SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Benjamin Davis

The True Meaning of a Word…or is it?

During the spring of 1999, I was living in South Carolina.  Its beauty was easy to see with all of the different shades of green from the thick natural landscape.  The ocean and firm white sandy beaches provided a sense of well being and carelessness.  One evening while out in the community of Charleston, my friend Stoddard and I met a family of African decent.  The Johnsons were a young family with two young boys that were five and seven years old.  Isaiah, Sara, and their boys were great; we sat down in their home and enjoyed a conversation about Arizona (where Stoddard and I are both from) and also South Carolina and all there was to see there.  Our friendship and respect grew over the next few weeks as we visited regularly. 

On one particular evening, about three weeks after meeting the Johnson clan, we decided to drop by for another visit.  As we were visiting inside, there was a knock on the door.  Mr. Johnson rose to his feet and answered the door smiling.  One of his good buddies, that I will call Tyrone, was at the door and it was obvious to see that they were life long friends by the way they interacted with each other.  The way they greeted each other however, was shocking.   They both welcomed each other by asking “how’s my nigger”?

Being a young man from Arizona, I was stunned at that greeting.  I was taught that “nigger” was a racial slur that was never acceptable to use.  However, these two men used it as a very light slang word that expressed what appeared to be a reasonable and favorable sign of friendship. 

Tyrone was accustomed to work in sub-human conditions.  He generally received the crap work which exposed him to the blazing sun and humid environment for hours on end.  Tyrone however, did not mind because it allowed him to work without being
troubled by his boss and he often saw friends walking by like he did earlier that morning. 

Isaiah what’s up, what you doing bro, Tyrone asked? …Not much Tyrone, just getting some groceries for supper tonight …What! …She the ball and you the chain brother.  What did I tell you about getting married, you got to stand your ground and not let no woman push you around.  It’s not like that Tyrone; Sara is going to be cooking for some friends of ours tonight.  Actually, we haven’t asked them yet but we got to eat anyway. …You’ve changed since you got married, but you seem righteous.  I ate; here comes my boss, I got to get back to work my nigger so I’ll see you later tonight maybe.  Cool, I’ll be seeing ya Tyrone.

Tyrone! Get up on the south scaffolding and weld them support beams together.  We have to start setting up the floor joists by this weekend which means we got to get a move on.  Yes boss, I’ll get right to it.   …..Shit, that man be a slave driver, what does he think I am?  I work my butt off for him, sometimes seventy-eighty hours a week in this heat and humidity.  You can never make white folk rich enough, they always want more.  One of these days I am just gonna have to find another job that pays as good if not better than this one. 

Halleluiah!  I thought this day was never goin to end.  I can’t wait to get off this job site and back to where things is good.   Tyrone! …Yes Mr. Lovejoy… be back by six tomorrow morning and don’t forget to get your pay after work.  Yes sir! …Damn he must think I am dumb, like I’d work for him for free.

I recon I better stop by Isaiah’s house on my way home and sample some of Sara’s cooking, Tyrone thought.  There ain’t nothing better than two hot meals before bed, besides Isaiah said this morning that they be cooking for friends and I am a friend.  Knock, Knock, Knock…

What’s up my nigger?  Not much my nigger, come on in.  I want to introduce you to my friends Davis and Stoddard.  They are visiting here from Arizona sharing the good word.  All right, all right, that’s cool.  Boy…it sure smells good in here.  If Sara’s food tastes half as good as it smells then you are one lucky dude.  You got that right, I am one lucky dude. …Hi! Tyrone how have you and Chantelle been doing?  We have been fine except for she has been real busy running her hair salon out of my garage.  Well good for her, I hope she is enjoying it. … I think she is but she wouldn’t let me know either way. … I’m sure that’s right, do you want to stay and eat?  Well, if you is ask’n then I’m accept’n. 

    Mrs. Johnson was cooking ham, sweet potatoes, collard greens and saffron rice.  The smell of their home was very welcoming; in fact it was almost as if you could taste the feast before it was done.  Davis and Stoddard she said, would you like to join us for dinner also?  Stoddard and I of course could not turn down such an invitation.  The thought of retiring to our apartment to indulge in Top Romen or some other meal in a box was not appealing at all.  The food was wonderful, even better that the aroma it produced.  We sat around a big old oak table visiting and listening to an array of what felt like respectful yet colorful conversation.  At first it was somewhat uncomfortable for two white boys from Arizona because we did not know how to act or what we should say.  The last thing we wanted to do was offend our friends who we had grown to love and respect.  Out of the blue, Isaiah Johnson jokingly declared to Tyrone that we were also his “niggers”.  I faintly laughed because I didn’t really know how to respond.  Tyrone snickered and in a nonchalant voice said, do they got soul?  Everybody laughed including the two little Johnson boys. 

The time was now approaching 8:30pm so Stoddard and I decided that we had better get going so the Johnsons could put their boys to bed.  As we were leaving, Isaiah said, “I will see you niggers later” and gave us each a sloppy, fishlike handshake.  Stoddard in a shy teasing voice said ok “my nigger”.  After we left for the night, Stoddard and I discussed what had happened and lightheartedly determined that we had been accepted into a deeper social society.  We were the newest “niggers” on the block!         

Later that evening, well after Tyrone was supposed to be home, he was met by his annoyed wife.  Tyrone, where have you been? ....I stopped by Isaiah and Sara’s pad to see what they was up to.  They had a couple of white boys over for dinner. … A couple of white boys? ....That’s what I said, a couple of white boys.  Lordie lordie what’s this world coming to?  I don’t know but ever since Isaiah got him self hitched, he’s been acting whiter by the minute.  We got to do something before he forgets his roots and decides that he actually likes white bread. …I hear that, but what I want to know is what those boys want with a colored family?

Tyrone, Chantelle said, speaking of whites and blacks, I read an article in the newspaper this morning that I found very intriguing.  You want me to read it to you?  Sure, he said. 

“A lot is changing for minority groups in America. Their rights are better protected because of the civil rights movement and other affirmative actions that helped bring justice and equality to minorities.   However, violence and hatred was and still is a threat.  The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1992 triggered a riot that caused the world and especially American “whites” to open their eyes regarding the inequality that minorities still face.  There may have been a sense of denial on the part of “whites” because of the civil rights movement that desegrated schools and provided minorities with a greater range of “American rights”. 

Another fact that may play a role in equalizing minority groups is that they are becoming majority groups in some areas including California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii.  This has become widely known based on US census.  With an increase in population size, used to be minorities, are starting to dominate at the voting polls which provides an opportunity for them to control the outcome of their existence”. 

Wow Chantelle!  They are just barely figuring this out?  It has only taken a couple hundred years!

Furthermore, even though minorities are not yet fully equal according to some, many groups are seizing the opportunity to change the meaning of slang words to increase their worth as individuals.  For example, many communities of African decent now use the term “nigger” as a word of endearment, even toward white folk instead of a word previously recognized as a derogatory term.  The consensus may be that if the term can be changed to an insider’s slang word, its meaning can be altered.  The negatively designed word may take on a new quality, reclaiming and redefining a term formerly used to diminish or classify the worth of a group of people, white or black!


Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage