called by people who hate us, or who at the very least don't try to understand us. We're human, sure, but not enough to whomever bothers with contacting us. Wear the Nigger in your mind, but tuck it in the closet, away behind your favorite things and the things you forgot. It's neither a badge nor an Xbox Achievement, but as I grew up I thought of it as an inevitability, like a first kiss or first drink.
I lived a slur virgin for longer than I'd expected, but I was unsure what to expect in the first place. I come from trees and backyards bigger than the homes in front of them, of crab guts and wrestling moves and hiding in the basement. I'm from Fort Washington—part-South, part-East— a Black enclave in gorgeous Prince George's County, Maryland, PG for short. Almost 70 percent of Fort Washington is Black, though most days felt closer to 100 percent. There were a sizable amount of Latinx/Hispanic folks, a notable Filipino population, and white kids I could count on my hand. Maybe at the Safeway between aisles, maybe at whichever McDonald's my mom would pull up to, but that felt rare. My memories don't etch the tension broadcasted time and again. Nigger lived in screens and books. It never came to a cookout or shoved me into a locker.
White people, whiteness, took forever to engulf me. Perhaps, I surmise, it took longer than it would have liked to, and I am eternally grateful.
I met Nigga long before that, and fumbled with greeting them the way I should? A question, given I tried Nigga on in middle school, where children cluelessly try everything on. We liked rap songs and gangsta movies and sessions of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That's where the swear words could still elicit a playful jeer or a voicemail to earn you an ass-whuppin'. Nigga was the neighborhood rascal that couldn't come inside without my mama at home; my parents knew their parents, but we never talked about what they do for a living. I said it to fit when it fit the moment, but it didn't fit me. It was easy currency, the social capital of common slang.
Think of the slurs you were virgin to, then slowly learned to shake hands with.
In this period of my life, I felt the Nigger in the room when I wasn't around my niggas. It was reinforced by those who love you, to watch your behavior and be at your best when others are watching you. What's cool with your friends won't work at a museum, an upscale restaurant, or the parking lot of the expensive strip mall. I was reading since I was three, a cute talking point for my parents to wave at strangers who pause to note my articulate mouth they didn't expect. It was an introductory course in a masterclass on Blackness: an articulation of fear that white people, white things can lay claim on my body in a manner which I cannot be redeemed.
From a young age, I mutated when under surveillance. I tried to find the best pieces of me to display behind the invisible glass between my body and what the world invented, intended for it. Academic. Brushed hair. Presentable. Mild-mannered. Medium-skinned. College-bound. Into video games and the Washington Redskins. A good kid. I became acquainted with this process at home, to the point where I developed a literal chill in my body when the bodies surrounding mine didn't look like mine. My high alert became reflexive, the whiteness around me dribbling uncertainty down my spine as if I were prey. Don't be an embarrassment, don't act a fool, don't show ya ass, act like you got some home training.
My slur virgin self met Nigger face-to-face the moment I arrived in Wisconsin with that same Black family I came from. DCA to MSN. We stopped at a Red Robin, because I really fuck with bottomless french fries. The darkest bodies we saw were carrying trays and taking notes.
We sat beside an elderly white couple, both parties at least 20 years older than my parents. They stared at us ceaselessly. I peered to my left between bites, then turned back to my family to confirm.
This went on for a half-hour. My mother whispered to me that the woman stared like we'd eat our food with our feet, like she never saw us before. We half-laughed and talked to ourselves—the only way to mask the irritation. Soon enough, she sparked a conversation with the woman, whose face brightened a bit. The older man said nothing. I don't remember the small talk, but it was clear this wasn't our hiding place.
Nigger was there, but people don't always open their mouths. They look—watch—and take stock where they must. I knew then what it was to feel sized up by foreign white things where they call home. The line between tourist and trespasser was razor-thin, and I signed on for a four-year tightrope.
Nigger would be back to meet me one night in the fall of my sophomore year, on the eighth floor of Chadbourne Hall. I'll leave the names alone, but know that a blonde man lived on my hall and didn't know I was a slur virgin. A presidential debate was on in the background. We were flanked by two other gentlemen, one being my roommate at the time. I went to the water fountain, taking a casual glance at the television. The blonde man came out, and we began talking. Between the playful quips—a haircut insult here, another jab there—we began stringing our words together for the next random insult. Somewhere in this process, he called me a "goddamn nigger," from out nowhere.
My roommate stepped back with a nervous laugh, since he'd never seen anyone say that outside of a sitcom. He had some kind of friendship with this blonde man who had just trespassed deeply upon me. The other witness contorted his face in confusion, unsure of the right intervention. My brain turned supercomputer:
- Should you walk away and be the bigger man?
- Is that really being the bigger man or the fucking punk you've always been?
- Should you hit him in his shit?
- If you did, how long would it take for the other two people to break it up should you get dogged out, since he's bigger than you?
- Maybe… pace away and throw a chair once he turns his back?
- Excuse me, excuse me… remember when Rafael whipped you with his coat on the playground in elementary school, and your day one, Tyree, was entertaining that shit, and you envisioned punching him in his head like a UFC fighter? You did that shit, and you didn't even know what a nigger was yet. HIT. HIM. IN. HIS. SHIT.
- But would you even get away with all that?
- Yeah, didn't you sign up for this when you came to this white-ass school? Who you finna cry to? Matter fact, what the fuck for?
- Was he joking?
- In what world was he joking?
- Why is [name withheld] even cool with this nigga?
- Maybe a headbutt?
- Maybe… spit on him?
- Wait, you on scholarship, he won't lose anything if you do dog him out… walk away?
I woke from this internal cross-chatter to find the blonde man smiling.
"Yeah. I said it."
Yeah, he said it.
"You should probably watch that…" was all I could muster up.
A witness began speaking on a race class he's taking, to maybe frame a defense for me. The blonde man laughed to himself, saying he took that class too. That he knows all about the "minorities…" I don't have any doubt in my reserves. I thought so much, I didn't think to get him reported since they won't do anything about it anyway.
The den television was on. President Obama was in a debate about something. It was in the background for this whole mess, my slur virgin self losing my innocence and meeting Nigger for the first time. I told the blonde man to keep watching, since that nigger's still gonna be our President. "I know… because I'll vote for him," he said, getting the last word.
What's one slur to a bumper sticker or a nice little liberal vote? What consoles you when this blonde man is but one of an army of your peers who soak in the progression without changing for the change?
I think Nigger's been following me. I can't say it's so. Was it there when I walked to the music hall next door, crying to myself? Was it out there on the lawn when my roommate told the blonde man where he fucked up, for the blonde man to tell him he thought it was fine since I’m a rapper who says "nigga" in his music? Did it dangle the aux cord the week or so after when the blonde man "apologized" in a drunken stupor? Did it tell me to nod my head in concession, knowing damn well I didn't mean it?
Every night since, in the Circus, I've held that moment like a token. Time told me it was a small thing, a smaller thing than what would come. The Circus is the biggest party. I saw all my friends and many a stranger there. The Black man who felt the spit of a white someone. The Black women catching "nigger whore" on the downtown strip. The rap show, and every scanning head. The party, with foreign hands in scalp digging for gold that doesn't belong to them. The kisses from skin fetish, dreaming of chocolate they'll never know. The Black boy murdered in his home by the public servant.
Our memories fill the offering plate; we share stories by the fire where you can't find us. Our words still save us. I still feel 10, in a polo and khaki, smiling because my mama told me I could do anything I wanted to if I put my mind to it. Now I feel 22, in all-black, straight-faced for the next day's foolishness. I told you I knew not of these white things, but the Circus doesn't let you leave without knowing their names. I watch them dance, laugh, and surround me, and I hold my applause.
I see a Black child, and pray for their armor when the world comes for them.