Warning: I do not believe in censoring what most call “the N-word.” I think that censoring it gives it more power and, in this space anyway, I refuse to do it. If you simply cannot handle it, please feel free to skip today’s post. I’ll see you for Quiet Thoughts. If you’re cool, then read on.
In my ten years of living in Massachusetts, no one has straight-up called me a nigger. It’s rarely how racism works around here. New England racism is far more insidious. To be clear, I’ve been called everything else in the book or I’ve been questioned, second guessed, dismissed, rebuffed, exoticized or tokenized… the Black experience in New England is exhausting and frustrating. It’s soul crushing, really.
So when Adam Jones let us all know that he was called a nigger at Fenway Park on Monday, I shook my head and gave a deep sigh. Who is surprised? I’m not surprised. Fenway is a place for a certain sect of people to get drunk and be stupid at an incredible premium (Fenway tickets are ridiculous) and all under the auspice of “this is a legendary park and everyone knows it and you should feel honored to be here.” It’s the perfect place for trouble. Of course someone screamed that disgusting word at Adam Jones and threw peanuts at him during Monday’s game. This is not news. This is being Black in New England.
But it was news, Dear Reader. Because here in Massachusetts, explicitly calling out racism breaks apart the fabric of this carefully woven, more delicate than you think, New England society. It was incredible watching Charlie (my governor) and Marty (Boston’s mayor) and other officials fall all over themselves to first, apologize (“that’s so unacceptable. That’s not Red Sox Nation. We’re so much better than this”) and then second, make everyone (read: white people) feel better (“we are a community that values our diversity. We’ve come a long way. We’re the city of the present and the future”). One side of the mouth for chastising and distancing, the other side of the mouth for soothing and reassurance: no, we’re not racist people. We promise.
Meanwhile, the Adam Jones incident confirms everything that every person of color in this state already knows: this place is just as racist as it ever was. This place is just as racist as it will always be.
I watched the top 5 o’clock newscast yesterday and chuckled into my beer as reporters lobbed softball questions at white people of all status and stations, watching each of them from the Governor to Joe Everyman from the Northend talk about how “embarrassed” they are by the incident, how the culprit “didn’t represent” Red Sox Nation.
Then I watched a reporter interview a Black player for the Sox (name went by too fast, couldn’t catch it) who was asked point blank if he’d ever been called a nigger at Fenway. This is what happened:
The player paused, took a deep breath, licked his lips, paused again and said: “Not to my face, but I’ve heard from other players about incidents where that has happened.”
The reporter, having the same reaction that I’m hoping you are having, repeated his question: “But have you ever been called the N-word?”
The player repeated his answer: “Not to my face, but I’ve heard from other players about incidents where that has happened.”
Wow. Just wow.
And yet, it’s so perfect. It’s the perfect illustration of everything I’m trying to say. In some ways, I take his answer at face value: I’ll bet he hasn’t been called a nigger to his face at Fenway. It’s just not how racism works here. This place is too “enlightened” for that. I’ll bet he’s been called every single other name in the book, had everything assumed about him, had words put in his mouth or ignored out of hand… I’ll bet he’s been made to feel like a nigger without being called a nigger, because that’s just the Massachusetts way. That’s how it works ‘round here.
Then again, you can take it as the poor lie that it probably is. Because, frankly, we people of color around here are so well trained in the ways of “how it works” in Massachusetts, I bet that a man of means and fame such as a player for the Red Sox may feel hesitant to actually and truthfully report the racism that he has experienced. Because nothing is guaranteed for the Black person in New England. One day you’re in and the next day, you’re out. They giveth and they taketh away. It’s just how it works. And a smart Black person learns the rules about “polite” society quite quickly.
The Black experience in New England is exhausting and frustrating. It’s tenuous. It’s layered. The sand under your feet is always shifting. You learn to dance, you learn to swim, you learn to keep your silence, you learn to check your face.
And if you don’t, because you make a choice or you suffer a misstep, the punishment varies, but it’s still punishment.
Frankly, it’s easier to just get the straight-up bark of some asshole calling you a nigger. My mother was called a nigger today. She was driving in Maryland, she honked her horn to make someone pay attention to a green light and when that driver got the chance after the intersection, they pulled up beside her, rolled down their window and shouted “Black bitch! Fucking nigger!” at her from their car. This world is becoming unglued. The veil of decorum has been pulled fully away. Someone called my mother a nigger today.
She was angry, of course. She lobbed a few choice words of her own. She was upset and angry and hurt by it in that moment. However, by the time she’d gotten home and called me though, she was calm. She’d prayed on it, she told me. She was over it, seeing it for the stupidity that it all was. That word is ugly and stupid, but it can, with strength and wisdom and character (all of the good qualities my mother just so happens to have), be dismissed just as quickly as it comes. You can beat it. You can dismiss it. It’s a powerful word, but the sting has a short duration.
But this? This New England life? There are some who think that there is nothing worse than that word and what it means. Black folk in New England know better. This is worse. And we live it. We have to raise our children in it. It isn’t lost on me… I’m raising my children in it. Hopefully it won’t be so crushing for them. If I do this right. If I teach them well. But that is a hopeful dream of a woman oppressed. Please, make no mistake, this is oppression.
I applaud Adam Jones. I envy him: he gets to go home to Maryland, my Maryland. There is plenty of racism there; raw and real, dangerous in its own ways, systemic in its own ways, too (I’m not so naïve as to believe otherwise), and yet, it’s the racism I know. It’s the racism I knew. It’s the racism I understood and overcame. This… what’s here is… something other.
So make choices that break barriers, that shed light in dark places. I tell you all the time to be the light in the darkness, Dear Reader, and I’m incredibly sincere about that. You know in your heart what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s crushing, what’s liberating… you have more power than you’ll ever know. Use it. Every day.
See you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.