Colored. Negro. Nigger. Coon. Monkey. Jigaboo. Blacky. African booty- scratcher. It seems that African Americans have been called names all of their social lives. Rooted in malice, these words should not serve as part of a greeting, be equated with other terms of relational endearment or accepted as cultural affirmations. The historical origin of these words are not found in healthy relationships or exchanges. Instead, these words serve as artificial definitions that perpetuate a superficial and unexamined relationship with others and more importantly, with one’s self.
The reality of such words enables relationships of dominance and oppression, illusion and self- deception, inner darkner and spiritual retreat. The social color of black is rooted in the position of the oppressed; likewise, the social color of white can only be the oppressor. To be socially colored black is to be the victim and the socially colored white person is the victimizer. They are the social colors associated with a social, power struggle that has somehow attached itself to our appearance. The social color of black, an identity created for enslavement and subjugation will always be in the earth lower than, less than, beneath. And the social color white, created for socially sovereign rule and domination, will always be in the earth on top, above all and greater than all others. It is why the identities were created. They serve no other purpose but to convey the meanings given to them.
Much like the clothing we wear, these racial identities and their meanings are greater or worse than the actual person. They have become mythical in proportion and have taken on a life of their own. Both blackness and whiteness have been with us for so long that the identities themselves represent something much greater than the persons they stand for. Their meanings outlive each generation as it has become more than the name of a person or group of people. It is no longer a representative but the very image. We have become the colors. We are black/ white/ red/ yellow/ brown/ beige.
We have come to believe that these are the only means by which we can exist in the world, the only names that we can wear. Nothing else fits quite the same. Still, this fruitless and deficient dichotomy, the victim or the victimizer, creates a life that is severely lacking. Many American Christians believe that the only way to see the world and to experience it is through the lens of race. Seeing and being any other way has never entered their minds. I only saw the world in color and those were limited to black and white. There was no gray area. There was no middle ground.
More frightening is the fact that these words are still accepted, that African Americans have called and continue to refer to each other by these very names. We wear them and they have become us. This truth became sickeningly apparent while watching the movie The Express, a movie about the life of Heisman tropy winner, Ernie Davis. I sat watching the movie with my in-laws when I learned of yet another name that my family wore. Davis was on the field, preparing for a play when a European American male from the opposing team called him a “spook.”
This is my uncle John’s nickname! My mother calls him Mister. Mister Spook. He is the oldest of my grandparents’ ten children and like his parents, is dark in complexion. Whenever she talks to him, the first words out of her mouth are “Hey, Mister Spook!” It is her greeting and a name that he answers to. Their reaction to each other never made me question the name. I have heard my mother refer to my uncle John as such on numerous occasions, saw it as an affectionate term shared between two siblings and appreciated the opportunity to see my mother interact as a sister.
But, upon hearing it in the movie, I became embarrassed and it immediately became insult. I turned to my husband and said, “That’s my uncle John’s nickname.” Throughout the movie, I had been on the edge of my seat, gripped by each moment of triumph but now I wanted to hide under the couch, realizing the defeat in my own family.
I began to question the nature of their relationship and sense of personal identity. My uncle could share stories of growing up in the segregated South and my mother was born during the Civil Rights Movement. They had heard and were probably called this very name. Both could identify the source and its meaning. Still, she called him, “Mister Spook” and he answered.
Today, I wonder who my mother would have been to us if she had not been abused by race, how she would have sounded if the abuse had not taken her voice. Did she feel as if we would not respect it? Did she believe that she had nothing of value to say, disappointed with her own life as a victim and ashamed that she had often bullied us?
I’m sure that she had been called everything, everything but a child of God. But, what would she have called herself in the absence of this racially motivated verbal abuse? What did she say to herself when race was not around? Who was she before she heard its violent speech?
What would she have called her brother? It had prevented an authentic relationship between them. How or why she began to refer to him as such, I may never know. But, to take on the name is the worst of coping mechanisms as it does not allow one to separate one’s self from the experience. Instead, you become it.
Black was a name that I was wearing as a Christian though I could not find the designation in Scripture and it wasn’t an identity rooted in my relationship as a child of God. It certainly wasn’t a name given to me upon the profession of my faith. I had been “saved”, “redeemed”, “restored”, “reborn.” I was now one of God’s “elect,” “chosen.” But, because of race, I had called myself everything but.
It is because I hadn’t truly believed these words and not fully accepted God’s gift of salvation and my new identity in Christ. My allegiance to race revealed that I had believed that there was something better, that I could be something greater through race and a part from relationship with God. But, was the name Black more meaningful than Christian? More historically accurate? More personally true? What ties bound me to it and would I, like my mother and uncle, continue to relate to myself and others using this self- deprecating vocabulary?
No, “I told Jesus that it would be alright if He changed my name” and it was time that I started answering to it.
Nina Simone, “I Told Jesus”, Live at the Village Gate (1961)