A celebratory banner brings back raw emotions about past

Published on November 9, 2014

REDEFINING THE WORD: In a Georgia county with a history of racial hostility, a prank by high school seniors draws national attention and brings back raw emotions about the past

CUMMING, Ga.

This summer, Amir Waller’s daughter sent him a text message that set him off. “This is why we don’t want to go here.”

The message was accompanied by a photo of a banner hanging off the roof of South Forsyth High School that read: “Nigga We Made It! #2K14.”

ABOUT THE N-WORD PROJECT: Following several incidents involving players using the n-word, the National Football League this year instructed game officials to penalize players who used the word on the field of play. The policy, though, was widely criticized as being heavy-handed and out of touch. As the league wrestled with the issue, a team of Washington Post journalists examined the history of this singular American word, its spread through popular culture and its place in the vernacular today.  

Waller’s kids had been campaigning against a family move that would have forced them to change schools. It was no surprise to his loved ones when Waller, a 42-year-old black man who has lived in Forsyth County since 2006, became furious at the sight of the photo. His family knows that he hates the n-word.

Waller’s reaction to the picture was swift. He found the objectionable tweet online and began sending it to local news stations. He copied it to the Atlanta-based movie mogul Tyler Perry. He even tweeted it to Oprah Winfrey, because he remembered that she had once brought her talk show to Forsyth County.

At the time of “The Oprah Winfrey Show’s” visit in 1987, no black person had lived in Forsyth County since before World War I. In 1912, the area’s black residents were forced out of the county after three black men were accused of raping a white woman. The county’s reputation for racial hostility remained, and the same year that Winfrey visited, civil rights marchers — including Coretta Scott King — drove from Atlanta, 30 miles to the north, to hold an interracial “march for brotherhood.”

34 people, 9 questions, 1 word

The N-Word: An interactive project exploring a singular word. A diverse set of Americans discuss the bluntness and nuance of a word that is seen as both hateful and colloquial. The N-Word: An interactive project exploring a singular word. A diverse set of Americans discuss the bluntness and nuance of a word that is seen as both hateful and colloquial.

A diverse set of Americans discuss the nuance of a word that is seen as both hateful and colloquial.

In Forsyth County, the marchers were met by members of the Ku Klux Klan and white men and women shouting, “Nigger, go home!’’

The sight of the same racial slur — or its slang version — hurled at protesters in 1987 hanging from the banner of a racially mixed high school in 2014 rippled through the area, which is dotted with strip malls and swaths of farmland. But nearly two decades apart, the feelings about the word shouted by KKK members in the 1980s and the word hanging from the high school banner are threads being carefully teased apart. Not everyone agrees that both iterations of the word are wrong.

Waller wants to see the word, in all of its forms, buried. Other parents see the word as innocuous and blame the music popular with teenagers for spreading its use. Across generational lines, the breaks are even more pronounced. Waller’s younger sister, Lorrie Waller, who is 19, did not think the prank was a big deal.

She pointed out to her brother, who listens to more R&B than hip-hop, that the phrase comes from a verse of the anthemic song “We Made It” by Drake and Soulja Boy. “I knew the song,” Lorrie Waller says. “I didn’t take it bad.”

Black and white high school students in the community say it is common for teens of all backgrounds to use the word with one another. When Amir Waller called South Forsyth’s principal to register his outrage, he was told that a multicultural group of students had hung the sign.

“I don’t care,” Waller recalls saying.

The trail of repercussions that followed Waller’s outrage revived a dormant conversation about race, history, privilege and violence here, dredging up still raw feelings about the past and revealing the cloudiness that surrounds the use of the n-word.

Amir Waller's tweets drew national attention to a banner at South Forsyth High School that was unfurled as part of a senior-class prank and used the n-word in quoting a lyric from a song by the rapper Drake. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Image of banner goes viral

Waller’s retweeted alerts about the banner at South Forsyth brought the attention of local news reporters, who flashed photos of the offending banner from Waller’s Twitter feed on local television. The banner, which students said was unfurled as first period was dismissed during one of the last days of the school year, hung atop the school for a few minutes before school officials pulled it off, according to witnesses. But the image, which students say was intended to bring attention online, took off on Twitter.

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Lost amid the news reports, which labeled the banner “derogatory,” was the fact that the sign was one of several senior pranks, which included parking the principal’s Jeep on the school’s lawn with a “For Sale” sign and rolling out a Slip ’N Slide — complete with water and suds — in a hallway. The banner was meant to be part of the overall chicanery.

South Forsyth’s principal, Jeff Cheney, who declined to comment for this article, told local news stations and parents in a statement that an “ethnically and racially diverse” group of students sneaked into the school at night to hang the sign.

“I immediately became aware and within three minutes had staff on the roof to remove the sign, because it’s very offensive to me and I don’t want our students to be a part of that in any way, shape or form,” he told WAGA-TV in Atlanta.

As the story spread, reaction was mixed. Terri Schofield, a mother of two teenagers who lives in the county, tweeted back at Amir Waller. “Way to put the school and county on blast as racist when that was not the case. Address this w/ @Drake @Souljaboy,” she wrote.

Souljaboy’s Twitter account retweeted her.

Her teen daughters “thought that was way cool,” says Schofield, who describes herself as half Filipino. “I’m not a fan.”

The mother discussed the banner with her daughters and with her co-workers, trying to explain to her colleagues that the word doesn’t mean the same thing to teens that it did decades ago.

“My kids don’t have that music on their iPods and on their phones, but I can’t keep them from hearing it,” she says. “In their minds, that word is not used as a racial slur. The biggest issue that isn’t being brought up is that these rappers are making millions of dollars and every other word is that word. How do you stop kids from using it when it’s so commonplace in pop culture?”

The Web site Gawker posted a story that seemed to expect more social intelligence and mocked the Forsyth County teens. Drake “is not the cause of this. You know what is? RACISM,” one of the site’s bloggers wrote. The post got more than 1 million views.

In the hallways of South Forsyth, there was dumbfounded surprise that the issue had become national news, recalls Alexa Blanding, 16, who is a junior at the high school. She says she never thought the banner was intended to offend anyone. Blanding, who is black, called the school “nice and welcoming.” One of her teachers used the banner as part of a lesson in class about respectful behavior. “It’s so sad for the school to be represented that way,” Blanding says.

Members of the 2014 senior class are reluctant to talk about the prank, worried about being perceived as racist. A white former South Forsyth student who says he was involved with some of the practical jokes but did not hang the banner said in an e-mail exchange that the seniors initially saw the banner as a “symbol of defiance” and part of the series of shenanigans that “plunged the school into total anarchy.”

“Few people gave much thought to the words on the sign,” he wrote, adding that he has been referred to endearingly by the n-word. “The phrase ‘n---a we made it’ had already featured prominently in other school pranks. You have middle-class white kids buying hip-hop albums that are just so casually saturated with this word. Before long, they begin to just see it as another curse word — bad, but nothing special.”

By the end of summer 2014, three other “Nigga We Made It #2K14!” banners were hung in high schools in Orlando; King County, Wash.; and Killeen, Tex.

Nadine Lindsay, owner of the Simply U beauty salon in Cumming, moved to the area in 2006. She says she considers the place home and recently expanded her business.“You have got to teach the history so that the word still carries the meaning,” Lindsay said. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The importance of context

According to the most recent census figures, 87 percent of Forsyth County’s population is white. Its African American population is up to 3.3 percent from zero in the mid-1980s.

Nadine Lindsay, who owns the Simply U beauty salon in central Forsyth County, moved to the area in 2006, when the black community was smaller than it is now. She considers the place home and recently expanded her business.

When it comes to her experience with race relations in the county, there have been few moments when the long arm of the area’s past has reached into Lindsay’s happy life. One involved her daughter Zhania Simon. Simon, 19, is still visibly angry when she remembers an incident that occurred in a Forsyth County middle school where she was one of only three black students. Simon says she was walking past a crossing guard and making her way to the other side of the street when a school bus driver suddenly yelled, “Move, nigger!” Simon, then about 12, kept walking and later told her mom, who complained to school officials. The complaint led to the firing of the bus driver.

“You can’t talk to people’s children that way,” Lindsay says.

Simon, now a student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, illustrates the importance of context when it comes to the word. The memory of the taunt still stings, but she dismissed the high school banner.

“They were just mimicking the music,” she says. “You’re listening. You’re rapping along, and you say it. It desensitizes people.”

Not everyone is numb. Ultimately, Waller decided against moving his family this summer into South Forsyth High’s zone.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Credits

About the series

As the National Football League wrestled with banning the word on the field, a team of Washington Post journalists examined the history of this singular American word, its spread through popular culture and its place in the vernacular today. Conversations: An interactive project exploring a singular word Timeline: The n-word through history