By Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, Special to the AFRO
I grew up learning how to hold my rage, to swallow my pain, and to stand up tall even when I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I spent every summer in South Carolina, around women who had come of age during the days of Jim Crow and who made it a point, to teach me about the power and strength of Blackness. There were days when it was overwhelming (exhausting, really) to be Black and to have to deal with Whiteness as the standard through which everything else was measured. My grandmother despised this standard and the notions of White privilege. Her neighborhood was filled with Confederate flags and White men who dared to call her auntie. She remembers being called n—-r almost as much as she was called her name. I was seven the first time that I can remember being called a n—-r. My grandmother used that moment to teach me how to respond and say, with confidence and without bending my head, that n—-r was not my name. She made me stand in front of the mirror and say it over and over again until I could say without tears in my eyes, without looking away, and without internalizing the power of this word. She told me that some words were designed to strip black people of both our power and our voice. “White people,” she said, “need us to be their n—–s so that they can feel superior. Don’t give them that. N—-r is not your name, nor your legacy. You may not understand that today but you will and when you do, make sure you tell somebody else.”
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
I thought about my grandmother’s words while I was preparing to speak at the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. I sat in my office watching videos and looking through photographs of Black bodies hanging from trees. I studied the faces of the White men and women who were casually standing around, talking and laughing, as Black people were being tortured and abused, cut and burned. I looked at the children and wondered who they grew up to be, after learning to normalize Black death and suffering. I listened to interviews from White people who spoke about why they had to kill that n—-r, almost as if they were doing God’s work. The n—-r to them was a nameless and faceless monster that threatened white supremacy, white nationalism, and white superiority. The n—-r, as James Baldwin once said, is an invention of White people that show their fear of Black people.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 3,959 Black men, women, and children were lynched in the twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1950 and, so far, 40 of them have been documented to have happened right here in Maryland. On that day, I wanted to speak their names and to speak for the victims that had not been identified yet. I wanted to say, loud and clear, that n—-r was not their name. I wanted to speak for those who had been terrorized; those who had been stalked; those who had been harassed; and, those who had been beaten and tortured. I wanted to speak for them because those of who are still here must not forget. We must hold the power of collective memory and teach it to others.
I thought about all of this when I visited Bard High School Early College in Baltimore. I walked into the school and walked past a group of Black male students laughing and calling each the n-word. I was on my way to the office, but I decided to stop and ask them why they were using that word. Now, that was not the first time that I heard young people use the n-word, but after spending so many days immersed in lynching history, I could not just walk by. They said that it was a form of affection and that it was not a big deal. They said that everybody did it and that it was ok if you were Black.
I stood there and looked at them because I wanted to tell them about the history of this word and about what James Baldwin said. I wanted to show them the lynching pictures on my phone and talk about how our blood, as Frederick Douglass once said, is mixed with the soil of this land. I wanted to challenge them to think deeply about the power of their words, but I did not know where to start. How do you collapse 400 hundred years of oppression and hatred, of white supremacy and white nationalism, lynching, and torture into five minutes? As I stood there thinking about all of this, the hallways filled up, and the students started moving toward class. One young man stayed behind because he wanted to know why I questioned them and what was the big deal with that word. I thought about my grandmother at that moment, and I smiled, because n—-r, I said, is not your name nor your legacy. You may not understand that today but you will and when you do, make sure you tell somebody else.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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