Yesterday I was sitting on my  porch watching my granddaughter play with two of her cousins in the front yard.  The house across the street has been a vacant eyesore since I moved into the neighborhood, so  I’ve been happy to see construction taking place on a daily basis.  The workers are young, Latino and appear to be working diligently to resurrect the house, which is pepto bismal pink and in a state of total disrepair.  Sometimes they blast music and banter loudly amongst themselves, but that doesn’t bother me.  I’m sure hard manual labor is easier when you are joking and laughing with your peers.  If I want quiet, I’ll just take my book and move indoors.

Yesterday was no exception.  The guys were bantering and a musical party scene prevailed.  I was skimming through a magazine as I kept an eye on the kids and had pretty much tuned out the construction crew.  That is until a word spoken loudly by one of the guys jumped out at me.  “Hey, nigger.”  He was addressing another Latino man, and my first thought was “Wow, this is a popular word with some people in the Hispanic community too.”  Up until four years ago, I worked with middle and high school students, so I shouldn’t really has been surprised, but since my retirement, I’ve lived in somewhat of a bubble, I guess.

I’m not Black.  I come from a jewish background, but I have four grown biracial children as well as grandchildren of color.  I’m relatively new to this area, and I don’t know my neighbors well, but I do know this street is almost exclusively African-American.  Apparently this guy felt perfectly comfortable and entitled to spit out a word with a hateful legacy in a neighborhood of mostly older generation Black home owners.

“That’s the wrong word to be using in this neighborhood” I yelled, hoping to be heard over the sounds of machinery.  Apparenty I could, because the “perpetrator” threw a sheepish look in my direction and with a slight shake of his head said “Sorry.”  I’m sure Black people who routinely address themselves as “niggas” would have been highly indignant, and may have even tried to take it further than I did, but is it possible they need to re-think their own use of such an inflammatory word?

I know the argument Black people use when they address each other that way.  “It’s okay for us.”  “We are entitled, because we are in the family.”  “It’s a term of identification and comraderie.” And so they use it over the air waves and in public places and within earshot of other races.  Well, I don’t care what color you are.  This is a word that carries a lot of weight and a brutal history.  There is a term called “The Stockholm Syndrome” where victims, worn down by brainwashing and other dehumanizing tactics start to identify with their oppressors.  Maybe they feel like if they can’t beat them, for the sake of sanity, they might as well join them.  Battered woman often display those characteristics “If I didn’t provoke him, he wouldn’t beat me, so it must be my fault.”  Could there be something of this going on in this instance?

The word nigger is not an innocuous word that can morph into something teasingly playful by taking off the letters “er” and substituting an “a” at the end anymore than you can decide to call a table a bed and then expect to sleep comfortably on it.

Just like many young people have no idea what the Holacaust was, they also seem completely clueless about the long lasting effects of slavery.  These topics just don’t seem to be taught at home or at school.  Maybe people feel like these occurences were so painful that they are best left as relics of the past with no relevance to generations fortunate enough not to have been victims of such horror.  “If I just close my eyes and put my hands over my ears, it didn’t exist”  But it did, and much respect should be given to those who fought hard on the front lines of history to make bloody inroads for those who came after them.  To me, it seems like using the term nigger/nigga is like slapping them in the face and purposely taking a step backward instead of gaining ground and moving forward.

My five-year-old granddaughter and her two young cousins didn’t seem to hear that word that was so lightly spoken.  I hope they never will, especially by a member of their own race.  How confusing and what a mixed message to send to impressionable children.


You really can’t go home again

A little over a year ago I relocated from Santa Clarita to Los Angeles.  My daughter’s family and I bought a house together, which involved compromises for all of us.  I didn’t really want to live in Los Angeles.  I liked Santa Clarita.  It was more low key, less “citified” and more my speed.  I liked my church.  I’d made connections with people.  My sister and cousin lived there, and I had my writing group, which met every Tuesday at the Newhall Senior Center.

When I first joined the group, I was convinced I’d be the shining star, but it turns out there were some really talented writers in that group, and I had to stand on my literary tippy toes to keep up with them.  My group wasn’t a place to chat.  Most everyone was really serious about growing as a writer, but little by little, friendships were forged anyway, and it began to feel very comfortable like putting your feet into a pair of comfy, well worn slippers.  When I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t find anything to replicate my writing group.  I also missed the lunches with friends, the church where I drew spiritual nourishment and the wide open vistas.  In contrast, Los Angeles was urban and gritty bursting with people and traffic.  Even as the weeks turned into months, it didn’t feel like home even though I liked the house we’d bought in Los Angeles.  The truth is I didn’t like the city the house was in.

I would return to Santa Clarita every couple of months and stay at my sister’s house, sleeping on her cramped love seat that opened up into a rudimentary sleep space.  The mattress was starting to slope downward, and it was so thin, I could feel the springs trying to break through the fabric.  Not very comfortable, but at least I was in Santa Clarita.  The small guest room was right next to a tiny bathroom, which was used by my sister’s cat and contained an oversized kitty litter container and a noxious odor.  It was very different from my cute bedroom where the walls are  a muted shade of blue, and there wasn’t a cat to be found, but even with the pool and hardwood floors I’d had put in my new home, I still pined for Santa Clarita and the writing group.

Last week, after an extended absence, I returned to Santa Clarita to spend a week at my sister’s.  I knew the writing group had changed it’s location from the senior center to a brand new library, which I’d heard was “state of the art” and architectually beautiful.  The senior center was pretty drab, no ambience there, so I looked forward to attending the group in its new digs, but when I got there, something just seemed out of kilter.  There were several new people who hadn’t been there before, and one of them talked incessantly while people waited for her ramblings to cease so they could get feedback on their work.  Several of my favorite writers had stopped attending, and the ex-cop whose poetry was always just “this side” of socially acceptable feigned a choking fit, because he felt he wasn’t receiving enough attention.  Everyone sat frozen in their seats, their eyes wide with fear. It seemed likely he was having a severe medical emergency, but nobody seemed to know how to respond.  Eventually his red face returned to its normal pasty paleness, and, quite pleased with himself, he chortled “You have to admit that was funny!”

Is this foolishness what I’d been missing as I sat in a melancholy haze in Los Angeles?  I decided I could live without this writing group.  It just didn’t live up to my memories.  It had been nice when I lived in that town, but now it was over.  You really can’t go home again.