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Dropping the N-Word at the Dinner Table

September 13th, 2006 by Jeff Simmermon

The whole family went to church together a few months back, which usually never happens unless poinsettas or palm fronds decorate the place. But my grandma was retiring from 6 decades of tireless, passionate floral artistry for her church, so we broke policy and went.

A white man sat in front of us, holding the smallest, cutest baby on earth. My own baby will not be as cute as this one was — no way. Its eyes were barely open and its hands were like little clay models of fists. While the couple in front of us cuddled and loved this baby like only parents can, the baby was obviously not their biological child: the baby was black.

My sister and I made faces and waved at the kid all through the service, elbowing each other and pointing when it did something particularly adorable. Then we all filed out into the fellowship hall for my grandmother’s retirement ceremony and proceeded to get intoxicated on sheet cake from Kroger and little tiny ham sandwiches.

The family gathered back at my grandparents’ place — my parents, sister, grandparents, aunt and uncle. We were going good there for a little bit, talking about the various mentally unhinged people my grandmother has befriended over the years, and then conversation waned.

After a silence, my grandpa piped up.

Anybody see that man with the little nigger baby in church today?

This did not exactly stimulate conversation. In a fraction of a second, we communicated telepathically and agreed to stare at the exact same fiber on the carpet.

After a long, deathless silence, my uncle spoke up:

I know you can do better than that, Dad.

He replied

What? Ah, come on, you all know what …

and sorta trailed off, looking around the room for some kind of recognition or affirmation that he was fine and the rest of the world was all crazy uptight.

Pop-Pop, I think we should try another one,

I said. I wasn’t going to embarrass him or myself by trying to explain it, but I couldn’t let it pass, no matter how much I still loved him.

He tried again:

Okay. Jeesh, people. Did any of you see the man with the little colored baby in church today?

Technically, it was an improvement on his first attempt. An improvement, yes, without being at all a good alternative.

He was using what he knew to be the best, most respectful word he could think of when the pressure was on. And I know my grandpa’s heart, and he’s not the kind of person whose actions align with the philosophy that language implies. Somewhere between the early fifties and the early eighties the whole world changed while he was welding for NASA, and the news didn’t make it to him. You can’t blame him.

I’m not telling this story to make fun of my granddad. Not by a long shot, man. Sure, it’s hilarious, but everyone’s got a family member just lighting it up at the worst possible time — regardless of race or culture. If you don’t have that kind of story in your closet somewhere, you’re probably the repeat offender in the family.

Our grandparents say stuff like this all the time because it’s normal for the world to change fast while we’re just trying to mind our business and make it to work on time. We’re the product of an enlightened information age, supposedly, but at some point we’re going to stop keeping up and not notice.

Now my sister and I are the ones laughing, but in thirty years’ time we’re going to be the ones telling the joke to embarrassed silence at the dinner table. What kills me is that I have NO idea what it’s going to be. It fascinates me, knowing that some part of my everyday reality is going to offend and infuriate future generations, my own future flesh and blood.

I can’t wait.

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