The Dixie Dove

January 12, 2015

"The Nigger lover's dead" TRUE STORY

Those were the words that informed me of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy fifty odd years ago. The words weren't spoken by an individual, they were sung by a small makeshift choir gathered around the driver of a school bus in Greenville South Carolina where I lived at the time.

I was eight years old and despite the rampant racism in the south, I didn't hear the 'N' word too often. My white family didn't use it and in the all white segregated school I went to and community I lived in Black folks were almost invisible and therefore not available to be abused by this hate speech.

This small bus load of white elementary school boys had been shuttled from school to the Young Men's Christian Association for pee wee football practice and we were on our way home when I heard the 'song'.

I was sitting near the back of the bus and as it rumbled along I absentmindedly didn't notice that most of the other kids had gathered around the bus driver at the front, in a tight bunch. When the song started I couldn't make out the words, but the dirge-like chanting immediately made me feel as if I had crossed into some otherworldly nightmare and I was listening to the chanting of witches...I thought this to myself just before the words became clear to me..."The Nigger lover's dead...The Nigger lover's dead...The Nigger lover's dead..." over and over again, it went on and on and sent a chill down my spine though I had no idea what they were singing about. Even when we got off the bus (back at school) and another kid my age smiled at me and gleefully repeated the phrase...I still didn't know.

I walked home and when I entered the house and the living room I found my mother and our Black babysitter Mariah in a huddle of sobbing and wailing on the couch. My mother June looked up at me with her tortured red tear-soaked face and just shook her head and put it back down...I walked through the hall to my bedroom and I still wasn't sure what had happened, but I knew someone good had been killed and I remember thinking to myself that we weren't going to be happy anymore for a very long time.

Years passed, other tragedies happened and were grieved, MLK, Bobby Kennedy...and in 1990 I moved to Boston Massachusetts. One day as I walked down Commonwealth Avenue, under the CITGO sign, I passed an elderly AfrAmerican man walking the opposite way on the sidewalk. As I nodded, a car full of young white men drove passed us and shouted "Nigger!" in unison. As I barked "Fuck you!" they retorted "Nigger lover!" and sped away. I looked back at the gentleman and said, "I'm sorry about that." He just smiled a sad smile and said, "That's OK," and kept on walking.

Ironically, that's the only time anyone ever called me that horrid phrase to my face - not far from JFK's birthplace. At that time I worked for the The Nurses Health Study at Brigham and Women's hospital, under Dr. Walter Willett. I was a lowly clerical worker and my favorite convo-friend was a young AfrAmerican woman named Tamara. We talked about pop-culture and politics and just stuff. She was surprised that (with me a southern white) we got along so well. One day she shared that she felt uncomfortable in Boston whenever she left her Dorchester neighborhood. She said that people treated her 'funny' as in not nice. And she told me that whenever she had rarely ventured outside of the city then white people treated her like an 'alien from outer space'. We worked together for two years and at one point before I moved back south Tamara asked me if it was a good idea for her to go with her mom and visit relatives in North Carolina. I told her I thought it would be ok, so she did. When Tamara came back from a week long trip she had had an epiphany. She said that for the first time in her life she had gone to convenience store in 'the country' operated by white people and they treated her 'like just another customer'. A few months later she chose to move to NC with her relatives. True story, no bull.

I don't think America is worse than other nations in terms of racism. In some ways you can argue that the United States is the only place racially diverse enough to be considered a true test of a society's ability to peacefully integrate different races. Barack Obama being elected president surely doesn't mean the end of racism in America, but in my opinion - and I think that of my mother June, who passed on some years back - I believe that it is the greatest moment in the history of our country.

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