As we passed the chapel, we noticed a small crowd gathered, and seated near the front of the room was comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Several of us stopped to listen.
He seemed to be rambling a bit, and he was profane, dropping the F-bomb intermittently, but he was somewhat amusing.
It did disturb me, though, that he used the N-word to describe African-Americans. I’ve heard it a lot, especially from comedians, but I cringe every time I hear the word.
Young people tell me they want to own the word, and I tell them what my father told me when I was 16 and wanted ownership of the word, bitch.
“It’s garbage,” he said. “Why would you want to own garbage? To embrace it is to embrace hatred of strong women. Why would you want to do that?”
I feel the same way about the N-word. I refuse to utter it because I connect it with the hatred and violence of the Jim Crow era. The things that were done to my fellow human beings by people who used that word make me sick to my stomach.
I know that as a white person there are things about being black that I will never experience. I won’t be stopped for driving while black. I won’t be stopped for walking or running through a white neighborhood like an African-American doctor I knew was when he jogged in his own neighborhood. I don’t ever have to think about the color of my skin and I’m not followed through stores by security people because my skin color makes me a “high risk.”
On the bus ride down, an African-American man joked that I could be a spy and infiltrate hate groups. I told him the only problem with that is that I wouldn’t be able to hold my temper when they started spewing hate, and I can’t bring myself to use the N-word. Other than that, I’d be a great spy.
In Selma, another of my friends, an African-American man, asked Mr. Gregory why he used the N-word. It wasn’t a challenge, just a question.
Dick Gregory exploded. In the exchange that followed, my friend never raised his voice as he explained that Gregory had been one of his heroes for his civil rights work.
“I love you, man,” my friend said.
Gregory said he didn’t need my friend’s love and that people hadn’t sat down to listen to my friend. Then he called my friend “an ignorant n—–.”
That’s inexcusable. Gregory knows what African-Americans went through to try and gain the respect due any human being.
We were in Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday, March 8, 1965, when police tear-gassed and beat people who were marching to Montgomery to plead for the right to vote. Rep. John Lewis, then a young activist, had his skull fractured.
The violence was done by people who hated African-Americans simply because of the color of their skin. These people, who themselves embraced the N-word, hated African-Americans enough to kill them.
Excuse my language here, but why the fuck would anyone — especially someone who has spent his entire life fighting for justice — want to embrace that kind of hatred?