“Still a Nigger”

Updated: Sep 16

by Stanley C. Trent



I

It’s mid-August, 1978. Matoaca Elementary School. Chesterfield County, Virginia. My first day as a teacher. I see him from a distance, pushing through clusters of teachers, parents, students — a lost soul. He’s one of the kids my principal told us to look out for. The way he swivels his head lets me know he’s searching for the bus bearing lines and squiggles that match the ones on the laminated name tag pinned to his shirt. My mind plunges into crisis intervention mode, ready to put into practice what Professor Madison taught in Behavior Management 101. I want to be the first one to get to him, rescue him, show my more seasoned colleagues that Stan the Man has some skills. I rehearse the steps in my head and plow through the crowd. OK, slow down, I think. I smile, drop a knee, rest a hand on his shoulder. Our eyes meet. His name tag reveals that, at school, he will be called Jason, not Butch or Bubba or Buster — common nicknames in this neck of the woods.

Just above a whisper, I ask, “Hey, Jason, how ya doing?”

Tears stream down his face. His head drops, shoulders slump.

“Aw, don’t cry. What’s the problem?”

“I can’t find my bus.” His body hiccups between words.

“Oh, is that all? Well, you’re not the only one. I saw you trying to find numbers on a bus like on your name tag, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Good job, Jason! I bet that’s one of the things your teacher told you to do if you got lost.

“Uh-huh.”

“Now, I want you to try again, but this time I’m going to help you. OK?”

“OK.” His body spasms begin to subside.

After a few failed attempts, we spot the bus with the digits that jibe with the ones on his name tag. He releases a long sigh, musters a smile, and says, “Thanks.” Ah, a sign of a well-mannered kid. His parents must be raising him well. Once on the bus, he plops down beside another kid whose laminated name tag lets me know that he, too, is a kindergartener. I take a few steps toward the building, then turn as the yellow caravan moves forward. His bus draws near. I catch sight of him peering out the open window. Our eyes meet. I wave. He waves back. Simpatico. I see him nudge his bud and point in my direction, and assume he will exclaim, “Hey, that’s the man who helped me find my bus!” Instead, this blond, blue-eyed five-year old utters, loud enough for me to hear, “Look, a nigger teacher.”


II

Fall. 1965. Chesterfield County, Virginia. Bus driver Hattie Mae Brown transports my classmates and me down River Road past Matoaca Elementary, only five miles from my house. Our final destination is the all-colored Dupuy Elementary School about 15 miles away. Our bodies jerk backwards and forwards, side to side, as she shifts gears to ascend the steep hills.

As our bottoms bounce, my seatmates and I face each other, competing to be first to create a Jacob’s ladder from neon colored knitting yarn. Other kids play origami-style fortune teller games to see who loves whom. “Yes. No. Maybe so.” Girls chatter about The Supremes and sing, “Stop in the Name of Love.” Without standing, they rock their shoulders from side to side and cross their arms over their chests, mimicking the moves they’d memorized after watching the divas perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.

They admire each other’s Twiggy attire.

“Paula, girl, I like them fishnets, where you get them from?”

“Woolworth’s.”

“I’m gonna get me some of those.”

“Vanessa, that mini goes good with those go-go boots.”

“Thanks, I like yours, too.”

Boys rib each other about who or what was the best or worst: “A Corvette will smoke a Mustang in the dust any day of the week,” says Harold.

“Nuh-uh, man. Tell that to somebody who don’t know.”

“The ABA is better than the NBA,” says Jerome.

“No way, José. Keep on dreamin’.”

We pass a group of white kids waiting for the bus that will take them to Matoaca Elementary. We pay them no mind, and usually they ignore us as well. I suspect they think exactly the same of us. But something is different today. From open windows, as our bus passes through the 25-mph school zone, we hear:

“Look, a bunch o’ niggers!”

“Yeah, niggers, why don’t y’all go back to Africa!” A few of them shriek like apes.

Clink! Clank! Pit-a-pat! Pebbles and gravel ricochet off metal and glass like sleet.

Older schoolmates sitting in the back row turn, prop themselves up on their knees, press middle fingers against the rear window, and call out insults of their own.

“Honkies!”

“Peckerwoods!”

“Crackas!”

Those of us sitting farther up turn, extend our arms and hands through open windows, and fling the same verbal and nonverbal attacks.

Mrs. Brown isn’t having any of this. Gazing back and forth from the rearview mirror to the windshield, she says, in a calm yet commanding drawl, “Y’all know better than to poke your hands out them windows. Every last one o’ you better sit down and act like somebody with some sense. They don’t know no better, but you do.” As we pass the all-white Matoaca Baptist Church on the right and the house rumored to be Klan headquarters on the left, we turn around, slide down in our seats, chastened, and mumble under our breaths until we get to school.

Before we can store lunch boxes and brown paper bags, unload our books, and sit in assigned desks, we surround our fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Watson, and tell her what “those white kids” did. She claps her hands and shoos us to our seats. “OK, people, sit, sit.” She stands in front of the green chalkboard, peers over her reading glasses, and clasps her hands.

“Class, who someone tell me the definition of the word nigger?”

Silence. No one is willing to speak the ugly words.

“All right people, I want you to pair up with the person beside you and look up the word in your dictionaries.”

Wooden desks screech as we push them together. The search begins. We hold our breaths. Sweaty, trembling fingers turn pages in search of the letter n. Mrs. Watson, guarding her secret, strolls up and down aisles, stopping to assist pairs who haven’t mastered using their guide words. And then it happens. Eyes and index fingers scroll up and down pages until we spot it: “nigger [ni-ger].” Wide eyes and gaping mouths spread into smiles. One reads the definition to their partner in what our teachers call a “quiet voice.” The room hums with excitement when Mrs. Watson resumes her position in front of the chalkboard and asks, “Can I get a volunteer to read the definition?”

Arms wave and stretch high. Bottoms bounce. Cheeks balloon. “I will!” comes the cry from the room, and “I know, I know!” and “Mrs. Watson, please call on me!”

The chosen one reads with pride: “Nigger: an ignorant person of any race.”

We exhale, a collective sigh of relief. Mr. Webster, a respected authority, has contradicted a bunch of sorry crackers. They are the ignorant niggers. Not us.


III

I want to look evil in the face. It’s July 8, 2017. I gather in Justice Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, with several hundred others to protest the arrival of over fifty members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They will appear to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a nearby park. Several “Unity Day Events” are being held throughout the city: a guided meditation, concerts, a Unity Day picnic, prayer services. I steer clear of them.

A circle of metal barricades wraps around the statue of Stonewall, forming a corridor that ends on either side of the District Court. Yellow strips read, “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.” State and city police officers in gray and black uniforms face us. Members of the press and people holding video cams and shotgun mics pass us. I wind through the crowd until I’m as close to the circle as I can get. Hundreds of arms extend, clutching mobile phones, rotating them to capture the grand entrance.

Within minutes they arrive.

Escorted by more police officers, they fan out from the court house entrance into the ring. The first three men, dressed in jeans and T’s, carry a white banner with the organization’s insignia — a red circle with a white cross. Next come men dressed in traditional robes with open-faced, cone shaped hoods. Some hold placards. One reads: “Proverbs 20:28: Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Another sends a message to the vice-mayor, who is pushing for the removal of the statues: “WES BELLAMY — GO BE A NIG SOMEWHERE ELSE!”

Those around me shout, “Racists go home! Black lives matter! Racists go home! Black lives matter! In sync with others, a man behind me shouts, “Fuck the Klan! Fuck the Klan!” Placards and clenched fists bob up and down to the beat of a snare drum. Bugles, cow bells, and ululations enter the mix. I am conscious of changes in my body. I hear my breath quicken, feel my heart accelerate, see my hands tremble, my body shake. Poison builds within, rises up my windpipe, through my voice box, and out it bursts: “Racists go home! Fuck the Klan! Racists go home! Fuck the Klan!” I’m in a place I’ve been before, an unadulterated rage, but after a few minutes, an uneasiness sets in. I’m a 62-year-old educated black man, a professor at the University of Virginia. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m lowering myself to their level. I notice the sign of a woman standing nearby:

“I have decided to stick with love.

Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

But then I look past it to a Klansman carrying a confederate flag and spewing hate, and realize I can’t entertain this truth, not now. I ignore my inner voice and continue chanting, unable to shake off the hate strangling my nobler self.


IV

It’s August 11, 2017. I’m at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville. The sanctuary is packed. I stand against the wall with other late comers.

Most of the audience is white. They have come together for an interracial, interfaith prayer service in response to the Unite the Right rally scheduled for tomorrow. This time, thousands will gather to protest the removal of the statue. I also come to hear Dr. Cornel West.

He walks to the lectern after the rector greets us and the music director leads us in a few civil rights songs. I immediately recognize his frizzy, graying Afro, and beard. We welcome him with a standing ovation, he warms us up with a few jokes, and then builds steam, quickening the pace. Resting one elbow on the lectern, he declares, “Though terrorized and traumatized in America for over 400 years — black people have still taught the world how to love!”

He flaps his arms, hoists his voice a little closer to heaven, and recites Mamie Till’s words after her son, Emmett, was brutally murdered by white supremacists: “I don’t have a minute to hate, I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life!”

By the end of the message, the crowd is on its feet again, giving up earsplitting roars, and shouts of praise: “Hallelujah!” “Thank you, Jesus!”

Shortly after, there is a wave of silence as the rector steps up to the lectern, thanks attendees, and offers the benedictory prayer. Everyone stands and mills around: talking, laughing, wiping tears. A moment later, he returns and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid I have to ask you to return to your seats. A group of about 200 have assembled outside the church carrying tiki torches and spewing hateful speech.” He asks that we exit through the back and side doors to steer clear of the mob, and encourages us to walk to our cars in groups. “May God deliver us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge,” he says.

I spot an empty section of a pew and sit beside a thirty-something year old white woman. Her name is Mary. She asks, “Are you alone?”

“Yes, are you?”

She nods.

When it’s apparent there will be no police escort, we join a group headed out the side door. They immediately scatter, and Mary and I find ourselves standing alone in a dark, unfamiliar alley behind the church.

From the other side, we hear the marchers shout: “Blood and soil! Blood and soil! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

I turn from side to side, looking for a recognizable landmark, but darkness and fear jumble my sense of direction. All I can do is get us as far away from the noise as possible and hope my instincts lead us to a familiar path.

After about twenty minutes, their voices fade, the torches’ blaze grows dim. Mary asks, “Now, how far away are we from your car?”

“We’re on the home stretch,” I say. “Almost there.” I feel a modicum of relief.

Then we hear voices up ahead. Surely, being this far away from the rally, we must be safe. But peering ahead, we see SUVs and pickup trucks parked at the edge of the sidewalk with confederate flags hanging from the roofs. There are about six of them, leaning against the front and sides of their vehicles, shoulders slouched, arms crossed. They sport Nazi haircuts, polo shirts, Khaki pants. “Proud Boys,” Mary whispers. They are close enough to touch us. I shake my head in disbelief. What the fuck? No, not again.

As we approach them, we step and look straight ahead, mimicking how my father taught me to walk past a growling dog. Just as we step into the space in front of them, one yells, “Look at ’em. A nigger and a nigger lover!” We pick up the pace once we’re past them. I teeter between relief and dread, hoping we are safe, yet worried if danger lurks ahead.

We make it to the car, and I drive Mary to a nearby shopping center. We enter a well-lit grocery store, and she waits for her ride. When I get home, I lower myself onto my sofa, still suffused with the physical and psychological trauma I’ve just experienced. I refuse to let go of the pain and rage, won’t let my body and mind return to normal.

After I crawl into bed, my mind replays experiences that have fueled my hate. Jason. The school bus. That little white girl scowling and shaking her finger in my face as she passes me standing in a grocery store aisle. “Get out you nigger, you don’t belong here.” A security guard in a department store follows me. “It’s routine, I need to check your bags.” A UVA security officer corners me as I leave my office. “You fit the description of a black man who reportedly has stolen a laptop.” He only lets me go when a white colleague verifies my identity.

From childhood, hate has continued to sneak up behind me, trying to take me out. With every prick, every slash comes a new shock, and the accumulation of these run-ins with him ignites my rage all over again. My education, my standing as a professor at the University of Virginia, none of it makes any difference. In the end, through the eyes of these haters, I will forever be a nigger.

I want to be like Martin, I want to free myself of the hate sack thrust on my back for so long, but even knowing my time is short, I’m not sure if I can.


Emrys Journal v. 36

Still a Nigger
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