I deleted this post by mistake… (oops!)
It was originally posted Thursday, 10/1/2009
At the moment, I’m juggling catching up on assignments for my classes (the flu put me out of commission for quite some time) and preparation for a presentation in my Multi-cultural Lit. for Young Adults graduate course. I have to lead a group discussion in what we refer to as ‘story circle.’ The book we will be discussing is called Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis. Eventually, I will write a review or reflection on the book later. Right now, I would like to point out several excerpts that firmly grasped my attention while reading the book last night. But first I will give a bit of background on the book.
The story is set during the 1800s and takes place at a Canadian settlement known as Buxton to its natives and Raleigh to all non-natives. It was a settlement established as a refuge for slaves who had escaped bondage. The main character is an eleven-year-old African-American boy who proudly claims the title of being the first freeborn child in the entire settlement. Like most of the adolescents in the settlement, his responsibilities revolve around school and chores. He also does odd jobs for his family’s neighbors. His community is very close knit. (Children are well aware that they will be rebuked by the elders of their town just as quickly as they are rebuked by their parents).
One day Elijah is walking home with Mr. Leroy, one of the adults he helps around the town. He is relating a story to Mr. Leroy about his friend, Cooter. The conversation is very one-sided with Mr. Leroy only nodding his head at best. Elijah felt particularly riled about the story he was recounting which involved his school teacher, Mr. Travis. It is safe to say that Elijah became so engrossed in what his was saying that he forgot whom he was speaking to. He used a word that solicited such a very strong reaction from Mr. Leroy that it led him to discipline the young boy. Mr. Leroy struck Elijah as soon as the words left his mouth.
These excerpts were very powerful to me. The first is a quote spoken by Elijah.
“I knowed better. Ma and Pa didn’t tolerate no one saying that word ’round ’em. They say it’s a sign of hatred when a white person says it and a sign of bad upbringing and ignorance when one our own calls it out, so there ain’t no good excuses” (Curtis 96).
The second excerpt is a passage. Mr. Leroy articulates to Elijah why he is so outraged:
‘What you think they call my girl when they sold her? What kind of baby they call her from up on the block?’
… ‘What name you think they call my wife when they take her to another man for his own?
… He said, ‘Who you think it was cut my finger off? Who?’
I didn’t know if I should answer him or just keep quiet and let him have his say. I shrugged my shoulders.
He said, ‘A slave, that’s who. And the whole time he slashing and stabbing at me trying to cut my throat, what name he calling me? What name?’
I said, ‘I know, sir, but I ain’t gonna say it no more.’
He said, ‘You thinks just ’cause that word come out twixt your black lips it mean anything different? You think it ain’t choke up with the same kind of hate and disrespect it has when they say it? You caint see it be even worst when you call it out?’
I told him, ‘Sir, I only said it ’cause I hear lots of children say it.’
‘What difference it make who you hear say it? I can understand a little if one of ya’ll freeborn use it, ya’lls ignorant in a whole slew of ways. Ya’ll ain’t been told your whole life that’s what you is. But someone what was a slave, or someone whose ma and pa was a slave and raised them goodlike your’n done, that just shows you believing that what we be. That just show you done swallowed they poison. And swallowed it whole.’
I believe that it is very obvious what hateful word he is referring to. It was always understood that the n-word was the same as uttering a curse word in my home. As a result, the word never passed my lips in my youth. Once I was older, I began to understand the ramifications of the word and the hurt filled history behind it. Hearing or saying it just didn’t feel right. I had no qualms with denouncing it entirely.
I don’t believe in ‘reclaiming’ the word. If that is what some individuals would like to do that is their decision. However, I stand by the fact that something that was created with the sole purpose of degrading a race of people is not something that should be embraced. The term, ‘Negroe’ can be reasoned away as being Spanish for the word, ‘black.’ Yes, ‘niger’ means black in Latin. But since we have moved from Negroe to Colored to Afro-American to African-American and Black-American is it really necessary to hang on to that word? Is it so firmly embedded in our psyches that we must continue its proliferation in our vocabularies? For the sake of future generations, I truly hope the answer is, ‘no.’
Curtis, Christopher Paul. Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2007. Print.