You asked. Here’s your answer
Let’s take it back to May of 2011. I was proud, carefree, and for once, my walkthrough campus had nothing to do with anything remotely academic. Senior Week was a blur and rightfully so. It was a time to let go of past inhibitions and do everything that you missed out on during college. For most of my graduating class, that meant partying and touring the lakes, waterfalls, and gorges of Ithaca, New York. Most of all, it meant making some memories with friends. The flowers were blooming, the sun was shining, and I had no worries. I was about to graduate from one of the best schools in the world, a feat that I only dreamt of. And for the first time in years, I felt like I could breathe.
Then, I saw you.
With my cellphone pressed against my ear, I smiled as my mom burst with excitement. While she relayed her travel and lodging plans, your blue sedan pulled up and paused at the light. My eyes caught yours and for a moment, I wondered if we had met.
Then you asked me, “How does it feel to be a nigger?”
I can’t speak for the Black, Brown, and Indigenous women whose accomplishments are often overlooked, yet they carry the burdens of the world on their shoulders.
We first met in October of 1999. I felt like I was just starting to fit in. Being one of the only Black kids in a mostly white class is hard enough, but transferring into a class that had been together since kindergarten was a feat in itself. I spent most of the previous year trying to get acclimated and by the time I reached the fifth grade, I finally felt like part of the group.
Then, you asked me a question.
We were sitting in a circle along the narrow walkway between our desks and the blackboard. You sat in your wooden chair, as you usually did, hovering above us as we eagerly awaited the plan for the day. Circles typically indicated a new book and I was excited. The previous summer, I read every edition of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Baby-Sitters Club. By the time the school year came around, my library card was worn and I was looking for something new.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, I whispered.
The pages were dog-eared and highlighted, characteristics that I associated with a good story. On the cover sat a little boy on a raft with a man just a few steps behind him. My mind raced with possibilities. Oh, maybe they’re lost at sea and they have to find a way to survive! Or maybe this has something to do with fishing. I didn’t know much about Huckleberry Finn, but I heard of the title and knew that it was connected to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of my mom’s favorite childhood novels. I imagined telling her all about Huck when I got home.
“Alright, class, who wants to read first?” you asked.
You called on one of the girls, but it wasn’t long before you asked her to stop. We all looked up and your eyes met mine. For a moment, it felt like we were the only two souls in that room.
“Are you okay with us going on?”
The question was simple, yet confusing. I glanced back down at the page, scanning for whatever it was that you were referring to. Then I saw it and so did everyone else.
“Yeah, it’s okay,” was all I could muster and you nodded to the girl to continue.
“Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got tiresome and lonesome. By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed.”
I took another look at the cover of the book. A little white boy on a raft with a Black man just a few steps behind him. I looked at the other Black kids in the room. Five. There were five of us, but at the moment, I felt alone.
I can’t speak for the LGBTQIA+ folks who are murdered on a daily basis simply for being themselves.
It was 2012. One of my graduate school professors asked “Do the people of color, in this class, ever count the number of people of color when they walk into a room?”
And, he was met with a unanimous and resounding “Yes.”
He introduced us to the work of Claude Steele, who researched stereotype threat and critical mass. The basic idea is that marginalized people often count the number of others within a space that share their identity. Having enough people who share your identity relaxes you and makes you feel comfortable to be yourself and perform at a high level. In simple terms: Black people count other Black people in a room to know how safe we are and that happens everywhere. Counting gives me context. I know where I am and who I’m with.
I looked around the room at the wide-eyed expressions of my classmates. I made eye contact with every person of color — each of us nodding in approval. There were five of us but for once, it felt like so many more.
It’s 2022 and I’m still contemplating your question. I stared at you wondering if we’d ever met and we had. We met when we read together in the fifth grade. We met once at the arcade when you told my mom that we should leave and “give other folks” a chance to play. We met once at a party when you took the lights off and challenged everyone else to find me in a dark room. We meet whenever my intelligence is questioned and whenever I’m called “boy” regardless of my age. And, we met during my freshman year of college when you wrote “nigger” on my dormmate’s door.
We’ve met so many times and your face may change, yet the sentiment remains the same, as does your question. You asked me how it feels to be a nigger and that’s a question that I can’t answer. I am a cisgender, educated, and privileged Black man living in the United States of America. I can only speak from that perspective. I can’t speak for the Black, Brown, and Indigenous women whose accomplishments are often overlooked, yet they carry the burdens of the world on their shoulders. I can’t speak for LGBTQIA+ folks of color who are murdered on a daily basis simply for being themselves. And, I can’t speak for the countless melanated bodies that you’ll come across because we are not all the same.
What you should have asked was “How does it feel to be Black?” and I’m afraid that my answer could never truly do it justice. But here it goes:
Being Black feels like I’m constantly working on an equation for which I already know the answer. I know how beautiful, intelligent, caring, unique, special, and incredible we are, yet you do whatever you can to hold us down. I know that there are no limits to my power and yet, I must consistently find ways to survive no matter the odds. I know that too much of my life has been spent showing you how great I am even though your validation means nothing.
And, I know that I am not a nigger.
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.” — James Baldwin