My daughters have a favorite Queer Episode. It’s the one with Mama Tammye and her son, Myles. Mama Tammye is the kind of Christian woman I aspire to be — welcoming, affirming, grace-filled. Myles, her gay son, spends the episode grappling with the damage done by homophobic church-goers and the prejudices in his community. Their church’s homecoming celebration is coming up. Mama Tammye hopes Myles will come back to church even if it’s just for the Homecoming. Myles isn’t sure he can bear to return. I cry every time I watch it.
We turned it on again on Sunday. My eight year old, Viola, was on the floor, my eleven year old, Margaret, was perched on the couch with a book, Myles was on his front porch with Karamo talking about the difficulty of being a black gay man in his small Georgia town. He said that he was bullied as child for being gay and for being black. He said that people called him the n-word.
Viola is obsessed with cataloguing every bad word ever conceived and seemed to be hearing this detail for the first time. She flipped her head toward me,
“Mom, what’s the n-word? Is it a curse word?”
It’s a question I should have answered before she had to ask it. But I didn’t. We’ve read about slavery and talked about Jim Crow and found every picture book on the civil rights era. We’ve discussed that in every era anti-black sentiment has been found in every region of America. We’ve talked about how racism isn’t dead, that it still crawls in every corridor of our country. We’ve done some work, though of course not close to all of it.
But we’ve never, ever talked about n-word. I put it off. I could never find the words to describe the existence of such a word. My kids are white and so I could put it off. They didn’t have it hurled at them as they walked down the street. It was never muttered behind their backs in line at school. I was wrong to wait. And now there I was, on a Sunday night, watching Netflix, totally unprepared to explain the crushing weight of this six letter word. But it was time, past time really. I need my daughters to understand that systemic racism can turn words into horcruxes, that the n-word keeps past pain and prejudice present and throbbing. So I paused the show and took a deep breath.