My Kids Will Never Swim in Nigger Lake

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Last year, I visited my father at his new home in Varnville, South Carolina, population 2,159. I made the trip out of a sense of daughterly duty, because I’m pre-wired to avoid small, southern towns. First of all, I’m not interested in hanging out with anything bred to eat me. The mosquitoes down there are the size of linebackers, instinctively conditioned to track my bourbon-infused high country scent, trap me in some kind of Kafkaesque buzzing halo of wings, and attack. I’m not a fan of brain-crushing humidity either, and on a day when the scale hits ninety degrees and 100% sticky-steamy sog? I’d rather self-service the mercury-lined fillings in my mouth with a pair of rusty pliers than step outside. I’m biased when it comes to the threat of boredom too, but then again, I’ve learned over time that some of us are… biased, that is, and in more meaningful ways than mine.

My dad's barn is the perfect breeding ground for face-eating mosquitos.

My dad’s barn is the perfect hiding place for an army of face-eating mosquitos.

On a deeper level, my discomfort stretches beyond physical borders and into the psyche of my childhood. I’m not exactly from the Deep South, but my entire family hails from Georgia and I was raised in Kentucky. Our roots are planted well below the Mason Dixon line, strong enough to have thrived in an environment of patchy soil, yet somehow growing pliable and firm.

Image via humboldt.edu

The soil I speak of here doubles as a metaphor; I grew up in an era of desegregation, when well-intended county school officials tried to right horrendous wrongs and bring together a black and white landscape dotted by socioeconomic segments of the local population that had always existed too many worlds apart.

On paper, everything looked good. White kids were bused downtown to attend predominantly African-American schools, and black kids traveled tree-lined streets each morning toward polished hallways tucked away in the suburbs. If you took the time to really look…actually peek through the window at my school, though, you’d see a different picture than the one county officials were trying to draw, because statistics aren’t three-dimensional and paint-by-number stories are often incomplete.

Image via tucsoncitizen.com

If you mix red and yellow you get orange, but only when the colors truly blend. That wasn’t happening in my school. We coexisted peacefully but separately, gliding past one another in the hallways like phantom ships; each as unfamiliar to the other as a foreign language. In an environment that was supposed to bring alienated people together, we remained apart. Despite the best of intentions, there was an unspoken sense of “us” and “them,” all depending on who wore the home team jersey.

Image via educationews.org

Even though I was raised in a family that believed strongly in racial equality, bigotry surrounded me like the stench of stale smoke when I was growing up. It was far enough away for me to keep its cancerous tentacles at bay, but always lurked in the shadows; behind a decaying door I didn’t want to open. No one in my family was surprised that the minute I graduated from college I catapulted myself to Chicago. I have many reasons to love my hometown, but I always felt a little out of place, like I was the prototypical boomerang kid destined to wander away with a clear path toward home marked on a map tucked safely in my pocket. Just in case.

I left for college in 1988, and since then have only been back to visit. I can’t pin my permanent move away from my southern roots on racism, but in the busy streets of Chicago I found a place that truly felt comfortable…bursting with people dressed in a kaleidoscope of cultures, ideas and opinions. Everyone was different, which is to say, in many ways, the same.

Image via smartdestinations.com

All I have to do is look in the mirror to see that 1988 was a long time ago. My guess is that anyone who happens to read this post and lives in Louisville would say my hometown has grown and flourished both racially and culturally since I left. I’ll take a preemptive guess, and trust that’s the case.

So what does all of this have to do with Varnville, SC?

On Monday, as I watched President Obama ask America to look forward to the future in his inaugural address, I couldn’t help but think about the recent past. I was reminded of a conversation I had with one of my dad’s neighbors in Varnville last spring when I went to visit him: stalked by mosquitos in the blazing hot sun, and a little bored. Tucked into a backdrop of harmless talk about crops, cows, and kids, he told me that if I brought my children to visit their grandfather, I should be sure to take them swimming in Nigger Lake. The word rolled off his tongue seamlessly, as if it had always belonged right where it sat. Stubborn. Repulsive. Wrong.

No matter how much the world changes, some people, sadly, stay the same. On a day when I should have focused on how far our country has come, I was reminded of where we have yet to go.

I’d like to blame whatever remains of racism in America on the people who fought for what I consider to be the wrong side of the Civil War. My people. But before posting, I sent this to my super-scary-smart cousin, Barry Paschal, a newspaper publisher in Georgia. The subject matter I’m writing about makes me uncomfortable, and since I generally like to bask in the glow of a warm, rising sun, I wanted to test this rancid water and consider his point of view. He responded with an incredibly thoughtful critique, including a simple Google search that highlighted other parts of our country like Niggerhead Point, VT and Niggerhead Rapids, ID, two areas that clearly aren’t in the south. He helped me see that our problem is pervasive, and exists wherever we, as individuals, choose to let it live. With that thought in mind, it still surprised me that my spellcheck didn’t auto correct the word “nigger” when I proofed this piece. It recognized it. How sad.

The state of New York renamed its own Nigger Lake in 2011. Image via gawker.com

75 responses »

  1. WordPress needs to create an auto-like option that you can select for certain bloggers who are always amazeballs. Insightful sentiment and really wonderful writing, Bestie! Can I just say that you are so awesome and I’m so proud that you’re MY blogging bestie!

  2. This is an extremely thought provoking piece. I applaud your courage. I’m reminded of the furor over Squaw Valley, when there was a push to change the name to a less offensive moniker – and the sad conclusion that most “Americans” (read WUMC folks who can afford $83 a day for lift tickets) don’t know the word squaw is a sexist, sleazy term made up by ignorant, misogynistic pioneers. I am still bedazzled by the alliteration of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall – but sobered by the Points, Rapids and Lakes that remind us we’re still hosts to the sins of the fathers. That, and gun sales here in St Louis on those treasured assault rifles is probably the most booming economic trend in the country.
    Write on, Stacie – you continue to produce great reads that stimulate much thinking, many grins, and as with today’s blog – some true reflection.

    • What a thoughtful comment. I could write an entire post based on the points you raise if I didn’t have to go walk my dog. =)

      I knew it would be valuable for my mom to go back to work, but I never knew it would be so valuable to ME.

      Thanks so much for reading, thinking, and sharing.

      Stacie

  3. Hi Stacie, You’ve written many interesting blogs. This ranks among the best. I enjoyed your verbal imagery and this is such an explosive topic, who wouldn’t be emotionally invested? Salisbury is about a 10 minute drive from China Grove, long recognized as the epi-center for the KKK in NC. Paul and I both believe we are here, in part, to help with the process of healing…and are seeing strides in that direction, thank God.

    Margie Keller

    ________________________________

    • I can’t think of anyone better to help heal a community than you. Although I don’t know Paul, I’ll take your word that he’s a great guy. I don’t know anyone more patient, kind, caring, and open-minded than you are, Margie. Salisbury is a lucky town. =)

  4. Brave and insightful post, Stacie, and as always, so beautifully written. I grew up around very little diversity (North Dakota), and I’m so happy that my kids are growing up in an entirely different environment in Ohio.

  5. If that’s not an attention-grabbing title, I don’t know what is! I LOVED this, Stacie. Well done and good for you. I was pretty taken aback to learn that there are still places in 2013 that use that horrific word. We’ve come a long way, baby, but still have far to go, eh? Thanks for shining a light, and for rocking the casbah with your wonderful way with words.

  6. So well written, Stacie! Love the mosquitoes tracking your high-country self! And from the more serious angle. a sensitive and poignant reflection on race relations above and below Mason Dixon. I don’t know if you have much time to read these days, but this is a fantastic expose http://www.amazon.com/The-Warmth-Other-Suns-Migration/dp/0679763880 about the Great Migration — something I knew not a single thing about, though it was ongoing into the ’70s right here in the USA. Bravo!

    • I thought about the perspective in the link you attached when I wrote this, and I, like you (and the author), just don’t understand. I don’t think it’s ever OK to use that word, no matter what your race or ethnicity is. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kimberly. Love you!

  7. Great post cutiepie. The word “nigger” is repulsive, ugly and a real testament of our lack of acceptance. We’re all the same on the inside. I wonder if and when we are going to figure that out. xo

  8. Something wonderful happened on Monday…I was explaining who MLK was to my daughters. They were absolutely baffled that people treated other people in that way based on the color of skin. They could not even fathom it. They thought I was making it up. I could not have been happier. I believe in change. XO

  9. I was raised in the deepest part of the south (coastal Mississippi) where mosquitoes were known to carry off small dogs so I particularly enjoyed your vivid description of the charms of life in the lower states and I share your aversion to the tiny backward towns one may find there. (I grew up in one.) Excellent essay. For what it’s worth, I think our kids’ generation is going to be different.

  10. I was raised in the deepest part of the south (coastal Mississippi) where mosquitoes were known to carry off small dogs so I particularly enjoyed your vivid description of the charms of life in the lower states and I share your aversion to the tiny towns one might find there. (I grew up in one.) Excellent essay. For what it’s worth, I think our kids’ generation is going to be different.

    • I think you’re right. I hope you’re right. I’m counting on you being right. You must be right.

      Glad to know I’m not the only one on the planet who doesn’t like mosquitos.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  11. Daughter,
    You know that I don’t always comment on your blogs publicly, but we always have conversations via email and telephone……and this one strikes a particular chord with me. I am most proud of your perspective on this very important issue/topic. Even though I grew up in the very deep South -Atlanta- in the 50’s and lived among perhaps “biased” but also very “caring” family, I took a very different perspective on this topic than most. I hope that bias toward acceptance of tolerance and differences flowed positively forward. Even I continue to grow and continue to gain more understanding that differences are beautiful, positive and simply a part of the world in which we live. Thank you for paying that forward for our grandchildren.
    Love,
    Mom and Gaga

  12. I was born and raised in New Jersey (just a tad above the MD line), and I still see this kind of scenario in my surrounding towns. There are areas that are still divided (not officially, of course). I sometimes think that at the very root of it all, none of this makes sense. Why are human beings like this? This post was thought-provoking and well-presented.

  13. I grew up halfway across the world, and racism and bigotry existed there too. And of course, being part of the minority in the US has its share of challenges. I’m hoping for continual evolution and advancement in generational thinking and disposition — and that someday, we will all truly embrace and celebrate our differences.
    Great post, Stacie, as always!

  14. A subject close to my heart. I was trying to explain to my daughter why Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the other day, but she doesn’t understand that kind of hate. Kids have no concept that being a different color or religion or sexual orientation is wrong. How sad that it can’t stay that way. I’ve seen racism in all four corners of the US.

    • If there’s anything that encourages me for our kids’ generation, it’s that mine don’t know what the n-word means because they’ve never heard it. It’s a step in the right direction, at least. Thanks for the comment, Kellie. I promise to return to completely mindless subject matter next week. xoxo

      • I was in Boulder a few years ago and ran into a woman who claimed that our generation of children will be the healers. Mine were toddlers at the time, and I find it incredibly comforting to think she could be right.

        Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  15. Guess I am a little late to the party. My family is from the south, and like your friend said racism is alive an well still in many areas..sadly. I have a pretty distinct memory that led me to write a poem that will always remain important to me. I have to say that because I wasn’t raised with racism I have always found it preposterous, I can only hope that would have still been the case had I been raised with that hatred. My heart goes out to those who were strong enough to stand against it when they had everything to lose. This is a wonderful post. I love your candor and your writing style.

    Memories of Hate

    Flouncing by the fountain
    In a dress of pastel hues
    I saw a girl with cocoa skin
    And so I frolicked too

    In an Alabama shopping mall
    This girl and I did play
    I was only nine years old
    And my home was far away

    My grandmother was browsing
    In a store that was nearby
    We ran around the waterfall
    And laughed until we cried

    I really had no idea
    How soon my fun would end
    When grandma saw us playing
    She was quick to apprehend

    She grabbed my arm and spoke to me
    In a voice I’d never heard
    Hissed we don’t play with negro children
    I found her quite absurd!

    Perhaps my quest began that day
    And the message I would send
    To teach all children rainbow love
    And that racism should end

    © 2012, Dani Heart. All rights reserved.

    • What a beautiful poem, Dani. Thanks so much for sharing it with me, and anyone who reads this post. Although the subject matter is difficult for both of us, I hope that by sharing our thoughts others inclined to think one way might instead think another.

      • I guess that is the best we can hope for. My grandmother disowned me because of my views on equality, but I stand ever vigilant. She was raised in that time with that hatred. Thank you. 🙂

  16. I grew up in the Bronx, where I watched my parents relate to our neighbors one way out on the street, and heard them refer to those same neighbors in a very different way in the privacy of our home. I’m not sure how our attitudes form, but it must be some combination of what we were taught as children and what we later learned from the rest of the world. As a society we’ve made some progress regarding civil rights — and civil behavior — but that doesn’t mean all individuals have done the same. Behind the scenes and behind closed doors, still, beliefs most of us consider to be warped and ignorant continue to flourish. We’d like to think those beliefs are gone, so we’re shocked every time we see evidence that they’re not. You’ve taught your kids to think differently, and they will pass your wisdom on to their own children. That’s the only way things will really change for good. That, and thoughtful words that get people talking. This is an important post, Stacie. Thank you for writing it.

    • Thank YOU, Charles. I’m hopeful that my children’s generation will be healers…bringing people together rather than tearing them apart. I’m comforted by the fact that my children have no idea what the n-word is. I truly hope it stays that way.

      I appreciate all that you do and say.

  17. Stacie you did a wonderful job with this post. I come from a family rooted in a southern heritage. My memories of their cultural standards are, well lets just say interesting. My choices flipped them upside down, so I often flipped them off. I was fortunate, my father recognized the winds of change and made certain we were not raised with the same bias and bigotry he was raised with, he did not allow the ugliness of his upbringing to ‘darken his door’.

    I don’t believe we will ever erase entirely bigotry or racism from our world until we see humanity as a single continuum, it is so easy to point blame on what is different from us. Whether that difference is the color of ones skin, religion or even language and culture. Hate, bias and racism is a learned behavior we fail because we allow these terrible teachings to be passed down in our institutions.

  18. Our society has come a long way for the past 50 years, yet it’s sad that we still have to deal with bigotry. The continued use of the “N” word is offensive, but even more unsettling to me is the continued racism that is disguised as something else…often found in the politics and political musing today.

  19. Beautiful post.
    I find that words like ‘nigger’ will never lose their obnoxiousness if we tiptoe around them. Words have no more power than what we give them. We need to destroy the negative potential of these words by trivializing them.
    Having lived in New York for five years, I have rarely been on the receiving end of racism. But it has happened every now and then, and when it did, it hurt. What soothed me at those low points was realizing that an overwhelming majority of my experiences in America have been pleasant and that the prejudicial actions of some people aren’t important enough to sour my experience.
    The history of America vis-à-vis race is fascinating.

  20. Stacy, the undercurrent of racial discrimination rears its ugly head, along with gender discrimination, almost daily in my world. Birmingham has come so,so far since the Colored and White drinking fountains at Sears that I remember as a child, but the bias is a deep-seeded societal one. There is some very scary talk going ’round and not from just from nut jobs and old farts. It truly concerns me. The intolerance. The fear. The anger. The clumping of people into groups that can be stereotyped and then marginalized. I had so hoped that a lot of that bigotry would be buried with my parents’ generation. And I do still pray that I see Dr. King’s dream come true in my lifetime.

    Thank you for the thoughtful editorial. How to address the “n” word slap in the face is a discussion that my husband and I have far more often than we like to consider. It would seems that the octogenarians in our lives make it a point to “shock” us with it on a regular basis of late. For decades they didn’t. Why now? Hell if we know! That their children find the word and all that it implies so offensive – I guess that’s progress???

    • My dad’s neighbor fits into that octogenarian category, but I question whether he said what he said to shock me. I think it was so deeply ingrained in his upbringing, surroundings, and culture, that the word, for him, was normal. That having been said, it’s hard to believe that he would think it was normal for me, so you may be onto something. Either way, it was repulsive.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Nikki. You always have something smart to say.

  21. That kind of things always make me so sad. I think that it won’t die until those generations are gone. Same with being environmentally mindful. Older people simply don’t understand why we should sort our garbage, or not let the garden hose running all the time while washing the car.

    Anyway, not to hijack this post. It is truly a terrible thing that racism still lives in the back of the collective mind

    • Or let the water run when we brush our teeth or wash our hands! I think our kids will look back and think we were nuts for using the sink sprayer to wash old food down the drain. Thanks for the visit, Summer Solstice Girl. You can hijack my posts any time!

      • I know, right?

        I remember telling a friend (a baby boomer) to not let the garden hose run all the time while he was washing his car. His answer: “This is Canada. We have tons of water here and we will never run out”

        I was outraged. Such disregard 😦

  22. Really heartfelt piece, Stacie. Not that I expected any less.

    It’s interesting how some places seem frozen in time. I grew up in Silicon Valley, a place that prides itself on changing every second of every day. If I don’t go home every so often, when I go back, I hardly recognize the place.

    It’s interesting to see people holding on to antiquated values. It’s almost as though they don’t have access to the outside world, and don’t know that things have moved on.

    • I think you hit the heart of the problem with your comment, Jen. After kicking the dirt (literally) for a weekend, my overwhelming impression was that the world had left this town behind. Ironically, it also seemed like anyone who actually left for a college education never came back, at least not for good.

      You’re a smart, smart girl…one of the many reasons I love it when you stop by. =)

  23. Stacie, I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this piece. More than macaroni and cheese, but not in any way that frivolous. Every time I encounter prejudice, ingrained or otherwise, I give thanks again for my wonderful mom and the way she taught us from birth to LOVE. Beautiful, wonderful writing, woman.

  24. A thoughtful and interesting post, thank you. I’m in and am from the UK, and while there has always been racism here, the relationship between black and white is different – very different. Since being online (quite a few years) I’ve come to know a lot of Americans and am always astonished at how much racism is still alive in the USA. Most of the black Americans I know still feel persecuted, even today. And it takes some explaining that the whites who persecute them aren’t all the white people from everywhere in the world. Not even all the white people in America but I think it’ll take a few more decades or possibly generations to ease that out. Yes, of the black Brits I know – there isn’t that feeling. (I prefer to say ‘black Americans, rather than ‘African Americans’ as many Africans are white… so what does one call them?)

    I also detest the ‘N’ word. Can’t bring myself to say it.

    • Thanks, Val. I went back and forth regarding whether or not to even print it, but I felt like, in the end, printing it was more powerful (although that notion has as many negatives as positives. I, like you, can’t stand the word.

  25. I’m so glad that one summer in the 60s my suburban parents took in a black boy from the Boston projects as part of the Fresh Air Kids program. And that my mom was best friends with the town’s only black family — a divorced mom and her two kids who used to come to our summer house on Cape Cod.
    The TV show Daniel Boone was a big hit with kids back then. I even had a Daniel Boone lunch box in first grade. Kids on the playground used to revise the theme song to sing “Daniel Boone was a big man, but the bear was bigger so he ran like a nigger up a tree.” That word horrified me even then, and I would tell kids not to say it.
    Growing up, my family certainly had its problems of 1970s Ice Storm dysfunction — but my sisters and I cannot tolerate or even fathom racism. Beneath the physical features and cultural differences, we’re all just human beings trying to make it on this journey.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Long Distance Dad. I love the thought that our generation of children will see racism as a relic of the past. At least, that’s my hope.

      Thank you for the kind, confident comment.

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