The N word.
A young black man steps up to the microphone and blasts poetry from his mouth that begins with the N word.
He is talking to his brothers with words that twist and turn like the rope of his hair, callin’ them to attention with N, N, N, callin’ them out, callin’ them in, callin’ them he sees how they treat ‘their’ women, he sees them lazy, he sees them steppin’ back from their responsibilities as men.
But all I can truly hear is N, N, N.
Lady Vee steps up to the microphone: ‘Let’s give it up for free speech,’ she says.
But not for the N word.
Lady Vee DaPoet is a woman of power and presence, a performer and poet of grace and skill and our MC for an open mic night in which I am the guest star.
She’s clever too – you can find her given name in her stage name.
(I’ll put Australians out of their quizzical misery – it’s DaVeata.)
Before intermission and after a steady line of delicious performance in that crowded Urban Grind cafe, Lady Vee introduces her next guest with such gusto, passion, enthusiasm, intelligence and respect that I look around the room thinking ‘wow, whose this gonna be …?’ – and it’s me.
The room is mostly young; they are confident, their hearts bursting with their own promise. They perform their poetry and sing their songs like for all the world they do this every week, which they do, and the world is waiting for their gift, which it ought to be. Theirs is the bold entitlement inherent to all Americans blessed with a microphone and a stage.
It’s my turn. I step up. I look around. The room is all black. In America’s South I have a new box – I am not just a woman, I am a white woman. And everywhere I go at the moment I am the only white woman in the room. It took me a while to realize this. And I am starting to wonder why this is so. I’ve not had a single white person in my audience in the South. On the surface it looks like the South has come a long long long long way in race relations. Black people own big houses and drive beautiful cars. You will find them on both sides of the counter, just like whites – the waited upon and the waiting on. I wonder if white people do not come to black events on purpose. Or if the cultures at their most comfortable simply celebrate differently. Or if black people would prefer white people stayed away. And if trust is yet a while away at the South’s social core.
I suspect there is still a big conversation to be had in the USA. Or perhaps some folks is tired of havin’ it.
Lady Vee asks me a question about my journey with my son. It is supposed to be a Q&A. As I draw to the end of my answer I look over to find her sitting down – I am on my own. So I draw my story out and then I read, three passages that bring the house down.
My publisher is pleased.
I’m relieved, because I had decided this was an audience who needed to hear some things and rather than play safe with beauty and mild adventure in prose, I slugged them with stories of worlds they know in ignorance, with a short history of what things were like for women just a generation or two before me and my favorite story of all: the one about how the men of the Arab world gave me the greatest gift of all, the gift of self; how they modeled for me what it is to fill your own space with nothing but . . . yourself. Speaking as a woman, that was an extraordinary experience. These are men so confident in their own bearing they do not spill their energy beyond their own boundaries. Every woman on Earth should feel, as a birthright, what it is to fill our own space and unapologetically possess all of it, right out to a circle of about three feet around us. All mine. No encroachment. I have never experienced this in the West.
On the drive back to my hotel, through Atlanta’s Saturday night traffic rushing home in the rain, I thought again about the N word.
And was reminded of my experiment with the C word. These two words, as far as I’m concerned, are in competition for the ‘Worst English Word on Earth’. They are sickening words, hateful words. Many years ago, a few friends were experimenting with the C word, with speaking it out loud. We would call each other a C and roll around laughing, doing our best to take the sting out of a hateful word.
One day I went too far. I emailed my sister (at work!) with just one four-letter word. It was bold, red and typed in font so big it filled the entire screen. I thought I was being funny. She never said a word. And to this day she never has.
Imagine, opening an email at work and staring down that word. A big loud angry C word, in your face. My sister was not part of the experiment. That word came out of the blue and must have slapped her so hard it took the wind out of day.
The N word. Perhaps he was experimenting with claiming that which hurt like hell, a way of possessing the power others think they have over you.
Like women who reclaim the C word.
And now there is a whole movement of women reclaiming the S word with an annual event called Slut Walk.
I understand their mission, but I cannot join them.