I remember the first time I was called a “nigger.” I was walking down the street with one or two of my cousins. I think we were going to Miss Lena’s in Charenton, La. to get what we called a cold cup, essentially frozen Kool Aid. One of us was bouncing a basketball.
The kid, about our age (7 or 8 maybe) was standing on a rickety porch behind an equally rickety fence. He called us ‘basketball niggers’ and then ran inside the house. I don’t remember exactly what we said or did in response. I only know that the incident stuck with me all these years.
Whenever I pass that corner, I think about that kid.
The word is weighty and powerful and harkens back to a time when whites could do whatever they wanted to black people—call them any name, beat them, rape them and even kill them with impunity.
In the early 1990s I was driving across the Crescent City Connection into downtown New Orleans on my way to work. I had a sticker of the continent of Africa on the back of the red Geo Metro that my parents had bought me when I was in college.
Some white kids in a pickup truck pulled alongside me and said, “Take you and your nigger ass back to Africa.” When what they had said registered, I foolishly chased them for about a half mile, getting off at the wrong exit, until I came to my senses and let them go. What would I have done if I had caught them?
I can’t count how many times I have been called nigger. But the word, particularly when spoken by whites, can incite rage.
Which brings us to Rick Perry’s hunting camp.
For the uninitiated, hunting and fishing camps are like college frat houses, with lots of liquor and bawdy talk, a place where men of all ages and races go and get in touch with their inner caveman. I have been to a couple and, unless I am fairly sure of the people who are going to be there, I turn down the invitations. Quite frankly, the combination of alcohol and weapons scares me. But they are entrenched in the culture of the part of the south I grew up in.
Perry’s camp was apparently called Niggerhead, and he paraded family and friends through there regularly over the years. The governor rightly says the word has no place in current society and that it should not have been there for all to see. But it’s unclear what, if anything, he did about it.
Here’s what he told the Post.
“When my Dad joined the lease in 1983, he took the first opportunity he had to paint over the offensive word on the rock during the 4th of July holiday,” Perry said in his initial response. “It is my understanding that the rock was eventually turned over to further obscure what was originally written on it.”
Perry said that he was not with his father when he painted over the name but that he “agreed with” the decision.
In response to follow-up questions, Perry gave a more detailed account.
“My mother and father went to the lease and painted the rock in either 1983 or 1984,” Perry wrote. “This occurred after I paid a visit to the property with a friend and saw the rock with the offensive work. After my visit I called my folks and mentioned it to them, and they painted it over during their next visit.”
But in subsequent years, as Perry advanced through the political ranks, visitors to the camp recalled seeing the rock with the offending name on it.
Why is any of this important today?
Perry said the word on the rock is an “offensive name that has no place in the modern world.” It certainly has no place in the sphere of those who would seek to lead the nation. The times when the use of the word nigger was rampant in this society can be viewed with rose-colored glasses by many in the Old South who recall a genteel time when there were no problems between the races and blacks stayed in their place.
But often the silence from black people, particularly in the smallest rural hamlets, was because people were afraid for their lives. They knew that the people who called them nigger had license to do more.
That’s why our leaders—even those who grew up segregated places—have to disassociate themselves from these vile terms. Gov. Perry needs to assure those he hopes to lead that he has done so.