The N-word passed my lips once in my life. It happened when I was a small child.
In the 1950s, my family lived in Fairfield, Conn., on a wide street of identical, small, post-war, single-family houses that had large yards and a car in every driveway.
The Mill River gurgled at the street end of our working-class neighborhood. Horse stables lay behind our backyard greenbelt, but for all practical purposes, the stables were a world away.
Almost all of the mothers on our street were at home with their children. My dad was a high school history teacher.
The N-word was part of a jingle I brought home one day after an afternoon of play with the kids across the street. The dad of the kids across the street was from somewhere called “Alabama.” To me, he was a scary guy who would threaten to “belt” his children.
I was between the ages of 3 and 4, and my world was small. I was carefree.
It was a different era. Moms sat on front stoops with babies in their laps and talked over coffee. The big kids rode their bikes in endless loop de loops. I was allowed to roam across the street to play. Every person in my universe was white. I had no awareness of race.
I did know a thing or two about ethnicity. My parents were children of Sicilian immigrants and grew up in homes where English was a second language. Our family was marching toward assimilation, so our home was a home where English was the first language and Sicilian was a second language. My parents slipped in and out of the language of their heritage freely. I seemed to understand most of what they said, regardless of the language they were speaking.
Family gatherings were big, loud and fun, with gangs of cousins running wild, enough food to feed an army, opera music blaring, hands gesturing and most of the conversation was not in English. I am not sure what our neighbors thought about this.
The day I came home and sang the jingle is a day I have remembered forever. It is burned into my memory as the first time I got in really big trouble.
My father heard me sing this song, and for a split second, I could feel him withdraw his love of me.
His disapproval was communicated though all of his senses. He stiffened. He became cold and steely. He glared at me. Even though my dad is about 5 feet tall, he towered over the small me. His bright blue eyes turned gray. Anger surrounded him like a halo.
This version of my loving dad is one I would see pretty often as a teenager in the 1960s, but that day, it was new to me.
He did not yell at me. He didn’t burst into a stereotypical Sicilian scripted-for-television tirade. I remember him bending down and saying to me in a stern, icy voice, something like, “Don’t you ever, ever, say that word again. That is the worst bad word you can ever say. It’s a very, very bad word.”
I don’t know if he tried to explain the meaning of the word to me. He may have — after all, he was a teacher.
The lesson I learned that day is with me every day. I could not say that word if you paid me big money.
I later learned about race in America. At age 13, I celebrated the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the pages of my diary. This was a reflection of my family’s routine talk at the dinner table about important issues of the day.
Today, I work on eliminating discrimination in health care. The only advice I have to contribute to the recent discussion of a white person’s use of the N-word is to quote Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “Teach your children well….” My dad sure did.
JANICE SABIN is a research assistant professor at the University of Washington.
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