Why did I write this story? Intrigued by recent local news events that brought the notorious n-word to public attention, I wanted to dissect the word's split personality, pin down its history, its rise through music, and the pain it has caused. But while researching and writing, I couldn't shake vivid memories of my own encounters with the word.
Two incidents stood out. The first, from childhood, began as a typical Saturday afternoon at my next-door neighbors' home. Willa Mae Walker and her mother, Rebecca Patterson, were trading jokes and I was sitting in their living room, tickled that adults could behave like kids.
"Mama, I'm gonna pop you one!" Willa Mae said.
I howled in laughter, imagining the tussle between Ms. Patterson, with her gray hair and labored gait, and her able-bodied, daughter. But my delight instantly turned to fear from the elderly woman's retort. "Well, I'm gonna hit you upside your head, you little n---a!"
Those were fighting words. And I knew Willa Mae would attack Ms. Patterson. At the time, my Liberian mother wasn't familiar with black history in America, and had not said much to me about slavery or racism. But I'd gleaned bits and pieces in school and from PBS specials. And I knew for certain that word was worse than profanity; it was hateful and should never be spoken.
So why would Ms. Patterson lodge the planet's most degrading insult at her daughter?
My heart sped, and I braced myself for the bloodshed. But Willa Mae laughed. "You're so silly, Mama!" And then they both laughed, nonstop. I sat numb, baffled and disappointed that the African-American neighbors who had introduced me to gospel music and soul food had this day introduced me to another black tradition – their casual relationship with the n-word. Some 20 years later, as an adult journalist, well-versed in American life and its fixation with race, I met the n-word's other personality.
I was high-stepping it home, fresh from impressive tennis victories, when a group of young white men dining on the corner of Allen Street and Delaware Avenue hollered: "N----r! Hey, n----r!"
Not only was I the only black person on the street, the sidewalks were eerily empty of anyone else on that sunny Saturday afternoon.
"N----r!" the shouting continued. I was stunned. It was 2007, in the North, on Buffalo's West Side, and I was experiencing blatant racism, and in broad daylight.
Their hateful chorus grew louder and angrier as I walked farther up the block.
"N----r! You're a n----r!"
But I wasn't.
I was my mother's vicarious realization of her American Dream. I was a proud survivor of rough-and-tumble Brownsville, Brooklyn. I was a dedicated volunteer Big Sister. I was the coolest aunt on the planet. And I was Western New York's Serena Williams, in my mind, at least.
But I wasn't a n----r.
As an African-American, I'm programmed to treat the n-word from a white person as my kryptonite. I'm supposed to buckle, get riled, lash out at my tormentors as racists. But I didn't; I couldn't play that part.
I couldn't hand them that satisfaction, that power. These ignorant strangers would not define me.
So I didn't dignify their taunts with even a slight interruption in my strides. I just kept walking, proudly. They weren't talking to me; they didn't know me.