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A Gift of Oppression


Miami. -- This is an open letter to young black America. People are asking me about you again. They're writing and calling, challenging me to explain why you sometimes call each other "nigger," then profess anger and hurt when a white person uses the same word.

They think you're hypocritical. They think you're hypersensitive. They think you should be more like the Italian guy who'll let a friend get away with the word "wop" or the Irish person who, in the spirit of good fun, now and then tolerates being called a "mick."

They think you should emulate those people in other ways, too: Stop whining about the names you are called and the mistreatment you have received. Life here has been no picnic for them, either. They worked, they educated themselves, they moved ahead and assimilated. Why can't you?

But you aren't Irish or Italian, are you? You're African. Skin the color of creamless coffee. Or pecan shell. Or sandy shore. Skin that makes you stand out in a crowd of Europeans like "a fly in the buttermilk," as the old folks used to say.

That's why your forebears and mine were chosen to bear the burden of slavery -- the fact that it was beyond their ability to run off and blend in. And there you have the defining difference, the thing that makes our experience unique. With the possible exception of the original tenants of this land, no group of Americans -- not Irish, Italian, Chinese, woman nor gay -- ever suffered on these shores as we did.

Ten million to 20 million kidnapped from the bosom of home. Half again that many left dead by the horrors of the Middle Passage. Centuries of enslavement, rape, torture, disenfranchisement, theft, poverty, ignorance, murder and hate. And then someone asks in well-meaning innocence why we can't be more like the Irish.

Makes me want to holler.

That's why you call yourself "nigger" sometimes, I know.

Oppression long ago taught us how to build a mansion from a stack of debris, weave a symphony from a moan of pain. Look at the record. Given hog entrails, we made chit'lins. Given agony, we invented the blues. Given the bruising hardness of city streets, we created cool.

And given "nigger," a word white men meant as an emblem of our stupidity, meanness and filth, we made a multipurpose word useful in the expression of everything from anger and humor to sarcasm and fraternity. We made it our word. And the whole weight of history bars white people from using it the way we do -- or even understanding it the way we do.

But here's my problem: Unlike chit'lins, unlike cool and unlike the blues, this gift of oppression always took from us more than it gave. Meaning that if there's a certain sense of in-group smugness in greeting your brother as a "nigger," there is also, unspoken between the consonants, an admission that the white man was right when he said we were lower and lesser.

That word is drenched with four centuries of blood and tears. It hates us, even when it issues from our own lips.

And it is time we got beyond self-loathing.

I know what "Action News" says about you. I know how police act like you're a crime waiting to happen. I know the advice the crack man gives, know the terrible things family and friends sometimes say because they don't know better and they don't know you.

Love yourself anyway. Love yourself past the hateful words and the hurtful lies. Love yourself over the empty pockets of poverty and the bare walls of spirit. Love yourself through the narrowness of days and the meanness of nights.

Love yourself with a fierceness and an urgency, and I promise that it will lead you up to this truth: You are the flower of 400 years. You are the dream a slave once had.

And there is no such thing as a nigger.

There never was.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald,

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