My name begins with N

Subtitle: One on-going page of a personal memoir

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There’s an olden story,
(a joke, really)
I first heard at my father’s knee.
“Son,” he admonished, “you’d better see!”

An olden story still being (having to be) told.

Truly, the unfunniest joke, which, later,
I understood was meant to be necessarily unfunny.
First, to mask the unceasing pain of being unseen
or, rather, being seen
and then dismissed, because you look like this,
and
secondly, to teach a biting lesson of bitterest self-awareness.

(Therefore, when my father said, “You’d better see!”
really, he meant, “So, better to see!”
adding, clarifying,
“No matter where you go,
how high, how far,
someone, somewhere will call you by this name
so, to remind you of what they think you are.”)

The joke?

What’s the name white America
(sometimes, behind-the-back, whispered, snickered
and sometimes, in like company, thundered)
calls:

A black Ivy League-educated, Wall Street
(could be in New York City, but Tulsa, back in the day)
lawyer
or broker
or corporate director
(for the occupation and title, truly, never matter)?

or

A black graduate school-educated Episcopal cleric
with over 40 years of service
in congregations of every size and color,
the last, nearly all-white
(though, to some sure degree, there
serving as window-dressing,
being the one at whom folks pointing
could swear as visual proof of how wonderfully liberal they were),
who, millions of words in the finest King’s English,
has written and spoken,
even with a book to his credit,
and preached from pulpits America-round
and as distantly-bound as
London,
Johannesburg,
and, even on a Christmas Day, in Firenze?

The punchline?

It’s a too common word, for it’s still oft heard,
numbering 6 letters and beginning with N.

Now, to my white friends, I don’t intend to offend.
Truly, I don’t
(but, frankly, that I must think to say it
is more than a mark of good manners,
but, rather,
a sign of racism’s systemic, psyche-deep fettering hold
forbidding that I ever be so bold,
really,
that I never be too bold so as to disturb you),
but…

I know (or I think I know) that some of you,
who with civil (read: polite) sensibilities,
might (will?) be stricken by this I have written
and, with dismay, say:

“Such a notion never would occur to me.”

Perhaps.

or

“I’ve never heard such a thing.”

Hmmm, that’s doubtful.

or

“I can’t imagine this word being said about the black people I know.”

Mmmm, what you can’t imagine, trust me,
I, as someone you do know,
has had occasion (many!) to have heard this word directed at me.

If this I have written strikes you as unfunny and angry,
then you have read me rightly.

For I am.

Every. Day.

For every marching, protesting step
means the message of equality still must be said,
for it has yet to be heard
(and not with outward ears,
but with the inward auricular sense of the soul;
enough to change what we believe and how we behave).

And every word of hate from presidential lips,
quickly excused,
for “He’s just being himself” (Right!)
or “He didn’t mean it that way” (Wrong!),
is but red (read: racist) meat for voracious crowds
who, with raucous cheers,
though knowing me not,
well know my name,
for it begins with N.

© 2020 PRA

14 thoughts on “My name begins with N

  1. Paul,

    Some years ago several women friends, one of whom is African-American, and I had finished lunch in a downtown St. Paul restaurant. We exited the place and were walking down the sidewalk to the parking ramp where we had parked our cars, when an older white woman came up to us, stopped and asked the white woman nearest her on the sidewalk in a loud voice, “So, you’re hanging with n——- now?” My African-American friend immediately burst into hysterical laughter and began walking away, as did the white friend the woman had spoken to, who happens to be married to an African-American man. I could only stand, stunned and dumb on the street trying to absorb the shock at both the question and my friends’ responses. Both friends later explained that they have experienced this enough times, and it strikes them as so utterly ridiculous that they have decided to consider any white person who uses the term insane and the word worthy only of laughter and immediate dismissal. Having been friends with both of them for a very long time, I believed them then and still do, although I have never understood how they came to be able to respond as they do to such attacks.

    Ted and I watched “I Am Not Your Negro” last week. I think my favorite scene in that incredible, devastating film is Baldwin’s conversation with Kenneth Clark wherein he states his belief that the future of the United States rests upon the ability of white people (and by this I believe he meant both individuals and the entire white race in America) to ask themselves/itself the question “Why was it necessary to have a n——- in the first place? Why was it necessary for white people to invent such a concept?” That monumental question has never been posed and answered in this society in any public and universal way, and I can only believe that the current responses to George Floyd’s and myriad other murders of Black people by police and vigilantes and other longstanding injustices bring us right back to the bedrock necessity for white America to ask itself that question. Until we know we MUST ask it, and until we are able to devote ourselves publicly and honestly to the search for an answer, white America will continue to damage, limit, and cripple our entire society because of our deep ignorance of our own historical and psychological underpinnings.

    Thank you, Paul, for helping to keep that terribly essential question before us.

    Much love,

    Karen

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  2. My dearest Karen, always, I thank you for your responses and your encouragement. Believe me, many of the thoughts that occur to me and, thus, the words I write to capture them (1) oft, before posting, I reconsider doing so for fear of disturbing some beyond their desire or ability to read and reflect and even more, (2) for I would wish not to think and to write what it is I am compelled to think and to write.

    I thank you, more, for your prescription, that “…we MUST ask it (‘Why was it necessary to have a n——- in the first place? Why was it necessary for white people to invent such a concept?’), and until we are able to devote ourselves publicly and honestly to the search for an answer, white America will continue to damage, limit, and cripple our entire society because of our deep ignorance of our own historical and psychological underpinnings.”

    I say/write this, for (the Spirit’s holy serendipity ne’er ceases to astound me), a moment before reading your post, I had watched and listened to a sermon of last Sunday by one standing in one of the most powerful and recognized pulpits in this country. The preacher spoke of the necessity of white America taking part in “white soul work,” which I understood to mean inner individual and communal labor to examine one’s and society’s racism in order to begin to dismantle it. However, there was no word of a specific focus or action, no detailed step or stage of engagement, no counsel that answers the question: “What does it look like when we’re doing ‘white soul work’.” Hence, for me, another opportunity lost to illumine the matter and enlighten the mind and inspire the heart. You, for me, wondrously contrarily, offer a way forward. Thank you, beyond my power to convey, thank you.

    Love

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  3. I so appreciate your kind words, Paul, but I think all the affirmation must go to James Baldwin and others who have grasped the centrality of his question. What a prophet the man was. And the more I see, hear, read of him, the more I believe it, and the more deeply I grieve the fact that he, like WAY too many other non-white prophets and seers, is no longer among us.

    Along the same lines, do you think the U.S. could ever be brought to embark upon a version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? It is the only kind of forum I can conceive of where Baldwin’s question might be publicly engaged.

    Love,

    Karen

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  4. My dearest Karen, yours is a poignant question: “(D)o you think the U.S. could ever be brought to embark upon a version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” And I , too, believe it is the sort of forum where Baldwin’s question can be engaged with the disciplined integrity that might/can move us into a new realm of existence and shared experience as a nation.

    That said, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, as I recall the history, was, metaphorically, as a powerful planting that grew from the soil of a national desire to reckon with a sordid past of exploitation and, as importantly, fertilized by a willingness of the formerly subjugated black populace not to react with retributive violence upon their oppressors. In this milieu, penitence could be confessed and repentance sought, making reconciliation possible. Perfectly? Of course not. No human endeavor, even that suffused with the stuff of the Spirit (for that Spirit still must work through flesh), can achieve a hope-beheld ideal. Nevertheless, the T&RC was a noble effort that serves as a model for us all. Additionally, the T&RC was a stage upon which trusted actors, for example, Desmond Tutu, could appeal to human conscience in a way that provoked/evoked potentially trusting and, thus, gracious (which is to say, honestly confessional) responses.

    Now, when I look at America today in the current deepening climate of polarization, no, I don’t believe that we, as a nation, as a people can muster enough of the requisite mutual goodwill to attempt such a thing.

    Love and a luta continua…

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  5. Paul and Karen,
    It took me hours to prepare to read this because I knew how I’d feel after I read it. And then I read the comments between the two of you. I’d love to find some words to participate in discussion but I don’t have any. I just feel pain. For all of us.

    Much love to you both and thank you for pouring this out for us to digest. It absolutely needs to be said.

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  6. Loretta, always, always, I thank you – and Karen – for reading, reflecting, and responding.

    These are especially painful times. Beset by a viral pandemic (coupled with massively ineffective, non-science-and-anti-intelligence-based leadership) and renewed racial pandemonium, again, these are especially painful times. Fear and anger and despair roam the land and inhabit my heart. I find hopefulness hard to come by. Nevertheless, my reading and studying of our scriptural record – both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament – reveal unto me that God is ever faithful, particularly in times of crisis (for the human propensity to accept good times and assume that they arise due largely to our goodly efforts, thus, our needing not to thank anyone but ourselves, is a characteristic expression of our innate hubris – but that’s a subject for another time!). Hence, I continue to train my eyes on the metaphorical horizon, above and beyond this present moment, trusting that I will behold good to come.

    And, Karen, in responding to your comment and question about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I kicked myself for having failed to mention Nelson Mandela as an/the uber-key figure in that historical happening. For, I believe, it was his willingness, though oppressed and imprisoned by the white South African government, upon release, to act with the courage and conviction of reconciliation that allowed a relatively bloodless transition of power and leadership to occur…

    Now, here, I must digress. Last week, I had occasion to talk with a friend who, in a local leadership position, commenting on the 5th anniversary of the Mother Emanuel murders by a white supremacist, made the observation that the forgiveness offered to the murderer by the family members of the slain did more to advance the cause of equality and justice than the present-day protesters and protest marches. Though I said to him that he may have a point, I also shared my view that as a white person his comment could be interpreted as yet another case of a white person making judgment about what black folk ought best (better!) do to make their case for inclusion. He understood my point and I understood that that was not his intent. I share this so to point to a couple of things and to reinforce my viewpoint…

    One, the act of a black person forgiving a white person (or government or regime or whatever), particularly in the context of Christian ethics, has a long (and muddled) history, making it hard to separate, at times, the motivations. Is the forgiveness freely given? Or is it rooted in what black folks are “supposed to do” given the always complicated history of subordination and subservience to white societies/cultures? Or are elements of both (and more) involved?

    Two, forgiveness, I believe, always bears elements of power – the capacity to act (or not to act) – and authority – the right to exercise the power. In Mandela’s case, the power and authority, as the leader of a nation, I aver, were obvious. In the case of the forgiveness offered by the family members of the murdered pastor and members of Mother Emanuel, I also aver that power and authority were present and palpable, though in the light (indeed, the shadow) of the grievous losses of the lives of their loved ones, perhaps not as obvious (at least, in the way the world and worldly-minded tend to view power).

    Nevertheless, my point here is that white folk need take care in commenting on such acts of grace so to examine their hearts before they speak/write, lest they appear to cast judgment on the validity (or lack) of what black folk do or do not do.

    Love and a luta continua…

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    1. Paul,

      Thank you so much for your further reflections. Certainly Nelson Mandela embodied a kind of leadership that calls upon human qualities that I can’t recall seeing any other political leader display in my lifetime, powers of heart and spirit and soul that most people, and in particular politicians, don’t easily or readily claim as the divine leadership gifts that they are and thus rarely hone or utilize. The power to forgive and overcome the past, in Mandela’s hands, was not only a deep spiritual gift; it was a power tool for building on the ruins of his country’s history. I can’t even imagine the faith and courage that Mandela must have had at his very core in order to walk out of that prison and do what he did.

      With regard to your story of your friend’s comment about the Mother Emanuel congregants’ offers of forgiveness to the murderer of their loved ones being more effective than protests in advancing the cause of equality and justice, his judgment on that score makes me feel queasy, embarrassed, and not a little irritated, and not only for the reason that you so rightly identify. I agree it seems to be a preferred white prescription for how Black people are to deal with injustice, brutality, and outrageous injury, but I also find his statement to echo what Jeremiah identified as a cry of “Peace, peace” when there is no peace and to suggest the claiming of a false peace that Martin Luther King referred to as “absence of strife” rather than the presence of justice.

      I would never argue against the family members’ offer of forgiveness to Dylan Roof, but that act of grace belongs only to them. No one, and particularly no white someone has standing to pass judgment on it or try to claim it as something different than what it seems on its face, a deep moral and spiritual act of reconciliation in the face of heinous hatred. Your friend, I’m afraid, may prefer quietness and lack of strife over the noisy, disruptive battle for justice and transformation we have been witnessing in the streets, and he is perhaps willing to promote quietness as a kind of substitute for peace. I don’t think he, nor I, nor any other non-Black person is in the moral position to make that choice.
      Therefore, a luta continua, my dear friend.

      With all kinds of love for you and your questing, generous heart,

      Karen

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  7. And you, my beloved sister, as you oft do, stated my view more succinctly and eloquently than I could or did. Thank you.

    As I think afresh of my conversation with my friend, I, too, ran the full course of emotions you describe – “…queasy, embarrassed (in this case, for him), and not a little irritated.” Still, at the close of our conversation, I was reminded of the value, which I know you hold dear, of encounter and engagement with others, indeed, “the other.” As I reflect even more, oh, how I oft have wished and do wish that such conversations could happen more frequently across lines of division. For walking away with mutual understanding – if not also agreement (indeed, even and especially when there is no agreement) – is possible only when some degree of civil connection occurs, which, for me, is worth the effort. (And, it occurs to me to share that I saw my friend’s post three days prior to my reaching out to him in a private message. During the course of that three day-period, several times I thought not to express to him my point of view, saying to myself, “Paul, you need not engage every issue.” But, trusting that he meant well, though, still thinking, believing his message might be viewed – and was viewed by me – as tone-deaf, I reached out.)

    Love always,
    Paul

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    1. Dear Paul,

      I do indeed hold dear the value of encounter and engagement with others, and particularly when the others include “the other.” Our deeply, and I fear, purposefully, divided society affords us so few opportunities for “civil connection,” as you aptly term it, with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. Social media may have certain benefits, but unity of spirit and purpose seems most often to be a casualty in the cacophony that I know often emerges from those powerhouse forums.

      I’m glad you decided to reach out to your friend and to offer your perspective on the forgiveness/protest comparison he made. I know you approached with kindness and, as you said, trusting that he meant well. Those qualities pave the way for an actual hearing of what is offered rather than a knee-jerk defensiveness. It has taken me much the greater part of my life to learn some of those gentler arts, and I’m still not very good at them, I’m afraid. (It didn’t help to spend so many years as a litigation attorney!)

      Your reaching out gave your friend the best you had to offer about the truth of how his judgment would probably be received in the Black community. And that kind of truth is precious in this moment, when as you have recounted, so many Black people have simply given up on trying to communicate their truth to white society.

      Thank you for your persistence and your honesty, dear Paul.

      Love,

      Karen

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  8. Martha Griswold June 23, 2020 — 5:05 pm

    I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church in NC. A favorite song of mine we sang as small children was
    🎶Jesus loves the little children,
    All the children of the world,
    Red and Yellow, Black and White,
    They are precious in His sight,
    Jesus loves the little children of the world.🎶 When did “We are all God’s children,” stop including all of them I was taught? Having taught in public school, I felt God sent me “all the children of the world” to help raise. The world has continued to be a cruel place for God’s children. Thankfully, our God of all of His children will have the last word on Judgment Day.
    Much love to you, my brother, and to your wife, my sister.

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    1. Dear Martha,

      I thank for sharing with me some of your life’s experience. I, too, was taught and oft sang, “Jesus loves the little children…” Moreover, I have taught that song to and with children, many, over the years. I believe that “all of God’s children” always, aye, eternally, always have been “all of God’s children.”

      Sorrowfully, for me, the world, indeed, we humans from time immemorial, both as individuals and societies, have sought (and have succeeded) in determining that some of God’s children matter more than others of God’s children.

      As we, Americans, near our annual celebration of our nation’s founding, I think afresh of how the cardinal principle at the heart of the birth of our country, being universal equality, remains yet to be realized for all. Hence, our American experiment remains an experiment and not yet an experience enjoyed by all. Nevertheless, all God’s children in the eyes of God and those who love God are and always will be all God’s children.

      Love, Paul

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  9. Oh, my dearest sister, you had me chuckling at your reference to your vocation and history as a litigation attorney. I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you, but I went to college as a poly sci major planning for a career in law (as I recall, to serve as a defense attorney was my dream/goal). (Long story to tell about how I ended up where and who I ended up!)

    And, just so that you know, in my mind and heart, your honest demurral – “It has taken me much the greater part of my life to learn some of those gentler arts, and I’m still not very good at them, I’m afraid” – makes you, for me, a faithful broker in the conversation between and among differing, even and especially hostilely differing positions. For, it seems to me, both in theory and in practice, that only those who know what they find lacking in themselves are those who have the integrity and the courage to enter in where – as the proverbial saying has it – angels fear to tread.

    As for staying in the conversation between and among opposite, aye, opposing persons and positions, I shared with Pontheolla a day or so ago that, as I have most of my life and labor behind me, my calling daily for as long as breath and strength avail is to be, as I say of you, a faithful broker.

    Love

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  10. Fr. Paul –

    I weep as I read this. A young girl child of 11 heard from her uncle that she was a N-lover because she had dear friends who were of a different color than she. That girl was me and I weep every time I remember this blazen racism from my very own blood.

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    1. My dear Grace, I am sorry – truly, deeply – that the expression, the judgment of racism has been in your life’s experience. That you weep now is the surest, saddest demonstration of how brutal and long-bearing is the pain of racism. Again, I am sorry. Truly. Deeply. Your testimony also reminds me, to borrow, for my purposes, the words of the poet, we hath miles, many miles to go before we sleep in peace. Your testimony, so passionate, so poignant, so painful also steels my will to do all I can where I am with what I have to bring in the day of human equality, aye, to strive that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

      With love,
      Paul

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