During the past few days I heard a lot about the N word. Unsurprisingly, Mary Trump acknowledged that was a word her uncle, the sitting president, used over the years.
Earlier on the day when Rachel Maddow interviewed Ms. Trump, I had the honor of conversing with Rodney Hurst, who, at age sixteen, organized a protest in Jacksonville, Florida that led to a day we know now as Axe Handle Saturday. That was in 1960. When I asked Mr. Hurst what white people could do to give Black people meaningful support today, he said several things, which I’ll get into shortly. He did say, importantly, that he wishes white people would stop using the “N” word and other slurs.
In short, words do matter in our relations with each other. In diplomatic circles, a misuse of words can cause a conflict, even war. The same holds true with one-to-one relations between co-workers, family members, lovers and siblings.
And yet, another friend pointed out with all the things that are wrong when it comes to race relations in America, use of slurs is perhaps a small problem.
That’s validated when one looks at the roster of innocent Black people killed by police, who enjoy immunity by declaring their fear of the Black man on the ground or the Black woman sleeping in her bed.
Any rational person that hears someone say “please Mr. Officer” as they plead for the ability to breathe, knows that person is not a threat to police.
I get panic attacks, and when I get them I have trouble breathing. I can tell you from experience, it is frightening. I combine that sensation with the fact that a Black person in America was held down by white police officers, and my heart aches for what George Floyd felt in the last moments of his life. That’s an experience many black people know all too well from their encounters with law enforcement.
It seems to me that words do matter, but they are also only the beginning of a journey of addressing centuries of wrongs done to our Black brothers and sisters. This is where my discussion with Mr. Hurst was especially enlightening, because when I think back, he shouldn’t have to tell me things like American history should include Black history and it should be fact-based.
That seems obvious, and yet, it seems beyond reach, because teachers don’t know about Black history. In fact, most Americans probably don’t even know what Axe Handle Saturday is and why holding the Republican Convention on that day in Jacksonville is an affront to the Black community of that city and beyond.
I didn’t know about that day until recently either. So this is not about preaching. It’s about saying we need to learn. Raise your hand if you knew what Axe Handle Saturday is. Raise it if you know what Juneteenth is.
America is so segregated that we don’t even celebrate the same “national” holidays.
We white Americans are the ones who need to take the first steps, by reaching out to a friend who is Black and having some uncomfortable conversations. This is not to say that one Black person speaks for all, any more or any less than a person from any other community.
We white Americans are the ones who need to learn about Juneteenth and Axe Handle Saturday, though not for the reasons the Trump Administration did. We know why Trump and his handlers chose those days: to hold court. It’s the same reason Trump sticks it to immigrants. The cruelty is always the point. That’s who Trump is.
Black people have been telling us white Americans for centuries what we can do. We can recognize they are human. We can shut down anyone who suggests that Black people bring down property values – even when the person who does it is the president. We can learn about Black history because it’s part of our history. We can establish policy that addresses the structural inequalities we see in neighborhoods, in education, in job opportunities, in healthcare and in choosing our leaders.
That was the lesson of Mary Trump’s book and interviews. It’s not about learning if Trump used slurs. We’re not that naïve. After all, Trump used words that are used in livings rooms across America. Rather, the lesson includes realizing that we must take a first step toward undertaking those candid conversations about race.
These are conversations we’re afraid to have, because, as Mr. Hurst put it to me, we’re afraid of not being invited to the social events.
Maybe we’re afraid of the wrong things. Maybe instead of being afraid of Donald Trump’s tweets or of not getting those coveted invitations we should be more concerned about deaths that are incited because of his words and ideas. Mary Trump is right about one thing. This America is who we are. But it doesn’t have to be.
We’re the ones who need to take that journey of learning, facing facts and feeling the pain of uncomfortable conversations about race. We can’t expect anyone else to do the work and feel the spectrum of feelings that comes with enlightenment. We can’t expect a Biden government to fix us. Definitely, he can lead by example, but ultimately it’s going to take all of us to reunite the country and begin to unite the communities within it.