CHAPTER ELEVEN, The IN Word
Updated: May 11, 2019
The shocking thing about The N Word in jail is not that you hear it, but that you hear it so often. My pre-jail experiences with the word, at least in recent years, had been rare. It was not a word that I used. I wasn’t aware of its being used by friends or acquaintance, but that could be as naïve an assumption (and as quick to incite a subtle eye-roll or two) as when a straight person, hoping that veracity will spring from the very utterance, states, “I don’t think I even know any gay people.” When, during my pre-jail adulthood, I remember The N Word being dropped into a conversation, the delivery (always from the mouth of a white person) was always wrapped in on of three possible manners:
angrily, as if loudly radiating an “and I don’t care WHO hears me” attitude was sufficient to reestablish the cursed word’s foothold in the socially acceptable vernacular, and wouldn’t THAT just serve black people right, or, . . .
sotto voce, behind a hand, entre nous, wink-wink, as if a light-hearted delivery somehow mitigated the nastiness of intention built into the word, or . . .
dropping, after a loud tirade, to a suddenly quiet delivery for the word itself, a method that emphasized the excellent breeding of the speaker while indicating that even he had his breaking point, and that his breaking point had been, well . . . broken.
It was always a shock to hear the word, but it was not a big shock; not a shock of sufficient strength (I’m embarrassed to say) to motivate me to any action beyond a tinge of outrage. Following that, the after-effect (and I am not proud to admit this either) would invariably be to give myself permission to ignore the experience of having heard the word in the first because . . . because . . . because to give the word the dignity of an acknowledgement was somehow to allow its permission to exist in the universe (and also because to practice the subtle art of denial is to gloss over the pesky possibility that you are a shallow, cowardly shithead.)
But the circumstances in jail are different because, well, among many other things the nearly lily-white racial “mix” to which I had been accustomed has been turned on its keister. To have considered The N Word early in my incarceration (if, with everything else I had going on in my head, even happened), I suppose it would have meant the expectation of an occasional hearing, angrily and/or in haste, that the speaker would be black and that The N Word would be spoken angrily or in haste, like an outburst; a fluke occurrence from a black source. Since “everyone knows” (that is, everyone who is not black) that in a blacks-only setting The N Word is occasionally used, hearing it within the confines of jail would not be such a shock.
Reality, however, is a non-hypothetical proposition. And this word that I assumed in hypothetical jail, would be randomly heard is, in reality, rampant. It is not the occasional result of an angry outburst, and it is not often heard. It is not, in fact, frequently heard. It is constantly heard. More ubiquitous than all of the elements of the Motherfucker Family variants put together, The N Word is a normal, intentional and commonplace part of everyday conversation among black inmates, at least, my black inmates. And to become aware of such was a source of considerable shock and great confusion to me: confused at the sheer number of hearings, confused as to why I was the only one who seemed to notice and, finally, totally shocked that this word, which is universally acknowledged to be the most damaging in the lexicon of bigotry, fit so effortlessly and so ubiquitously into the contours of everyday speech among my black inmate colleagues. Even more shocking (to me) was that in the constant state of ricochet with which The N Word bounced around The South Tower, Level Three, it produced no more of a negative vibe among the rest of the guys than if it was just one in a very long list of innocent, conversational seasoning devices like “man, “buddy” or “dude.”
That made no sense. The N Word exists for the very purpose of stirring up a lot of crappy feelings, shame foremost among them. But here, there was no shame, not, at least, as regards the speakers of the Word, all of whom were black. I, on the other hand, felt it aplenty; outrage as well. Further, I didn’t like it. The fact of being a white inmate in the county jail was in no way going to prevent my liberal hackles from going sky high when confronted with this word. If my black inmate colleagues had somehow forgotten how to feel the appropriate shame and outrage, I would take it on for them.
And so I did. I huffed and I puffed and I shook my head in quiet shame. Yet, in so doing, I still could not understand why The N Word would have been adopted, no, embraced so wholeheartedly by the very people against whom it was intended through the centuries to be derisive.
Despite the fact of never having been on the receiving end of The N Word (‘cause THAT would make zero sense), I thought I understood it. Having been born late in the first wave of the Baby Boom to Depression-era parents in the South, I grew up within frequent earshot of The N Word. It is, it gives me no pleasure to say, embedded in my DNA. Granted, in my childhood, the word did not carry with it the extreme overtones of rage and derision that it evokes today, but one would have to be deeper in denial than even I could ever imagine to believe with any sincerity that in its 350-year history, The N Word had ever been what could truthfully be described by anyone as “nice.” If the intentions behind it had failed to match today’s standard for extreme hate mongering, they were, even then, plenty mean.
And it is beside the point that my first eighteen years were spent largely within the sheltering domain of Polite Society, where The N Word was not officially recognized as a component of the vocabulary of anyone to whom I might be exposed. That was the American South, and in the mid 20th century American South, people (my people, anyway) had manners. Manners were very important.
Unfortunately, however, “manners” are not always good manners. Though good manners may have dictated the way things appeared, or the way things were supposed to go, a different reality dictated the way things actually were. If The N Word was assiduously avoided in polite society, you didn’t have to dig many layers down to expose it in all of its ugly glory. In those circumstances, I heard it, or, to be more accurate, overheard it often enough.
In polite society, “colored’ or “Negro” (but especially “colored”) were the accepted, acceptable words of the day, and in written English, I don’t think that practice deviated in the South from a similar understanding in the North. But considering the nougat-like consonants and oozing vowels characteristic of so many incarnations of Southern speech, long, bright, Yankee vowel sounds inherent in KNEE-GROW were way too much trouble for anyone born in the Land of Cotton. In that part of the world, where “you all” became “ya’ll” (and “all ya’ll,” its plural) and “can’t” became “cain’t,” Negro, also as a result of sheer, lingual laziness, became “nigra.” Along with “colored” (its two o’s like the vowel sound in cud), the pair became the polite words with which southern whites described an American person they presumed to be of African origins and in whose family history, one might find, during the years of King Cotton, just the wee chance of a tiny trace of slavery.
It is difficult today to understand why an appalled cringe was not the acceptable and universal reaction to both words. But after all, we, as white people, had carried thoughtlessly on for centuries without bothering to correct the misnomer used blithely and against all evidence to the contrary in reference to Native American populations presumed by Christopher Columbus to be indigenous to India, the country whose shores he assumed he had attained in his voyage westward from Spain. In the face of logic like that, there was no reason to question the propriety of choices like Colored and Nigra when, at their core, at least, they were accurate. Kinda. If anyone actually cared.
Never mind that Caucasians have never been referred to as “Caucas,” and “blanched” has never been an acceptable substitute for “white.” In using “colored” and “Nigra” and (in case the meaning was still obscure) “colored Nigra,” it never occurred to white southerners that they were not being polite, even progressive. In fact, as the 50’s became the 60’s, and race relations really began to heat up, I remember grownups making a special effort in the pronunciation department, lest haste might lay waste to intention, inadvertently twisting the acceptable version of The N Word into its ugly, bastard cousin.
As racial foment fluctuated from bad through catastrophic and horrifying to tragic and back to bad, etc., “Nigra” and “colored” fell away to be replaced by Black and Afro-American, and while that was an improvement, The N Word, now even more marginalized, was imbued with the full measure of toxicity it retains today—except, apparently, to the black inmates of The South Tower, Level Three, whose continued, constant, shame-free use of The N Word remained a source of confusion to my honky ears.
The longer I was in jail, the more times I heard The N Word of casual conversation, and the more times I heard The N Word, the more easily I would find myself thinking it in random instances of my own head speak, whether or not it applied to a black man:
ME (in my head): Remember to get the Grisham novel back from the new
N Word in 31 cell.
ME (in my head): When is that N Word from commissary going to get here with our loot?
ME (in my head): I wonder what dreck those N Words from the kitchen are going to try to pass off as food tonight at dinner.
To be clear, in my head, I was not hearing “The N Word.” I was hearing THE N Word. And what is that, The N Word? It is code for a word that has, over the course of many years, become bound up in bitter hatred, and is, in fact, so loaded with bad that it is not allowed on television, on the radio, in polite society. But on the flip side of my confusion over the extent to which my black inmate colleagues used the actual N Word, is my confusion as to what everyone else thinks they are accomplishing by use of a phrase that is code for the worst word you can think of, when that phrase accomplishes nothing but to make you think of the worst word you can think of, which is, of course, The N Word.
That is not to say that there is a part of me that would like to bar white people from ever using The N Word for, for starters, the following two reasons:
White people have so abused both the word and the people to whom it has referred for so long and so heinously that our permission to use the word should absolutely be revoked.
The word gives the user an unfair advantage in terms of the weight of its hatred potential because there is no retaliatory equivalent that can be hurled back at the white user. The best options that any person of color has with a single word uttered against a white person are:
How dare you. Stop.
But censorship, in addition to being unconstitutional, is ineffective, even in the case of a word as nasty as The N Word (especially if the best substitute anyone can come up with for The N Word is The N Word).
So, my life dragged on in jail, and I was still confused about The N Word. Eventually, however, the list of other things I was confused about grew ever longer, and since it was dominated by a focus on the question of why it was that I was still in jail, my N Word fixation paled by comparison. It finally slipped into the background to such an extent that my awareness of it, both in the air and in my head, pretty much disappeared. I was only conscious of it, in fact, on the couple of occasions in which I actually said it out loud, and on those occasions, I used it in the same context that I might use “man,” “buddy” or “dude,” without thinking and without shame.
I should, in the interest of full disclosure, point out that there were two occasions in which I heard white guys utter The N Word, but one of the guys was myself and the other was Justin, and the word came up in our discussion of the fact that black inmates used it all the time and white inmates didn’t.
I should also say that both the black dudes and the white guys here have racially-derived terms for the other, but I don’t think (or, at least, I hope) it is disingenuous of me to say that they would be classified way more under the category of euphemism than racial slur. I leave it to you to judge. Here is an instance in which a white inmate might refer to a black inmate as Canadian. It’s probably the best example I can recall, and it happened around season one, episode one of EMPIRE, at the time, a new, nighttime drama from Fox. Against the backdrop of an upscale reincarnation of a Motown-esque recording studio, EMPIRE, from what I can tell, is what happens when a combination of the worst of elements from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and Jerry Springer’s trailer trash psychodramas collide with the worst features of a bus & truck incarnation of DREAM GIRLS. Perhaps you have seen it.
Anyway, as I think I have mentioned elsewhere, the noise level in the pit during any meal or rec time is constantly high, often deafening. During the EMPIRE premiere, however, you could hear the drop of the proverbial pin. Remarking on this astonishing reversal of the noise level norm, in fact, Justin turned to me and whispered, amused, behind his hand, to point out the fact that the normal inmate chit-chat that constantly obliterated any sound coming from the TV was not only less than usual, but absent altogether. When, after having whispered the fact to me, the very hilarious, collective response by the EMPIRE-rapt brothers was to turn to Justin and shush him at such a volume and with such vehemence that it sounded like he had been targeted by every snake in the Grand Canyon.
JUSTIN (in a whisper, to me, wide-eyed, barely restraining a guffaw): Canadians!
The other side of coin is also an illustration from our TV viewing, this one inspired by the sight of long-time Jeopardy host Alex Trebek (who, incidentally, hails from Ottawa, Canada) in an often-run infomercial hawking life insurance for geezers, featuring a whites-only cast of said geezers. Justifiably, it always inspires hoots of laughter from the bemused “Canadians,” who never fail to remark: White people!
But, to return to the more serious subject, it has finally occurred to me that the real reason The N Word should be removed from any list of vocabulary options for white people (especially well-intentioned white people) is because it is beyond our ability to repair the damage that it has caused or to control the subtext that it conveys. It is not within our purview to determine its value, or to assess the deep and abiding damage caused by its varying pejorative degrees over the years. It is not, in short, our word to ban. It is way too late for that.
But black people, as I have been too naïve or too rigid or too stupid to figure out until now, are perfectly capable of taking this hateful word and, like my brilliant black inmate colleagues, embracing it as their own, beating it into submission and thereby diffusing it to such an extent that no self-respecting racist would dare use it again.
It is a technique that has begun to work in the gay world to take the sting out of The F Word, and I have no doubt that it would work among women who want to diffuse the gut-punch potential inherent in The C Word. It just takes the rest of us to moderate our liberal knee-jerk tendencies and drop the stance of political correctness. Instead, we should turn the power of these traditionally shocking, confusing, hateful words over to the people at whom they have always been directed. As we all learned from Harry Potter, nothing can neutralize the menace of a giant spider more effectively than to fit it out in four pairs of roller skates.
A case in point was illustrated a few nights ago by Alvin, aka Doughboy, a black inmate colleague of about 32. The father of two (adorable) little girls, he is bracing himself to go upstate for eight to ten years for refusing to snitch on a friend who got himself mixed up in a situation involving a highly illegal substance and a gun that was never fired. Doughboy, always comfortable in any ethnic mix, is our go-to guy for any issue within the realm of community relations. He was the first inmate to introduce himself to me on my first night in The South Tower, Level Three, and, if all of that is not a great reason to treasure him, the is a bonus: Doughboy is hilarious.
On the night in question, Justin and I were sitting at a table, taking a break from a card game, chatting above the usual din with Doughboy, when our attention shifted to a situation taking shape beside me that was being instigated by Amos, a chronic complainer and our resident hypochondriac. At age fifty-five, Amos, has spent three decades, off and on, as a guest of the criminal justice system. Currently, he is awaiting trial for manslaughter.
At this moment he had become intent on attracting the attention of another brother, the very affable Louis Bee, a serial parole violator, who was standing about forty feet away with a bunch of guys, all riveted by “Wheel of Fortune” or a rerun episode of THE |BIG BANG THEORY. Amos, whose daily breakfast table complaint is that he hasn’t slept a wink, was looking for his nightly coffee fix. Go figure. Apparently he had decided, since he was, as usual, out of coffee, that Louis Bee was the easiest touch in the room full of guys to whom Amos already owes mountains of instant commissary coffee that he has no intention of paying back.
AMOS (holding his empty cup and standing directly beside me, shouting across the room while JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and I look on): Louis Bee!
(JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and I look across the room in the direction of LOUIS BEE. LOUIS BEE’S focus on the television does not waver.)
AMOS (supporting himself on my chair and shouting more loudly across the room, causing JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and me to turn our attention back to him): Louis Bee!!
(JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and I turn toward LOUIS BEE, fully expecting him to look in AMOS’S direction because, to us, and especially to me, AMOS is really, REALLY loud. LOUIS BEE remains focused on the television, rapt.)
AMOS (now cupping his hands around his mouth, still oblivious to his volume. JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and I, brace for the next sonic boom, and lean away from AMOS. Beginning to show his irritation that LOUIS BEE is paying no attention, he shouts again, this time stomping on the floor with each syllable): LOU-EE BEE!!
(LOUIS BEE does not waver. JUSTIN, DOUGHBOY and I look at AMOS who, now clearly pissed, storms away, muttering, while the three of us watch him go into his cell and slam the door. There is a collective sigh from the three of us. I look at JUSTIN, incredulous. JUSTIN looks at me, incredulous.
We both look up at DOUGHBOY, wondering if he might have a viable explanation as to why a grown man clearly thinks a message stands a chance of being effectively communicated when it is shouted across a crowded room in which the noise level is, shall we say, fucking loud.)
DOUGHBOY (looks at me and JUSTIN, shrugs and sighs): Niggers.
Letter from Jail #5,