KevinPowell_4c jpg

Will I Ever Stop Being a Nigger?

In Race, Social by O.Dragon

Written by Kevin Powell, special to Utne Reader

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
—Psalms 23

What happens to a dream deferred?
—Langston Hughes

What brush do you bend when dusting your shoulders from being offended? What kind of den did they put you in when the lions start hissing?
—Kendrick Lamar
I AM NOT A NIGGER, or a nigga, or a nigguh. I am not your nigger or anyone else’s nigger, either.  Nor do I belong to some specialized society that contains within its boundaries niggers, or niggas, or niggaz4life. No—

I am a man, a Black man, a human being, and I am your equal. After this piece goes live I am never again going to utter that word “nigger” to describe myself, to describe Black people, to paint a picture of a certain type of mentality born of racial oppression, self-hatred, confusion, of ignorance; not publicly, not privately. No—

Yet when I look at race and racism in America in the 21st century how could I not help but feel like I am nothing but that loaded and disgusting word? I often wonder if it actually matters I came up from the ghetto; me, the product of a single mother who escaped, barely, the color-line insanity of the Jim Crow South only to confront a different kind of race and class insanity in Northern slums; me, the son of an absent father who completely and permanently abandoned my mom and I when I was eight because he was a broken Black man and did not know it; me, a Black boy who has known rivers, poverty, violence, abuse, fear, hopelessness, depression; me, who made it to college on a financial aid package, never got my degree, but still made a name for myself, against all odds; me, who has published 12 books and who has visited all 50 American states—as a writer, as a political activist, as a speaker; me, the kid who did not get on an airplane until I was age 24, but who has since been to five of the seven continents, and who is interviewed virtually each week on television and radio and elsewhere for media outlets from every corner of the world.

 

 What does it matter that I, as my mother has said with her grits-and-butter South Carolina dialect, “speaks well”; that I have the ability to converse with equal comfort on college campuses and on concrete street corners, that I can easily flow from exchanges on presidential campaigns and gender politics to basketball and pop culture? What does it matter, indeed, if I have produced a body of work, my writings, my speeches, my humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, in service to people, all people, and that I really do see you, me, us, as sisters and brothers, no matter who you are or what you look like, as part of the human race, the human family, if you, in the smoked out buildings that are your mind’s eyes, refuse to see me, or refuse to see me as a whole human being, or, worse, simply see me as that word? Or what if you see me as an animal, a monster, some thing to be dissed, avoided, detested, labeled as angry or a thug or difficult or arrogant or a problem or a burden?

 

 

Yes, a nigger, that creature and creation born of a vicious racism seemingly as long as the nightmares of my African ancestors shocked and awed as they were bamboozled and kidnapped from the motherland centuries back; their sweaty raw bodies the infrastructure for the first global economy in this world—slavery, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That slave trade built and enriched Europe, built and enriched America, and turned places as different as New York City and the American South and the West Indies and Latin America and the United Kingdom into real and metaphorical castles for powerful and privileged White people. Meanwhile the bodies of my beautiful ancestors were brutalized by a diabolical scheme to bend and bomb any memory of their names, their identities, their very beings, until they became that which they were told: niggers …

 

So there is simply no way to have what my Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother David Young dubs “courageous conversations” about race and racism in America if you refuse to hear me, if you refuse to read this essay to the very end, if you refuse to acknowledge that my history is your history, too. We are chained together like those slaves were chained together on those ships and those auction blocks.

 

I can hear my White sisters and brothers say now, as many often declare to me when this uncomfortable dialogue occurs, “But I did not own slaves, I had nothing to do with that” or “My relatives did not do that.” It does not matter if you or your long-gone relatives were directly involved or not, or if you believe that “that is in the past.” The past, tragically, is the present, because we’ve been too terrified to confront our whole history and our whole selves as Americans.

Kevin Powell

Furthermore what matters is that a system was put in place, rooted in slavery, based on White skin privilege and White skin color, that revolved around power, land, property, status, shared values born of oppression and discrimination and marginalization, and that has never changed in America. Never. That system and its values have been passed generation to generation as effortlessly as we pass plates at the family dinner table. So it does not matter if you never openly refer to a Black person as a nigger or not.  It does not matter if your college fraternity puts on Blackface and mocks Black culture on Halloween or not. It does not matter if you are a practicing racist or not. It does not matter if you call yourself a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. It does not matter if you call yourself a progressive or liberal or a centrist or conservative. It does not matter if you have Black friends or a Black wife or Black husband or Black partner or Black relatives or Black or biracial children (biologically or adopted). It does not matter if you love hip-hop or other Black music and Black art, or that you grew up in or around a Black community, or spend much time there now as an adult. It does not matter if one or a tiny handful of Black writers, or Black artists, or Black public intellectuals, or Black spokespersons, or Black entertainers and athletes, or Black media personalities, or Black anything are given major platforms and fame and awards and tons of money and status to prove racism is not what it was, or, equally tripped out, to tell you about your racism. That nutty game of the “special” Black person handpicked to represent the rest of us is as old and tired as racism itself. We are all your equals and all equally valuable—from the ’hood to Hollywood, from Harlem to Harvard—not just the select few anointed and celebrated by White American tastemakers.

CONTINUE HERE

 

The Education of Kevin PowellKevin Powell is a writer, public speaker, and activist. He is the author of 12 books, including his critically acclaimed new autobiography The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster). Email him,kevin@kevinpowell.net, and follow him on twitter: @kevin_powell.