Summer reading for Ansel Head and Wilbur included Mark Twain. His loveable character, Huck Finn, referred to the runaway slave, Jim, who was soon to be his travelling companion and friend, as a nigger. To the baby boom boys, this was not an unfamiliar word that had to be looked up; they had heard it before and knew it was referring to Black people. Being raised as confident white boys in the South, they were indifferent to Twain’s use of it since the word would never be used to describe them. But learning if and when to use it and the many other terms people employed to describe Blacks was an education in itself, something not covered in the formal curriculum at the Birmingham University School but available only through listening. Since listening required the boys to pay attention, it was no small wonder that they absorbed anything on the subject. That they did showed the pervasive nature of the discussions taking place around them about the other race.
Negro with a capital N was the least found word in either polite society or in the ruder elements. Martin Luther King was using it to describe his people and Northern newspapers were just starting down the road to political correctness. The Head’s church going maid, Mary, was learning to use it but more often than not fell back on the more familiar colored when talking of herself and friends. For a white person to use Negro with a capital N in any context meant one had taken up arms with the liberal, Communist, and dangerous fringe elements leaving that person persona non grata in the white community, or worse, being tagged a nigger lover.
This appellation was most confusing to the young Head. It was apparent, even to a boy whose synopses were woefully misfiring, that the inhospitable tone with which it was spewed forth evidenced scorn and disapproval from the emitter. Yet the boy loved Mary as much as he loved anybody. It was Catch 22, even though he had no idea what Catch 22 was. Acknowledging he was indeed someone who loved Blacks threatened his reputation in white society while failing to do so threatened his relationship with Mary. Like the rest of the discomfited white folks facing the same predicament, he kept quiet hoping no one would notice his unease.
When referring to the Black race in general, Head’s grandfather and his hunting buddies would say, “Niggers do this or a nigger did that!” It would roll off their tongues with no vehemence attached; it was just the way their casual conversation went, much like Mark Twain used it. They did not employ it when referring to someone whom they or a friend employed. Nor did they speak this way in ear shot of servants.
Louis Amison, who tended to his grandfather’s bird dogs and horses near Eutaw, and his share cropper friend Smith, affectionately called the game warden because he kept other hunters from poaching his grandfather’s quail, also used the term in casual conversations when referring to their own race: “Niggers does dis or dat nigger done dat.” Such usage was commonly associated with self-deprecating stories about humorous events.
The ladies in polite society, being more polite than men, would say, “Nigras do this or a nigra did that!” but always in the same casual context and following the same rules of etiquette as men. Polite society felt part of the historic South without having to bathe in the same dirty water as the more aggressively speaking, ruder white elements.
For the two friends, language classes at this bottom rung began at a dove shoot sponsored by acquaintances of Wilbur’s father. It was Head’s first such outing not hosted by his grandfather. It started out on familiar footing with a heavy lunch of chicken, pork, many vegetables, and cornbread. Seated at the large table were hunters dressed in camouflage drinking beer; the host’s ladies were also in attendance. The meal had been prepared by a black woman and was being served by an elderly black man; these were country help at a country camp house which meant they were dressed in working clothes, not starched uniforms and waistcoats. Everything seemed normal to the young Head, except the beer which would have caused immediate expulsion from his grandfather’s hunts and the presence of ladies.
The boys were quietly eating rapidly hoping their example would cause the grownups to stop chatting and get into the field sooner. Adult socializing, omnipresent at Southern tables, was interfering with the boys firing their shotguns even though the doves would not start flying for another hour.
Suddenly the boys were startled to attention. A son or nephew of the host in his early twenties pounded the table and screamed at the elderly man. “You stupid nigger! Who do you think you’re talking to? Don’t speak to your betters. Apologize and get the hell out of here before I kick your ass. God damn nigger!”
None of the adults came to the old man’s defense; neither did they look away in shame.
The elderly man had reminded Head of Louis Amison, who in addition to his duties to the dogs and horses helped his grandfather’s cook, Margret, serve table at the camp house; Louis and Margret’s banter was a much cherished part of the atmosphere among the hunters there. Afterwards and out of everyone else’s hearing, the boys quizzed each other on what had the elderly man said; neither knew. This had indeed been a language course but one the boys decided it was best to drop.
When Head was next with his grandfather, he recounted the lesson. His grandfather knew the teachers. “They’re jackasses!” said his grandfather with a downward look and a few shakes of the head. They had put on society’s airs but had obviously risen too far too fast to have absorbed politeness; they were po’ white trash in every aspect except poor.
Cut from the same cloth, Alabama’s politicians opined with the same coarse street vocabulary when not in front of a TV camera. After losing his first race for Governor, George Wallace said, “I lost because that other fellow out niggered me.” He never lost again in Alabama. But with so many misfiring synopses, Head was having enough trouble just learning languages without taking on a political science course; that would have to wait until later.
And with so many ambiguities and nuances in the vernacular, odds were strong that the non-superior Head would stumble. And so he did. One afternoon while he was doing something that Mary didn’t like or was being told to do something he didn’t like, he fought back with, “You’re a nigger.”
She stopped doing whatever she had been doing and looked down at him, tilting her head back so that he became magnified in her bifocals. Her brown eyes were squinting, staring straight through his blue eyes into the nothingness behind them. In previous situations where he had crossed the line, Mary would take a switch down from atop the refrigerator and apply a few well placed strokes to his bare legs. Head had half way expected the same treatment. Instead saying not a word, she took his hand in her strong pale palm, pulled him unceremoniously from his chair, walked him out of the air conditioned kitchen closing the door behind them, down the warm hall, up the stairs, and through the door into his mother’s air conditioned bedroom, gripping his hand tightly and saying nothing during the interminable journey. His mother was sitting on her chase-lounge, knitting another blue sweater which he would be forced to wear someday.
“Tell your mother what you said,” Mary instructed while pulling him to the front. She released his hand.
The young Head could not remember what his mother had said back to him or what his apology to Mary had entailed. What ever it was, Mary turned and walked out saying nothing. Never before had Mary felt she needed assistance in disciplining the boy. He had obviously crossed a different line this time. He hadn’t feared his mother; he could handle her easily. But Mary had stopped talking to him. By the next morning, the boy was in tears seeking her forgiveness which thank the Lord she gave.
The language lesson struck home, seared permanently into so many brain neurons that no synopses were required to retrieve the memory. Never again would Head use the term when referring to Black people despite its frequent usage by those around him. Years later thinking back, he could never remember hearing his father use the word either. Perhaps he too was lucky enough to have had Negros who loved him and whom he loved.