“Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?”
by Gloria Naylor
Language is the subject. It is the written form with which I've managed to keep
the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity. In spite of this, I
consider the written word inferior to the spoken, and much of the frustration
experienced by novelists is the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even
the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life. Dialogue achieves
its power in the dynamics of a fleeting moment of sight, sound, smell, and touch.
I'm not going to enter the debate here about whether it is language that shapes
reality or vice versa. That battle is doomed to be waged whenever we seek intermittent
reprieve from the chicken and egg dispute. I will simply take the position that the
spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or
letters without a consensus that assigns "meaning." And building from the meanings of
what we hear, we order reality. Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus
that gives them true power.
I remember the first time I heard the word nigger. In my third-grade class, our
math tests were being passed down the rows, and as I handed the papers to a little boy
in back of me, I remarked that once again he had received a much lower mark than I
did. He snatched his test from me and spit out that word. Had he called me a
nymphomaniac or a necrophiliac, I couldn't have been more puzzled. I didn't know what
a nigger was, but I knew that whatever it meant, it was something he shouldn't have
called me. This was verified when I raised my hand, and in a loud voice repeated what
he had said and watched the teacher scold him for using a "bad" word. I was later to go
home and ask the inevitable question that every black parent must face – "Mommy,
what does nigger mean?"
And what exactly did it mean? Thinking back, I realize that this could not have
been the first time the word was used in my presence. I was part of a large extended
family that had migrated from the rural South after World War II and formed a close-
knit network that gravitated around my maternal grandparents. Their ground-floor
apartment in one of the buildings they owned in Harlem was a weekend mecca for my
immediate family, along with countless aunts, uncles, and cousins who brought along
assorted friends. It was a bustling and open house with assorted neighbors and tenants
popping in and out to exchange bits of gossip, pick up an old quarrel, or referee the
ongoing checkers game in which my grandmother cheated shamelessly. They were all
there to let down their hair and put up their feet after a week of labor in the factories,
laundries, and shipyards of New York.
Amid the clamor, which could reach deafening proportions–two or three
conversations going on simultaneously, punctuated by the sound of a baby's crying
somewhere in the back rooms or out on the street–there was still a rigid set of rules
about what was said and how. Older children were sent out of the living room when it
was time to get into the juicy details about "you-know-who" up on the third floor who
had gone and gotten herself "p-r-e-g-n-a-n-t!" But my parents, knowing that I could
spell well beyond my years, always demanded that I follow the others out to play.
Beyond sexual misconduct and death, everything else was considered harmless for our
young ears. And so among the anecdotes of the triumphs and disappointments in the
various workings of their lives, the word nigger was used in my presence, but it was set
within contexts and inflections that caused it to register in my mind as something else.