"That's why I know no son or daughter of mine will ever be a nigger." — Ned (Thalmus Rasulala), from "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"
You know how once you start to focus on something, it seems to pop up everywhere?
So it was before I went to bed the other night, I surfed a few channels and caught part of the 1974 TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," played by Cicely Tyson. I hadn't seen it in years.
In one scene, her son Ned (played by the late Thalmus Rasulala) gives a speech by a river to a group of fellow blacks in Louisiana where he touches on the n-word, and why he and his children are not and would not ever be niggers.
Then, there was the ESPN "Outside the Lines" special on the n-word, which was followed a day later by the announcement that the NFL is looking to apply a 15-yard penalty to the team of a player who uses the n-word during a game.
Then there is my immersion with the word through The n-Word Project.
The n-Word Project.
When I tell people the name, there is always a reaction. The n-Word Project is a blog site I launched a week ago that is part of my larger research on the n-word and the variety of names by which Americans of African descent have been referred to over the past 400 years.
With this project, I am collecting narratives and images of Americans from all walks of life on their first experience with the n-word, as well as other thoughts about the word today.
I'm interviewing people — walking up to them, asking them to share their stories, taking their picture and posting on my site — and receiving submissions from people in America and beyond.
Granted, I'm just getting started. But I'm looking forward to the people I will meet and the stories they will tell. I'm looking forward to the challenge of getting whites to share their experiences without the fear that they will be viewed as racists. But I'm also looking forward to hearing from the self-avowed, unabashed racists to gain some understanding of why they think and feel the way they do.
I am of course looking to hear from fellow blacks and seek to understand the youth who proudly refer to each other as niggas and juxtapose their experiences with older blacks who remember, like yesterday, the darker days where we trod our path over the blood of the slaughtered.
I'd like to hear from Hispanics and Asians, recent immigrants and long-established citizens. I'd like the athletes and the architects, the ministers and musicians, the teachers and students, the sheltered and the shelter-less, those from the 'hood and those from the hills — for we all have in common this word in some part of our lives.
It has already proved interesting in both the stories and in the process of getting the stories.
One Alabama black woman's major concern was that her age would be revealed. One Hispanic woman had to reach back to recall her experience in the Bronx. One black female teen from New Haven described how she sings the word in hip-hop songs, but would not be disappointed if the word just disappeared. One white male, when describing his experience in Illinois, could not say the actual word and didn't want his picture used.
I'd prefer transparency — full name, age, race, town, occupation — but I will take what I receive.
Why am I doing this? Part of it is my natural curiosity. Part of it is my love for the story.
There is not a person in America who has not at some point encountered this word. Indeed, of all the experiences and stories that we have in our lives as Americans, we all have an n-word story.
In some ways it has shaped the people that we have become — for better or worse.
Everybody's got an n-word story and I want to hear it.
The site is n-wordproject.tumblr.com.
Frank Harris III of Hamden is a professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @fh3franktalk.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun